Earlier this summer, I was finishing dinner with some outof-town friends who wanted dessert, which presented a challenge. We’d eaten at a place that was a good choice for a savory meal but not so great for sweets, so we needed to go somewhere else. It was already around 9 p.m., that gloomy hour in Santa Fe when your dining options start to dwindle rapidly, and the sidewalks start to roll up. Infierno came to mind — I knew it had been opened earlier this year and was promoting itself as a restaurant that, among other things, stays open late.
What followed was mostly a win: Infierno had a fun nightowl vibe, the kitchen was in business, and we were treated right by friendly people. The only drawback was that the dessert we tried, tiramisu, was just so-so. Nobody really cared, though. The various positives added up to a pleasant experience that made me want to go back.
Infierno is a revamp of the shuttered Italian restaurant Café Café, and the obvious intent is to provide a welcoming space with a hip urban feel (mission accomplished), an interesting wine list (check), a solid craft-beer selection (yep), and a range of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrees, and pizzas that will do the trick whether you’re looking for dinner or a quick end-of-the-evening snack. Until recently, Infierno served lunch, but it’s now only open later in the day.
The menu is certainly appealing, but judging by two recent visits, the quality of the food is unpredictable. That problem is balanced by waiters and kitchen staff who (mostly) seem to care whether you’re pleased or not, which is usually a good sign. Yes, there are missteps, but there’s also a decent chance they will be noticed and addressed as this place continues to find its footing.
During my first full meal at Infierno, at dinner, something was flat-out wrong backstage. The service was very slow, and one item, the Santa Fe salad, was so poor that it shouldn’t have been served at all. The menu advertises a promising combination of lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, green chile, sweet corn, and (for a dollar extra) avocado. The reality was wilted room-temperature greens, kernels that seemed canned, no bacon that I could detect, and discolored avocado slices that had a pasty texture and were virtually flavorless. The best things on the plate were some homemade tortilla chips that huddled in one corner.
We also tried the “signature” chile relleno, which was half a step up. Infierno uses poblano chile peppers, probably because they’re often larger and sturdier and sometimes easier to find than big Hatch specimens, especially in midsummer. But in my opinion, they’re not as good, and this creation, which is baked rather than fried, seemed more like a stuffed bell pepper than a traditional relleno. It’s filled with spicy (but unspecified) “Italian meats” that have been topped with melted smoked Gouda and mozzarella, which form a rubbery surface. Off on a side plate was a medley of zucchini, yellow squash, chopped bell peppers, more of that useless corn, parsley, and plum tomatoes. The whole thing was plopped on a base of serviceable marinara sauce, and it arrived lukewarm.
Brighter spots that night included Infierno’s variation on shrimp scampi — shrimp fried in a spicy batter (not really scampi, but it was still good) — a dish called pesto bake (a medley of penne pasta, chicken, tomato, basil pesto, artichokes, and still more of that corn), and a pizza that combined shredded and fresh mozzarella, basil, and the house red sauce. Infierno makes a yummy pizza crust, and the fresh mozzarella was fine. But the sauce shed a fair amount of water under the melted cheese, and as a result, the pizza was a bit soggy.
During a second trip, things improved, with the same level of friendly service and generally better food. An antipasto, spinach and artichoke dip, was quite good, a decadent blend of artichoke hearts, spinach, creamy cheese, breadcrumbs, and parsley. This and a similar appetizer, called “smoki macaroni” — smoked Gouda accounting for the “smoki” part — were served in small black cast-iron skillets, and there were plenty of those rich tortilla chips to scoop up the goods.
I also ordered a meatball hoagie, which I would have again. The meatballs were tender and tasty, and they were nestled in a soft bun that melded together nicely with the cheese and red sauce.
It’s hard to know what to make of a place that has bad and good days, but Infierno is trying to fill a niche — the latenight scene — that’s underserved in Santa Fe. Here’s hoping it hits cruising speed in the months ahead.