Molly Boyle reviews El Nido and the food at the Roundhouse
“She was a typical madam — a jolly, fat blonde. She was a hell of a great gal, and she started El Nido. The first saloon,” recalls Charles “Chuck” Barrows in Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog, John Pen La Farge’s oral history of Santa Fe. El Nido — the recently revamped spot in Tesuque whose name means “the nest” — has long been a local touchstone. For more than 80 years before El Nido’s closing in 2010, its adobe walls variously housed that 1930s-era den of ill repute; a diverse dance hall and democratic juke joint where atomic secrets were rumored to have been imparted by tippling Los Alamos scientists; a worldclass flamenco cabaret; and a fine dining establishment known for its efficient pre-opera service of steaks, lobster tails, and oysters Rockefeller. The storied digs are remembered by La Farge’s oldtimer interviewees as “a nice place where you could dance” and “the food was really good” — it was “a big hangout” where at least one owner “made sure that we didn’t disappear around the corner with anybody.”
In November, chef Enrique Guerrero opened the most elegant incarnation of El Nido yet, a sparkling trattoria serving wood-fired entrees, pizzas, and handmade pastas. Guerrero punched a culinary-credibility card at the French Laundry and Le Cirque before putting his stamp on several eateries in Santa Fe, including the dearly departed La Mancha at the Galisteo Inn, the now-sold Mangiamo Pronto!, and the beloved bright-orange Bang Bite Filling Station food truck. It’s evident this chef can’t sit still for long, and at El Nido, he wields a restless, lavish creativity that suffuses most of the cuisine and the vibe of the restaurant.
On each of two visits, a different type of aromatic wood fired many of the appetizers, entrees, and pizzas on the kitchen’s open-flame hearth in the middle of the restaurant: One night a server informed us that it was mesquite, the sweet scent of which lingered in the chill outside after dinner. Another night, Guerrero had used cedar.
The kitchen may already be churning out classics in the making — and that hearth burns as brightly as I imagine the old El Nido’s did. The sleek main dining room features outsize landscapes by John Hogan among its whitewashed vigas and kiva-warmed nook. A kitchenside bar affords a view of burnished rotisserie chickens on a spit or flatbreads sliding ovenward. Soon after you’re seated, a small enticement of battered and fried salt-and-pepper chickpeas with lemon zest and serrano peppers is placed on the table; the light, addictive snack portends the good times ahead.
Top, Mrs. Martha Nelson, patron, El Nido Roadhouse, 1937, photo W.M. Wyeth, Neg. No. 173022; bottom, Boys riding burros, Tesuque, circa 1935-1945, photo T. Harmon Parkhurst, Neg. No. 008758; both courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)
El Nido chef Enrique Guerrero