A friend and I recently had dinner at one of Santa Fe’s old-guard high-end restaurants. The meal — which included a teetering 1980s-style stacked dish and a flavorless “foam” — was expensive but mediocre. We discussed the fact that some of the most celebrated restaurants in town, having established a reputation, end up riding the name-recognition wave. Diners will clamor to eat at them, even if the food isn’t exceptional, creative, or consistent. “True sophistication lies in appreciating good things without regard for reputation,” my dining companion said. “I don’t care if I ever go back to that place. I’d rather eat street food.”
With that in mind, I plan to direct him to Bonsai Asian Tacos, a bright red trailer wedged in front of the now-defunct Pawn City, near the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Vegas Verdes Drive. The food here isn’t what I would call simple; it’s creative, full-flavored, and exciting without being pretentious — no molecular gastronomy in sight. The menu includes a variety of dishes, from a mango-avocado-coconut soup and a Healthy Belly salad to quesadillas, stir fries, and a burger. But the focus here is — obviously, deservedly — tacos.
For the wide-reaching popularity of the Asian taco we can probably thank Roy Choi of Los Angeles’ Kogi, who used social media and great food to turn his Korean barbecue enterprise into a cultural phenomenon. These days, even Betty Crocker and Woman’s Day offer recipes for Asian tacos. Santa Fe may be a little behind the times — the food truck craze is just gaining steam here, while in some major cities it has peaked — but I’m still glad Bonsai showed up on the scene.
Food trucks, whether mobile or stationary, have obvious appeal for people in a hurry or for those who don’t require a formal sit-down dining experience. If you’re in the mood to enjoy your food alfresco, though, and don’t mind a little exhaust and traffic noise, Bonsai offers a couple of cute red tables under a simple wood arbor strung with globe lights.
We sampled three tacos — pulled pork, which offered the smokiness and sweetness of good barbecue; mild, silky tofu given a quick sear on the griddle; and crumbly, funky, nutty tempeh. Whatever protein you choose (bulgogi beef, chicken, and salmon are also available) gets folded up with a Napa cabbage slaw, avocado, and Bonsai’s wildly robust, vermillion colored signature chile sauce. Each one has a well-rounded flavor profile that makes you not want to stop eating. Even the accompanying bean and corn salad — with a Wiz Khalifa approved color palette — is fresh-tasting, light, and stimulating.
We also tried the inexplicably misspelled “extrem” tacos — delicious but misnamed. Maybe the “extremity” refers to the meat choices — duck confit or generous slabs of sweet, tender pork belly. Rings of crisp green serrano deliver some heat, but otherwise these are less bold than Bonsai’s regular tacos. Jumbled with the meat are that Napa slaw, crisp pickled cucumbers, and a salty, sweet-tart tamarind-plum salsa I wanted to eat forever.
Perhaps inspired by the Italian arrabbiata sauce, the “angry” chicken wings are doused in one that’s bright, finger-staining, and tongue-tingling. Chopped scallions offer some of onion’s vegetal punch, while a dusting of sesame seeds provides an intriguing nuttiness that adds to the complexity. If you need something cool, there’s a nondescript “curry ranch” on the side.
All-American eaters, don’t fret: Bonsai will make you a burger, a perfectly acceptable six-ounce beef patty on a super-soft white bun. The flavorful melted Jack cheese and the meat’s drippy juiciness were memorable — but, unlike Bonsai’s tacos, this isn’t worth a special trip to the southside. Gorgeous turmeric-gold color aside, the Asian potato wedges were forgettable.
Other dishes here lean to the healthy side. The Healthy Belly salad is a vibrantly colored heap of juicy-crisp watermelon, tangy-sweet strawberries, quinoa, arugula, briny-milky feta crumbles, and crunchy almonds with a very light herbal dressing. The house stir-fry (one of three on the menu) manages to be satisfying and light. Our veggies included super-thin carrot coins, deep-green broccoli, greens, squash, buttery-crunchy cashews, and tofu on barely toothy kernels of brown rice (you can choose a different protein and can opt for noodles instead of rice). The salty, sweet, and nutty ginger sauce was almost glazelike and judiciously applied.
The only real “fail” was the miso quesadilla. It sounded good in theory — chile-miso-dressed slaw sandwiched with black-bean salad and Jack cheese between giant tender tortillas. Maybe this works better with meat or tofu, but if you add grilled veggies, as we did, the whole thing turns into a sloppy, soggy, watery mess.
Much like Kogi has done, Bonsai uses social media to promote itself and announce new dishes and specials (the recently revealed kimchi shrimp tacos and deals for “vegan Monday,” for example). On Facebook, they describe themselves as offering an “accessible gourmet experience.” When your restaurant is perched under a sign advertising .22-caliber ammo at a pawn shop, you’re about as far from gourmet pretention as you can get. I like a fine dining experience as much as the next person, but I’ll take a well-made taco over flavorless foam any day.