I expected to love the art, architecture, and history of Santa Fe, and I certainly did. But I wasn’t sure how much I’d like the food. I had only visited once before, when I was in college, and my memories of the food were mixed.
When I returned earlier this year, I discovered a city with a distinct regional cuisine and dozens of highly rated restaurants. When you add in the city’s passion for good cocktails, most notably margaritas, you have a dining experience like no other in the US
With 8 days to explore the City Different, I was fortunate to try more than a dozen restaurants, mostly in the historic city center. These are my favorites, in no particular order.
Note: Tourism Santa Fe hosted this trip, but all opinions are my own.
1. The Shed
While on a walking tour of Santa F,e our guide pointed to The Shed and told us we should eat there while visiting. He mentioned that the lines can get very long since it’s a popular place. Never one to pass up a restaurant recommendation, I arrived the next day at opening time and was quickly seated for lunch.
The Shed has been in operation since 1953 and moved to its current location at Prince Patio in 1960. This adobe hacienda dates back to 1692, when the king of Spain gave the property to Captain Diego Arias de Quiros in recognition of his service to his country .
As I followed the host to my table, I was surprised at how large the restaurant was. There are nine rooms and an outdoor patio. Each room is painted in bright colors and the walls adorned with local artwork.
The menu offers a large selection of starters, soups, salads, and sandwiches, but I definitely recommend ordering one of the New Mexican specialties. This section features tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and tamales, most topped with red or green chile sauce. Grown in New Mexico, these chiles are always flavorful, and sometimes spicy.
Any trip to Santa Fe must include at least one meal with red or green chile sauce. Or, if you’d prefer, combine the two and ask for Christmas sauce. If you’re concerned that the sauce may be too spicy, ask for it on the side.
I opted for the spinach enchilada plate topped with Christmas chile. When my entree was served, I was surprised to see that my enchiladas were flat, not rolled. It turns out that in Santa Fe, this is fairly common and has likely been influenced by cuisine from the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. After sampling my enchiladas, it didn’t matter if they were rolled or flat, because they were delicious. And the mezcal margarita I ordered made it even better.
Ice cream baked potato (Photo Credit: Wendy Lee)
Cowgirl might have the largest menu I’ve ever seen at a restaurant, so I’m convinced there’s an entree for anyone at this fun and funky eatery. Located in a 100-year-old building in the Guadalupe neighborhood, Cowgirl is a spin-off of the original location in New York City. Both were intended to celebrate the cowgirl culture through the foods of the American Southwest.
The walls are covered in framed cowgirl photos along with vintage signs and memorabilia. The large outdoor patio is ideal for summer dining. Live music is offered several times each week. This is a lively restaurant, perfect for a casual and hearty meal.
After perusing the large menu for several minutes, I ordered Cowgirl’s world-famous butternut squash casserole. Layers of squash are combined with caramelized onions, breadcrumbs, and jack cheese. I’m always excited to discover unique vegetarian dishes, and this one did not disappoint. Accompanied by a Cadillac margarita, this was the perfect meal on a chilly winter day.
For a really unique dessert, order the ice cream baked potato: vanilla ice cream rolled in cocoa powder, topped with whipped cream, candied green walnuts, and chocolate sauce. It’s quite deceiving — it looks like a baked potato has been delivered to your table.
Pro Tip: Santa Fe takes its margaritas seriously; so much so that the tourism board has created the margarita trail, a list of restaurants serving the best of these tequila-based drinks. Get your paper passport or download the official app and start checking off the 40 different margaritas offered in Santa Fe.
Green Chile Cheeseburger (Photo Credit: Wendy Lee)
3. Luminaria At Loretto Inn
While the food at Luminaria is excellent, its location in the famous Inn and Spa at Loretto is an equally good reason to dine here. As the most photographed building in New Mexico, odds are you’ve seen this hotel before, with its classic adobe architecture.
The award-winning Luminaria serves Southwestern fare amid a rustic decor accented with New Mexican art. Its outdoor patio is a highly coveted spot for brunch on warm-weather weekends.
