Cerrillos by the sea
Santa Fe’s nightlife may lack luster, but during the lunchtime rush at Whole Foods on Cerrillos Road, the city’s pulse looks dependably robust. A few Fridays ago, Piñon Pub, the bar amidst the store’s eating area, was offering dollar oysters. Though Lent had just begun, the atmosphere was carnival: People were wall to wall, jockeying for seats, snaking through occupied barstools to make orders, and gawking at the busy shuckers. “These people are getting down,” whispered my companion in awe, and it was true. Whether for the love of a good deal or pre-Valentine’s Day elation, it felt like much of the city had come out for the bivalve ball.
Piñon Pub is Whole Foods’ very own taproom within a store. Positioned adjacent to the cash registers and in front of the prepared-foods section, the long bar offers 24 rotating beers and ciders on tap, with heavy homage paid to local breweries. In addition to a lengthy list of beers by the bottle and a shorter lineup of wines by the glass, flights are also available (with pairings by the cheese department’s mongers). For nibbles, there’s a small menu of prepared foods, “tasters” (cheese, olive, and charcuterie plates), and select sweets, including a Whoo’s donut of the day, for which your server can recommend a good beverage pairing.
The oysters were good: Wellfleets from Massachusetts, Barcats from Virginia, and Barron Points from Puget Sound. Despite some bits of shell from overzealous shucking, they tasted fresh and went down easily, with drizzles of lemon and the house cocktail and mignonette sauces. Piñon will offer a slightly steeper oyster deal from here on out, four for $5 on Fridays, but I doubt they’ll see a drop- off in customers. From my chats with employees, it seems that Whole Foods sells some of the freshest seafood in our landlocked state (oysters are delivered every Thursday), owing to the corporation’s ability to cover the high cost of regularly flying in stock. In short, these oysters are likely the best bargain in town.
We tried the buffalo/ beef slider trio with Hatch green chile and cheese, served with nicely seasoned, house-made potato chips. The three sizable burgers were glistening and juicy, their buns lightly toasted and the chile piquant. This well-priced snack ($8) might be the perfect antidote for the dangerous state of shopping while hungry. My companion praised the complexity of his Evil Twin stout, while a tart Grapefruit Sculpin IPA provided the necessary motivation for me to pull out my grocery list and move on to the store.
On another visit, our helpful bartender recommended the Pit Stop olive and charcuterie board as a good contender for most variety. It combined roasted olives, prosciutto, salami, soppressata, Parmigiano- Reggiano, onion jam, Marcona almonds, and flatbread crackers. The generous ramekin of deliciously warm olives caused me to wonder how I would henceforth be able to settle for refrigerated olives. We happily went to town on the plate — the nutty soppressata, salty Parmesan cubes, rich almonds, and sweet onion jam made good bedfellows for my crisp glass of fumé blanc and my mate’s heady North Coast Le Merle Farmhouse Saison ale.
Some of the bar’s offerings serve as a reminder that you’re still eating buffet-style items from Whole Foods. The chicken wings, which came with a tasteless coleslaw, weren’t crispy and lacked pizzazz. The street tacos, which can be beef, chicken, or vegetable (we tried all three), suffered from soggy corn tortillas that proved to be a structural liability. The beef option, which included ground beef, black beans, and corn, was about as gringo- OK as that combo sounds. The veggie taco featured unseasoned sautéed yellow squash, zucchini, red pepper, and avocado, though the vegetable chunks were too large for taco purposes. The red-sauced chicken won the category, though not by much.
The true joy of dining at Piñon Pub harks back to the pub’s British origins as a gathering place, combining that function with the delights of grocery shopping. It’s a choice spot for eavesdropping and people-watching: Over two visits, I listened to a nice lady from Chicago bemoan Santa Fe’s dating scene for older women; watched three bearded dudes discuss hitchhiking in Alaska; and heard the man next to me, who was on a first-name basis with the bartender, detail his recent illness while nursing a milk stout. As I sipped my Sculpin IPA, I noticed that the patrons of the eating area leaned in toward each other and the bar rather than their meals. Life swirled around us, made sweeter by the brine of warm olives and fresh oysters.
The three sizable burgers were glistening and juicy, their buns lightly toasted and the chile piquant.