WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Santa Fe never was and still isn’t a lot like other Mexican restaurants around town. How could it be, with a German founder? Although you can get a Dos XX, a basket of chips and salsa, and a platter of enchiladas, tamales, and tacos, that strategy will leave all the best food here unordered. The collection of chef’s entrees and the daily specials reveal a gourmet-level bistro with a Mexican flavor.
Start with the superb salsa, a margarita, and guacamole. After that, pretend you’re in a gourmet bistro. Time for mussels, calamari, steaks, racks of lamb, big flanks of fish, and no small number of other specialties that might not remind you of anything Mexican. But so what? We let Italian and French restaurants get away with that. So why not Creole-Mexican?
The original Santa Fe opened in 1985 on the corner of Dauphine and Frenchmen in the Marigny Triangle. There German-born chef-owner Mark Hollger–a classically-trained European chef–let his fascination for the flavors of Mexico run wild. This attracted a large and loyal clientele. A few years before Katrina, Hollger developed a health problem and sold Santa Fe, which never was the same afterwards. Its second life began in 2009, when a former cook from the glory days reopened it in the former Gabrielle on Esplanade Avenue. (The original Santa Fe had become another restaurant.) Although the new owners reinstalled many of the old dishes, at least half the menu is original, and at least as good as anything I’ve had at any point in the restaurant’s history.
The building began its life long ago as a hamburger stand. Although Greg and Mary Sonnier made the space work for their ambitious Creole menu, the triangular space never really worked well for table service, and still doesn’t. It’s a bit noisy and cramped badly in certain corners. The tables most in demand are those on the sidewalk in front, illuminated by tiki torches.
»Gazpacho (options: crabmeat or grilled shrimp)
»Salpicon de mariscos (seafood salad)
Fried calamari, roasted chili remoulade
»Steamed mussels, tomato and chorizo broth
Boliños de bacalao (codfish balls)
»Tortilla-crusted crab cakes
Empanadas (beef or crawfish)
Fried green tomatoes, grilled shrimp, chili remoulade
»Salsa or spicy tomatillo salsa
Caesar salad (options: duck breast, seared tuna, fried oysters, shrimp, chicken or beef)
»Roasted beet and goat cheese salad
Crabmeat salad with avocados, tomatoes, lime vinaigrette
»Grilled, sautéed or flash fried fresh fish
Flash fried oysters or shrimp
»Grilled beef tenderloin, chicken, or vegetables
Grilled chicken and portobello mushroom
Grilled fresh vegetable
Enchiladas/burritos (Chicken, beef, seafood, pork or vegetables)
»Tamales (chicken or pork)
Fajitas (beef, chicken, shrimp and/or crawfish)
»Chicken Maximilian (roulade with chili pepper, chorizo and cheese)
»Rueda de huevo (tortillas, sweet potato, chicken)
Open face hamburger with Mexican garnish)
Combination Mexican platter
Seafood combination Mexican platter
»Steak with yuca frites
»Carne asada Alexander
»Pescado fresco (grilled fish)
Shrimp with spicy tomato chipotle sauce
»Crispy skin salmon, chorizo, roasted corn, smoked tomato beurre blanc
»Seared jumbo diver scallops, grilled pineapple salsa
Seafood pasta (mussels, shrimp, crawfish, calamari)
»Flans (orange-infused vanilla, organic chocolate)
Key lime cheese cake
Ice creams and sorbets
FOR BEST RESULTS
Query the server about specials (they have more than you might imagine), and offbeat regular menu items. Take a leap of faith that these dishes can coexist with the rich, exciting Mexican flavor palette.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The premises have always felt overdue for a major renovation, but I’m not sure it would make much of a difference in the odd corners. The kitchen is microscopic.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment
- Consistency +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +2
- Sidewalk tables
- Good view
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The new Santa Fe that reopened in 2009 after being absent for a number of years is not the rebirth of the original Marigny manifestation of the placat. The restaurant’s many former regulars are for some reason furious about this, and mounted a negative campaign on consumer web sites, saying the worst imaginable things. Such commentaries are not to be taken seriously.