Until recently, the sum total of my Santa Fe experience amounted to a single night in 1996. My brother and I drove cross-country, took a hard left in Phoenix an equally hard right in Flagstaff and re-routed to New Mexico’s capital based on Jane and Michael Sterns’ tales of fiery green chilies and picturesque scenery. We enjoyed two meals during our stay, the best being dinner at Cafe Pasqual’s, a progressive New Mexican-influenced cafe in the city’s historic core. 14 years later, my memory of that dinner still resonated, and their best meal is supposed to be breakfast, so it was inevitable that I’d return on my first morning in town…and this time, I brought reinforcements.
Chef-owner Katharine Kagel opened Cafe Pasqual’s in 1979, naming her restaurant for the patron saint of the kitchen. The corner space dates to the 19th Century and is themed to the max, with ristras (strings) of dried chilies hanging from the ceiling and colorful papel picado (cut paper) depicting doves and flower patterns. However, it was local artist Leovigildo Martinez’s murals that made the boldest impression, with colorful canvases showing Southwestern street life.
The menu was just as bold. The dishes were relatively pricey, but that wasn’t surprising given the location in the tourist zone, and since Cafe Pasqual’s has such an outsized reputation.
My choice was Smoked Trout Hash ($15.75), jagged, rosy filets of river fish arrayed over a crusty potato pancake and topped with a pair of paprika-dusted poached eggs that were cooked to just the right temperature; yolks dispersed with limited prodding, washing over the hash browns. A tangy salsa of tomatillo and chile de arbol was a fitting accompaniment, as were the chives and cilantro. There was a lot to like about the dish, but there was no doubt that the trout was dry.
Matthew “Mattatouille” Kang went with a more traditional choice: Huevos Rancheros ($13.75). A pair of eggs were fried over-easy and plated on a hearty bed of black beans, corn tortillas and molten Monterey Jack cheese. He was given the choice of red chilies, green chilies or the same tomatillo-chile de arbol salsa that I enjoyed. When given the choice throughout the weekend, Kang always chose “Christmas,” a 50/50 spread of spicy green and smoky red chile sauce. Kang faced what appeared to be a universal issue with the meal, that the tortillas became soggy when doused in various sauces, and weren’t very compelling, even when dry.
Fiona “Gourmet Pigs” Chandra opted for Eggs Barbacoa with Chile D’Arbol ($17.45), rich, slow-cooked Niman Ranch beef plated on earthy refried pinto beans and piled with white onion, cilantro, white corn tortillas and salty crumbles of cotija cheese. Yes, there were eggs, which added to the dish’s pronounced heft.
Esther (e*starLA) opted for something tangier, sweeter, ordering Huevos Mutuleños ($14.75), eggs fried over-easy and served on corn tortillas with black beans, sauteéd bananas, tangy Feta, peas and roasted tomato-jalapeño salsa. She received a choice of green chile or tomatillo salsa and opted for the former, which packed some heat.
At dinner, Café Pasqual’s menu offers even more global influences, including dishes like grilled Niman Ranch barbeque spare ribs, Thai banana leaf wrapped wild King salmon and “Pigs and Figs,” grilled bacon-wrapped Mission figs, served over mizuna and Cabrales blue cheese. Did the meal match my memory? No, especially after experiencing better breakfasts during the course of our stay. Still, the Santa Fe institution has some interesting twists that you won’t find at other restaurants in town.