Lunch entrees include salads and sandwiches along with tacos and burritos, while dinner features steak, ribs, and seafood. However, for either lunch or dinner, the real star is the Loretto Burger, winner of the 2021 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown People’s Choice Award. This highly coveted award involves a lengthy vetting process followed by an intense tasting competition each year. Luminaria’s version includes an Angus beef patty, white cheddar, avocado, cilantro-lime aioli, and chile-candied bacon.
Pro Tip: If you’re in the mood for a drink, be sure to try the strawberry-jalapeno margarita, one of the margarita trail’s official entries.
huevos rancheros (Photo Credit: Wendy Lee)
4. Tia Sophia’s
My research had pointed to one spot for the perfect New Mexican breakfast. So, early one morning I walked the two blocks from my hotel and ventured into Tia Sophia’s. The decor is basic, nothing fancy. People come here for the food.
Read any review and you’ll quickly learn that everything on the menu is good. Tia Sophia’s breakfast burritos, green chile stew, blue corn pancakes, sopapillas, and enchiladas all are highly rated. I ordered the huevos rancheros with Christmas chiles and was very happy with my selection. Two eggs over easy on top of blue corn tortillas with beans and cheese and potatoes on the side. Looking around at other diner’s orders, it was clear that all the portions are generous.
Opened in 1975, this family-owned restaurant is equally popular with locals and visitors. Several regulars were greeted by name during my visit. And it’s supposedly here that the combination of red and green chile sauce was given the name “Christmas” by a waitress, Martha Rotuno.
Pro Tip: Only breakfast and lunch are served at Tia Sophia’s, so be sure to arrive before 2 pm Monday through Saturday and 1 pm on Sunday.
sopapillas (Photo Credit: Wendy Lee)
5. Plaza Cafe Downtown
Plaza Cafe’s stuffed sopapillas with calabacitas (a type of squash) were so delicious, I went back for them a second time. I usually don’t repeat restaurants when I travel, but I couldn’t resist.
In operation since 1905, Plaza Cafe is Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant. It was purchased in 1947 by a Greek family that has run it for the past 7+ decades. As a result, the menu is a nice combination of local New Mexican and Greek specialties. The American diner decor seems a bit at odds with the cuisine, but somehow it all works. And its location on the historic plaza makes it an ideal meal stop while sightseeing.
A sopapilla is crispy, fried dough that traces its roots to Spain. Traditionally served alongside a meal in place of bread, over time sopapillas have evolved into a main course by stuffing them with meat or vegetables. In New Mexico, it has become popular to top them with cheese and green or red chile. I opted for calabacitas. Other options include ground beef and chicken.
Pro Tip: Plaza Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and with a large indoor dining room and outdoor patio, it’s a great place to grab a table without a long wait.
polenta mushrooms (Photo Credit: Wendy Lee)
6. The Compound Restaurant
Compound isn’t the place to go for New Mexican cuisine, but instead, it’s the place for the ultimate dining experience in Santa Fe. If you’re celebrating a special occasion or want to splurge during your visit, be sure to make advance reservations here.
Mark Kiffin, a James Beard Award-winning chef, has led Compound since 2020. His impressive menu combines North American, Italian, and Mediterranean influences. Premium ingredients are flown in from artisan producers all over the US and Canada. Award-winning Wine Director Kristina Hayden Bustamante has curated a wine list to perfectly complement the cuisine.
While dinner entrees include a variety of meats and seafood, I opted for the vegetarian offering of wild mushrooms and organic stone-ground polenta. This delicious dish was complemented with a glass of pinot noir selected by Kristina.
The Compound’s interior was designed by the renowned architect and furniture designer Alexander Girard, who is also known for the donation of his considerable folk art collection to the nearby International Museum of Folk Art.
Pro Tip: If you’re hoping for weekend reservations, or during the peak summer season, be sure to be a few weeks in advance.
If all this talk of its cuisine has you planning a trip to the City Different, check out: