Restaurant Review Tecolote Café
If you’ve been around Santa Fe for long, you probably know the basics of the Tecolote Café saga. Founded in 1980 by the late Alice and Bill Jennison, Tecolote (which means “owl” in Nahuatl and Spanish, though the place was actually named for a small old village near Las Vegas, New Mexico) served comfort food for 34 years before closing in the spring of 2014, after losing its lease as part of a reported landlord dispute. The distinctive Cerrillos Road building that once housed Tecolote — white stucco with bright-yellow window trim — has been razed, but the restaurant reopened this summer in the Village West shopping center on St. Michael’s Drive. The menu isn’t exactly the same as before, but it’s close enough, and Tecolote still goes by a distinctive motto that hints at its penchant for real baked goods: “Great breakfast, no toast.”
The new Tecolote is in a much roomier and airier space than the old one. It sits just to the right of the defunct Cinemacafé, in a refurbished interior that contains two big dining rooms, a couple of smaller ones, and a long dining bar along the south wall. The old Tecolote was a Santa Fe institution, and you could expect to wait if you went there during prime-time breakfast hours on a weekend. The new edition was a hit the moment it opened — fans had been anticipating its return for months and were eager to go back — and waits are still likely, even with the larger serving areas factored in.
As before, Tecolote is a breakfast-and-lunch-only restaurant with a lot to choose from: a large variety of egg dishes, pancakes, burgers, soups, and Northern New Mexico lunch entrees like a tamale plate, Frito pie, and tostadas. Most orders come with a bakery basket or tortilla. The bakery basket is one of the nicer touches you’ll find in a restaurant in this city.
On a recent trip for breakfast, we started with coffee, tea, orange and cranberry juice, and the bakery basket, which contained a blueberry muffin, a green chile muffin, and a biscuit. Tecolote’s biscuits aren’t anything special; they’re heavy and on the bready side. But the muffins held their own, especially the green chile one — a nice combination that contains (among other things) cornmeal and diced green chile. None of the three beverages were memorable, despite the hype on the menu (“bottomless fresh ground coffee,” “fresh squeezed orange juice”). In typical diner fashion, the coffee I had was weak and warm; the orange juice was pulpy, but it didn’t have the taste of fresh-squeezed.
If this sounds like the start of a gripefest, it isn’t, really. Tecolote has a pleasant, cheerful vibe. It’s a nice place to socialize, because you can hear yourself talk, portions are generous, and the servers are friendly and fast. But as often happens with a restaurant that does this much volume, the quality of ingredients and dishes can be uneven, which we noticed in both of our main breakfast orders that day. I had the eggs Benedict, which arrived warm, not hot, and featured a bright-yellow hollandaise sauce. The poached eggs were all right, but they sat on a flavorless split English muffin and very thin slices of Canadian bacon. My dining companion ordered two pancakes: tollhouse (chocolate chips and walnuts) and atole piñon (in this case, “atole” means the pancake contains cornmeal). Neither was bad, neither was great, and both were a little short on the more costly advertised ingredients: chocolate chips, walnuts, and pine nuts.
On a second visit — a lunch trip on a weekday — the brisk waiters’ pace morphed into something else: We felt rushed, which was not necessary because the restaurant was busy but not packed. I ordered a tortilla burger with green chile. Alas, the plate was awash in red chile sauce, which would have been a real problem if, like some people, I simply couldn’t tolerate red. The tortilla burger itself was a messy production: a grill-seared burger patty wrapped in dense flour tortilla and then covered with red and green chile sauce and melted cheese.
Many Santa Fe restaurants love this sauce-and-melt technique, but one unfortunate side effect is that dishes can come out looking alike, which is what happened with our other order that day: huevos rancheros. My friend gobbled it down, but he was basically bored and said he wouldn’t be coming back. For both of us, the owl didn’t quite take flight.