ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Santa Fe never was a lot like the other Mexican restaurants around town. It’s only lately, as innovative new Mexican cafes like Johnny Sanchez and Mizado have put a new spin on the cuisine, that that Santa Fe begins to seem conventional. After all, it was founded by a German chef, who never hesitated to experiment. Although you can certainly indulge in a Dos XX with a basket of chips and salsa, then follow through with enchiladas, tamales, and tacos, following that strategy leaves the best food here unordered. Digging into the chef’s specials reveals an imaginative kitchen with the Mexican flavor being only one facet.
And, before any New Mexicans get too excited, the restaurant’s name does not bring forth the cooking of Santa Fe itself, no matter how welcome those flavors would be.
Grab some chips and dig into the superb and offbeat salsa (it has a slightly smoky flavor). It’s good enough that you will go for a second ration, for which you will have to pay extra–but probably without complaint. Margaritas and guacamole are excellent in their turns. 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, first owner Mark Hollger–a classically-trained European chef–explored his fascination with Mexico. This attracted a clientele so devoted that getting a table was always a battle. A few years before Katrina, Hollger developed a health problem and sold Santa Fe. It would never be the same afterwards, but it ultimately would remain excellent. Its second heyday began in 2009, when a former cook from the glory days reopened Santa Fe 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.
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Gazpacho (options: crabmeat or grilled shrimp)
Salpicon de mariscos (seafood salad)
Steamed mussels, tomato and chorizo broth
Tortilla-crusted crab cakes
Empanadas (beef or crawfish)
Roasted beet and goat cheese salad
Crabmeat salad with avocados, tomatoes, lime vinaigrette
Roasted pork tacos
Grilled, sautéed or flash fried fresh fish tacos
Grilled beef tenderloin, chicken, or vegetables
Chicken Maximilian (roulade with chili pepper, chorizo and cheese)
Rueda de huevo (tortillas, sweet potato, chicken)
Steak with yuca frites
Carne asada Alexander
Shrimp with spicy tomato chipotle sauce
Seared jumbo diver scallops, grilled pineapple salsa
»Flans (orange-infused vanilla, organic chocolate)
FOR BEST RESULTS
Query the server about specials (there will behave 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 +1
- 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