There is something pretty special about eating in the oldest restaurant in America’s oldest capital city. That’s what you get when you have a meal at The Plaza Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The experience might make you think your calendar has slipped back several decades through a time warp.
First opened in 1905 by a Greek immigrant, the Plaza Café has changed little since then. It did change hands, in 1947, when another Greek immigrant, Dan Razatos, bought it from his boss. Today, it’s still run by his descendants. In fact, it was Dan Jr. who greeted me at the door when I walked off the plaza and through the red velvet curtain at the door. He had that kind of welcoming smile that says, “I like being here and I’m really glad you’re here too.” I felt truly welcomed, comfortable, at home. And then I ate, and it only got better.
Location: The Plaza Café is found at 54 Lincoln Avenue, right on the Santa Fe Plaza.
Menu: The menu is extensive and diverse, an eclectic mix of New Mexican food, Greek specialties, and American diner classics. The breakfast menu is a good example of the eclecticism of the palate here. Order such classics as chicken fried steak and eggs with homemade country gravy, oatmeal or French toast. Or go local and get the chilaquiles, huevos divorciados or blue corn piñon pancakes.
The lunch and dinner menu is equally diverse, with a range of meal-sized salads, fried calamari with shishito peppers, a roasted turkey dinner or a plate of moussaka or hummus with pita. The New Mexican posole (hominy stew), served with either pork or menudo (tripe), is a big favorite with many locals.
And of course, you can order that Santa Fe favorite Frito Pie, a layer of Fritos topped with carne asada, chile, beans, cheese, lettuce, onion, and tomatoes. Though Texans dispute the claim, Santa Feans swear the iconic dish was invented right here in their city, at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s five-and-dime on the plaza. It was originally served in the Frito’s bag, with the chile and other ingredients dumped on top. Whether burgers and BLTs, green chile meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs or fiery spicy fish and chips with black chile oil, jalapeño malt vinegar, habanero tartar sauce, and red chile fries, or a vegetarian portobello mushroom sandwich, you’re sure to find something to suit everyone. There is a short wine list and a few beers on tap.
Thoughts: The Plaza Café’s location right on the famous square, the very heart of Santa Fe, means it gets its share of tourists. But it is also a fast favorite with Santa Feans. You can sense that feeling of “home ground” the minute you walk in the door. Families, singles, and couples, cops on a break, local celebrities, businesspeople and neighbors: you can see them all at the Plaza.
The room has a retro American diner feel that, while not in any way shabby, feels authentic and not Disneylandish retro. Think octagonal tile on the floor, tin tiles on the ceiling, black Formica-topped tables with chrome trim. A lunch counter lined with red-seated chrome stools runs down one side of the room.
You really feel that care has been taken at every point in the business. The staff is solicitous and friendly. All dishes are made from scratch with fresh, natural ingredients including 100% grass-fed New Mexican beef. They roast their own coffee beans, and I can testify that the result is a delicious, deep-flavored cup.
One thing to keep in mind if you choose to go local. New Mexican food means chiles, both red and green chiles. It means SPICY. In fact, there is a note right on the Plaza Café’s menu, in bold letters, to let you know what you’re getting into. “Warning! Our chile is hot! Very hot! We cannot be responsible for chile that is too hot!” If you, like me, suffer from the silly delusion that food shouldn’t hurt, order your chile on the side, taste lightly and add sparingly. I will say I found the green chile salsa had a richer depth of flavor under the heat than the red.
Portions are generous. I ordered an Indian taco with carne asada, the meat and other taco fixings piled high on a piece of Indian fry bread that was hot, puffy, light and fluffy and delicious. And even though I was starving when I walked into the Plaza Café, I could barely finish more than half of that delicious creation. I’d been told to save room for the fantastic desserts, but it was hopeless. However, there was no way I was going to pass up that famous caramel pecan apple pie. With ice cream. I returned later in the afternoon, and I’m so glad I did. Lovingly layered apple slices and pecans over a rich, buttery crust, perfectly spiced with sugar and cinnamon and topped with a rich, thick layer of caramel sauce. Oh, my! For pure decadence, accompany it with a cup of Mexican Mocha, made with Mexican chocolate, steamed milk, and espresso.
Price Range: Prices are mid-range affordable. Breakfast ranges from under $5 for a stack of pancakes up to $12.95 for the chicken fried steak and eggs. For lunch and dinner, appetizers are $6.60-9.95. A meal-sized salad will run you $9.25-16.50. House specials are $12.75 and up to $22 for a steak and enchiladas. New Mexican dishes are under $10 for a bowl of chili or Frito pie up to $19.95 for fajitas. Burgers and sandwiches range from around $10-13. Greek dishes are $9.95-15.45. The dessert range is $2-8.
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