Restau­rant Re­view La Fi­esta Lounge at La Fonda

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Molly Boyle

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The soul of La Fi­esta Lounge is alive and well, and they can al­ways work on kitchen prob­lems.

Be­fore its re­cent re­vamp­ing, when­ever I stopped into La Fi­esta Lounge at La Fonda, I al­ways imag­ined it as a place where a cow­boy might ask me to dance. Af­ter all, lo­cal honky­tonk trea­sure Bill Hearne still holds court there with his band twice a week, and the old, dark bar’s tra­di­tional Santa Fe style pro­jected an end-of-the-trail fes­tiv­ity. The food was never any great shakes, but I could usu­ally count on a good mar­garita and some solid peo­ple-watch­ing.

This spring, the lounge re­opened with a new menu and a sleeker but blander look — an aes­thetic re­port­edly meant to hark back to an older ver­sion of the bar, which now sports back­light­ing and a more con­ver­sa­tion­friendly curved shape (a ho­tel brochure shows a horse­shoe bar be­tween 1949 and 1968, ac­cord­ing to ar­chi­tect Barbara Felix, who headed the ren­o­va­tion). Gone are the latil­las, now re­placed with a tin ceil­ing; the bar is pushed out, and the stage has ex­panded, mak­ing the space more cramped for dancers. Over the past few months, many loy­al­ists to the old bar have writ­ten to the New Mex­i­can to com­plain about the new con­fig­u­ra­tion, wor­ried for the soul of this ven­er­a­ble spot — and some have de­fended the project, cit­ing the need for change and the in­evitable march of time.

A restau­rant is a liv­ing, breath­ing ecosys­tem, each com­po­nent highly de­pen­dent on the state of the oth­ers. These el­e­ments in­evitably grow and morph — and also some­times stag­nate. Take the food at the new La Fi­esta Lounge, which is as unin­spir­ing as be­fore. We be­gan one meal with a size­able por­tion (thank­fully so, for $12) of chips and fresh gua­camole, along with a too-bit­ter Paloma and a much bet­ter mar­garita. The evening went down­hill from there. A chopped-ar­ti­san-let­tuce salad with red onions, red pep­pers, and roasted sweet corn had a dull poblano dress­ing and lacked the corn al­to­gether. The Torta de Bor­rego, a braised lamb shoul­der sand­wich with toma­toes, avo­cado, caramelized onions, arugula, feta, and aioli, was ad­ver­tised as served on tel­era bread. What came to the ta­ble was swathed in some­thing more fo­cac­cia-like; the amount of in­gre­di­ents was over­whelm­ing, and they didn’t in­ter­act well with each other; and the lamb was long on grease and short on fla­vor. Rel­lenos de La Fonda, which re­quired se­ri­ous saw­ing, were sheathed in sod­den bread­ing and cov­ered in wan, wa­tery green chile. Our servers seemed gen­er­ally my­opic, with long lapses in at­ten­tion to the ta­ble, and on the whole, we found the bussers to be more con­sci­en­tious and per­son­able than the wait­staff.

This pat­tern held on an­other visit, when the mar­garita was no­tice­ably weaker. Braised short-rib tacos were dry, fla­vor­less, and topped with a zi­p­less avo­cado-to­matillo salsa. A cilantro-lime avo­cado chicken salad, served with tor­tilla chips, re­sem­bled a ’50s-era di­et­ing house­wife’s scoop of un­sea­soned chicken salad over avo­cado. En­chi­ladas del Norte, which I or­dered Christ­mas-style — one shred­ded beef, one pulled chicken — seemed to hail from some­place way, way norte of Santa Fe, with wiz­ened meat, rub­bery cheese, that lack­lus­ter green chile, and a more ro­bust red sauce. The bright spot turned out to be the creamy tres leches cake with prickly-pear coulis, straw­ber­ries, and mint, served in a shot glass for $3. Oh, and the French fries were de­cent.

The bet­ter news? The more things change, the more they stay the same — or at least that’s the sen­ti­ment echoed by sev­eral pa­trons I chat­ted with about the re­model. The soul of La Fi­esta is alive and well, and they can al­ways work on kitchen prob­lems.

Sit­ting at the bar on my last visit, ea­ger to see the old magic in ac­tion as Hearne set up on­stage, I nursed a well-poured tequila smash (Pa­tron sil­ver, Coin­treau, agave syrup, and mud­dled limes) and watched an ami­able-look­ing man­ager greet his reg­u­lar cus­tomers. The Cubs bat­tled the Mets on TV, the bar­tender told a cus­tomer she’d been work­ing there for 24 years, and I lis­tened to crosstalk from a com­pelling med­ley of lo­cals and tourists alike. “Como está how you doin’!” “This is all right, but I liked the horse­shoe bar.” “The men can drink a lit­tle bit more than the women [in New Mex­ico].” “Are there even any con­se­quences to pla­gia­rism any­more?” “I like red chile, but this is hot.” “Yup, I count the state’s money for a liv­ing — that’s why I’m drink­ing.”

A cow­boy in his seven­ties rolled up next to me, or­dered a Dos Equis in a bot­tle, spurn­ing the bar’s 10 new taps, drank a quar­ter of it, then crossed the room and was soon danc­ing to a Guy Clark song with a sil­ver-haired lady in a pink tank top. He later told me he’d been com­ing there for 25 years, hated the re­model (“That paint­ing over there might as well be wall­pa­per,” he said), and still showed up to dance ev­ery Tues­day night. His reg­u­lar dance part­ner was in New York, he said, and then asked me if I knew how to two-step.

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