Restaurant Review La Fiesta Lounge at La Fonda
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.