the owl f lies by night
The only thing better than breakfast for dinner is dinner for dinner — someplace where you usually have breakfast. Tecolote Café hopes so, anyway. The original family owners have been literally slinging hash for almost 40 years, and for most of those they sat on the corner of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street. Rent prices forced them to move (how very Santa Fe), and they were closed for more than a year before reopening at the Village West Shopping Center on St. Michael’s Drive. The new location is bigger and more open but still festooned with owls, with what appear to be the booths from the original location and the same comfortingly familiar farmhouse vibe. As of a few months ago, they began serving dinner with an entirely different menu.
All meals at Tecolote, whose motto is “No Toast,” begin with a home bakery basket, and dinner is no exception. The basket after 5 p.m. is savory, however, including fluffy biscuits, corn muffins, and/or soft focaccia in some combination, and is, as always, free. The starters end of the menu includes bar snack appetizers like nachos and fried avocado. We tried the carne adovada egg rolls ($5 at happy hour for a half order), which can go horribly wrong if they’re overfried. These were done to perfection, filled with Tecolote’s beloved carne adovada, which was, even after being wrapped and fried, still tender and moist. They came with a tzatziki-like dipping sauce which didn’t quite complement them, but it wasn’t necessary anyway because carne adovada comes bearing its own sauce.
The dinner offerings at Tecolote are, quite literally, all over the map. American meat-and-potatoes favorites exist alongside Italian pasta dishes, deli sandwiches, New Mexican perennials, and even an incongruent Thai curry dish. This would normally spell disaster, but the kitchen at Tecolote pulls it off with surprising aplomb. This is not fine dining, but the dishes have a sort of comfort food, gastropubby feel to them. The lamb chops, for example, came out perfectly seasoned and beautifully cooked, accompanied by broccoli and papas bravas (Spanishstyle roasted potatoes seasoned with paprika), with a dashing little swirl of some paprika-based sauce across the plate. It looked simple, but the broccoli was perfectly salted and steamed just al dente, and the sauce tied everything together.
The Italian comfort food offerings also straddle the line between mama’s New Jersey kitchen and slightly finer dining. We tried the baked penne and added blackened chicken on top, which hit all the right notes for such a dish: creamy, zingy with tomato, the chicken both crunchy and tender. There was also a lot of it, thank goodness — it’s tiresome to order pasta and get a sprinkle of carbs on a giant empty plate. The chicken piccata was also pleasing, lemony and generously seasoned with capers, the angel hair pasta cooked to perfection. It came with a pounded chicken breast, which had a slightly more rubbery texture than it should have — but not enough to bother us.
To taste the rainbow, we also tried the Thai curry, which we ordered with shrimp. This was a pleasant
surprise, a robust red curry full of crisp vegetables including red bell peppers and sweet potatoes, just spicy enough for everyone at the table, and sprinkled liberally with crunchy peanuts. Even the white sticky rice was spot-on, and the shrimp were large, quite fresh, and served tail-on.
Tecolote also has its beer and wine credentials to go with dinner, and they offer a few agave wine margaritas. We tried the hibiscus variety, which came out an invigorating shade of magenta and was tangy, refreshing, and perfectly balanced, sweet without being cloying.
Because Tecolote has its own bakery, save room for dessert. We tried the tres leches cake, which was acceptable but not exciting, dripping with condensed milk and covered in whipped cream. The second trip, though, we had the blueberry cobbler à la mode, a memorable hot pan of oozy, gooey, not-too-sweet fruit in a crumbly butter crust that arrived with a giant ball of divine vanilla ice cream roughly the size of the cobbler itself.
There were a few off notes. Tecolote made itself indispensable with New Mexican breakfast items, so on one visit, we tried the New Mexican combo plate on the dinner menu. This was surprisingly bland and underwhelming, including a tamale, a bean-and-cheese burrito, a rolled cheese enchilada, and a side of beans and posole. Everything on the plate suffered from a kind of dry, bland sameness of carbs bound together by orange cheese, lacking in flavor or spice. The duck quesadilla was also disappointing, consisting of simply flour tortillas glued together with that same hard orange cheese with a bit of admittedly soft, tender duck meat included in the middle, apparently placed there after the cheese had been left to cool and congeal. It was jarring that these items had come from the same kitchen as the other dishes.
During both trips, service was an issue. It took forever to put in our orders (though they came out pretty quickly thereafter), because our server, who was otherwise lovely, was panting like a racehorse trying his best to cover too many tables at once. Until they get that poor man some backup, expect a wait — this might not be the best place to go if you have to get to a movie afterward.
But it’s definitely worth a trip. Tecolote fills a bit of the niche left by the closing of the Zia Diner, a Guadalupe Street standby: a variety of comfort foods at reasonable prices, including things your kids will eat and satisfying desserts to bribe them to finish their vegetables. It’s just like home, but with a few more swishes of sauce and no dishes to clean up.