Things always work out.

The goal was hiking. Alex made the arrangements months ago with Bandelier Monument north of Santa Fe as the destination. Then the fires came. We read about them online and watched on the  news and felt terrible for the locals and nature. But you know that selfish  little part inside us that always wants attention? Yes, that part. Well, ours were both terribly disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to hike.

We consoled ourselves with savoring the flavors of Santa Fe.

Instead of getting fit on this trip, we gained so much weight we’re both on diets and have increased our exercise program. Our elliptical machine loves the companionship.

Driving into Santa Fe, through desert bone-dry and scattered with sage bushes and juniper trees, past strip malls and chain restaurants, I wrote: there are two things setting our cities apart from each other these days: 1. the people. If you don’t get to know the locals when you travel, you’re missing a multitude of learning about the place. 2. The actual terra firma you’re walking on. Look beyond the same old shopping centers and restaurants that repeat nationwide. Look around you and wonder what made people settle here in the first place.

We got to know the natives and the place through the food. Our hiking shoes were idle, but our taste buds had a culinary workout!

la boca  – Is a tapas house with foods from southern Spain and Morocco. As we read the menu posted outside, a 60ish woman with purple and white spiky hair, stopped to recommend the place. “I’m a native and I come here all the time.” We could see why. We drank goblets of Sangiovese wine; ate Canelones with lump crab, scallops & manchego cream; Moroccan grilled shrimp with avocado mojo verde, and grilled asparagus. Delightful and friendly service; the place was full with a casual crowd. The decor is intimate with perhaps forty small tables; there’s a broad window so you can watch the passersby on Marcy Street. We lingered because a huge rain storm descended on the city, thoroughly drenching trees, shops and people alike. I think we would have lingered anyway…

Milagro 139 – We had delayed dinner for my June birthday until our Santa Fe trip (giving up my beloved Eleven restaurant on Pittsburgh’s Smallman Street). The Milagro was a grand substitute. With over thirty years of experience and an inner courtyard that took me back to New Orleans, the atmosphere was perfect and the wait staff right on the mark—friendly, engaged and professional. A Corazon tequila and Cointreau margarita, and a California Malbec pleased us while guacamole for two was made tableside by a sweet young lady. Alex had the Chile en Nogada, which was a poblano pepper stuffed with spicy beef and covered with a walnut cream sauce; I had the Canyon Salmon with bits of wild mushrooms and topped with a lightly lime vinaigrette.

Burro Alley Café –  If you go to the website, the only thing right about it is the street address. I don’t know where these photos were taken, but we never saw any part of the
restaurant that looked like that. What we did find was a lovely courtyard with a fountain and charming southwestern decor which complemented our dining. We wound up there three times, so what does that tell you about the food? The first day we had cappuccinos and a fluffy pastry with chocolate that Alex liked, but I didn’t care for. Chocolate is not my thing. The next two days, we split different breakfast burritos and an almond croissant pastry. Ah, heaven. This restaurant alone might be responsible for the five pounds I gained on this trip! They make their baked goods adjacent to the courtyard. It’s tantalizing to watch the bakers walk through with fresh treats. The down part was that although we had direct interaction each time we were there with a woman who seemed to be the owner, she never recognized us in any way. You would think three times in three days would make an impact.

Balconies on the Plaza –  We listened to blues music being played in the Plaza until a storm came through and scattered the listeners to shelter (The Band Played On). The restaurant is large and affords a great view of the town out the wide balcony doors. If we thought the la boca staff was nice, well, Pepe very nearly outdid them. You know when you come across a person in that role who positively radiates loving the people interaction part of the job? That’s Pepe. Fun, attentive, full of life-joy and the desire to make everyone feel at home. The food—Arugula with roasted red bell pepper vinaigrette, rajas, goat cheese, red onion, and toasted pepitas; Caesar dressing with a southwestern twist, tossed with romaine lettuce cotija cheese, anchovies, and Poblano polenta croutons; Catch of the Day Soft Tacos with slaw and lime crema; along with a Corazon Reposado silver margarita (don’t ask me, tequila is a Alex thing) and that massive storm that bestowed a rainbow on us—all made this dinner a thing of perfection.

Castle Ranch Steak House – the restaurant in the hotel. Points for the Courtyard getting it right. Our first evening, we stopped by for a beer. I spied a single malt scotch on the shelf I’d never seen before: Glenkinchie from Pencaitland, 12 years old. Intrigued, I asked if I could smell a whiff. Delicious, not ringing of peat. Roberto swirled the bottle at me, only one glass left; no more in stock. I couldn’t have a beer and a scotch and still function (can you say lightweight?), so asked if he would put it back for me. He did! It was a fine, smooth scotch that I’ll have to look for in PA’s infamously lacking state-run liquor stores.

Last but not least was our breakfast at The French Pastry Shop – located in the historic La Fonda Hotel. The atmosphere was reminiscent of my Germany & Italy trips, however, the staff not as nice as those you find in Europe. The food, while utterly enticing, was served with the same flair as you get at Eatn’Park. La Fonda is an intriguing property. Built in 1922, the hotel swept us back in time; when we walked out the heavy wooden doors, I expected to step into a stagecoach for the next leg of our journey.

The food was a splendid conciliation for our lack of hiking.

Coming back from Los Alamos, via the road to Bandelier, we witnessed the scarred forest. The desiccated ridges with sporadic sentinel trees lining them were hard to see and not think about the entire impact that these fires will have on the area for years and decades to come. I was struck by the attitudes of the residents we spoke to. They conveyed spirit, resilience, a hardiness that permeates their southwestern lifestyle and approach to the terrain: it was here first, we’re the transient ones, passing through the area like the flicker of a fresh taste on my lips.