The Love Apple
It may be a landlocked state but New Mexico knows no bounds; as the Land of Enchantment, it’s a mystical place of contrasts – from snowcapped mountains for “skiing” and “snowshoeing” to vast deserts for hot air balloon rides, it beckons you to explore its limits. And when you travel north of New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe, you’ve genuinely found the soul of the state.
Even with a population of less than 5,800, it has drawn many an adventurer, entrepreneur, and restless soul. In fact, there is an unspoken allure to Taos, because these wilds inspire you to carve out your space and shape your destiny. Its respective contrasts are found in its ancient history – most notably, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Taos Pueblo – which is the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. When the Spanish explorers arrived in 1540, they knew it was a special place. Even today, it remains a shrouded paradise for those in the know.
You can experience its worldly melange of peoples and cultures through the dishes of Taos, where your senses can be ignited by local wines, flavorful ingredients, and enticing aromas that are uniquely characteristic. On menus, green chili peppers are a staple, so too is chorizo – but not the Spanish variety, the New Mexican rendition is typically a ruddy colored, fatty mince, with a slight tang of vinegar and saturated with heady spices like ancho and aleppo.
As well, the idea of “farm to table” was something locals practiced long before the term was even coined; and it’s easy to understand why: using nearby ingredients is a source of pride for chefs who enjoy connecting with their community in the dishes they serve. In fact, Taos is rife with open pastures – in the 1800s, it was known as the breadbasket of the Southwest.
With higher elevations and cooler temperatures, growing items such as grains was a breeze compared with big cities like Albuquerque. Also, the ingenuity of acequias by the aboriginals and Spanish provided a vital source: the irrigation network aided in the fertility of rolling pastures and the crops growing on the land. Although it fell away due to industry changes, local culinary trailblazers below are reviving this once bountiful area by supporting local farmers and growers.
Ideally situated on Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, the main street in town, it isn’t unusual to see a lineup snake out the door of this restaurant. Fortunately, for ravenous souls, the line moves swiftly and people are seated quickly. Failing that, hitch a bar seat with the locals and soak up prime views of the kitchen in action. Michael’s Kitchen has always been popular, ever since it opened its doors in 1974; a few of the original staff members happily remain.
Current owners Derek Apodaca and his wife Gina purchased the restaurant in 2005 and the locals rave that it is “better than ever.” They serve lunch and dinner as well, but the crowds always clamor for the breakfast and brunch items. Apparently there’s no better way to begin the day than with mammoth sized portions such as local favorite The Manhandler – which features patty sausage, cheese, diced green chile and a fried egg on their homemade roll from the bakery.
But the item you cannot leave without trying is the bearclaw-sized apple fritter. While the specifics are kept top secret, we are told that it is a scratch made, yeast-leavened dough. It is given an oomph of flavour with a dash of cinnamon and local orchard grown apples. It’s deep fried and glazed while still hot. They sell out within minutes so the key is to ask the staff when they’re just about to be put out on the display counter. Then you can sink your teeth into puffy, lightly sweetened dough with delectable apple chunks in every bite.
When you’re in town, locals will undoubtedly ask you where you’ve eaten; and if you say ACEQ, you will get knowing nods of approval. The name of the restaurant honors the culture and traditional farming practices of the Arroyo Seco area, a small community within Taos. The word stems from the Spanish/Arabic “acequia,” the communal irrigation ditch that channeled the water for crops and livestock from the river.
In the truest sense of the word, this restaurant is the pride and joy of owner and sommelier Michael Wagener. Not only are the ingredients locally sourced, but so too are table settings and light fixtures; in fact, plates are crafted by Logan Wannamaker Pottery just across the road, lighting is by Scott Carlson Pottery, and tables were made by Wagener’s father using wood from his grandfather’s 120 year old farm.
Chef Johnny Treasaigh offers daily dish features and contemporary twists on New Mexican flavors, for instance conventional beef is swapped out for braised bison in their homemade soft shelled masa tacos in Chimayo red chili sauce. Since rotation is the norm, the only mainstay on the menu (because it’s that popular with diners) is a dish that honors Wagener’s roots: cheese curds from his home state of Wisconsin. Of course, there’s a twist – the gooey, crisp nuggets get dipped in beer-batter and make a visit to the deep fryer; it features creamy garlic aioli and spiced ketchup dipping sauces. The dish is a simple pleasure but as Wagener insists, “Spice and cheese are a beautiful thing.”
Considered a historic landmark of Taos, Doc Martin’s restaurant once was a home which belonged to Dr. Thomas Paul Martin (Doc), who came to Taos as the county’s first physician. The historic Taos Inn dates back to the 1800s and was made up of several adobe houses and surrounded a small plaza; in the centre was a community well where people congregated and socialized, today it is all a part of the hotel property. As well, additions include a fountain surrounded by vertical vigas, which rise two-and-a-half stories to a stained glass cupola.
As for the converted restaurant space, it was once the doctor’s office and delivery room. But when Doc passed, his wife turned it into The Hotel Martin in 1936 – a place for social gathering and dining. The subsequent owners renamed it The Taos Inn. Today, the it remains a social hub that promotes the arts and live music, in addition to great food.
Dubbed as New American cuisine with dashes of southwestern flavors, the must-order is the famed Doc’s Chile Relleno. Created by Chef Matthew Gould, an Anaheim chile gets stuffed with monterey jack cheese, herbs and cilantro. The pepper gets dunked in blue corn beer batter and then rolled in corn chips; the entire thing is deep fried. For presentation, it is placed in a shallow pool of salsa fresca, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, fresh nacho chips, and a side of goat cream-cheese. This dish combines two things cheese lovers adore: fondue and runny nacho sauce. It is a glorious contrast of gooey cheese with a crisp, crunchy exterior.
In what was once the Placitas Chapel Catholic church, built in the 1800s and in operation for 100 years, is now the home of The Love Apple. One cannot help but chuckle a little at the irony; in this space, one used to ask for forgiveness for one’s sins, but today people devour indulgent meals with reckless abandon. Observations aside, the former church dwelling makes for intimate dining.
This is bolstered by the aromas and flavors of Chef Andrea Meyer’s new American cuisine with regional touches of New Mexico. Meyer and Jennifer Hart, the owner, present their food philosophy on a platter: dishes are an homage to slow-cooked food that feature local, simple organic cooking with the influences of Taos – including cheeses, and hormone-free-grass-fed meat from the area.
Since everything is seasonally driven and with such ease of access to agriculture, the menu changes frequently to showcase regional diversity; but popular mainstays include buttermilk yellow and wheat-free blue cornbread muffins (sourced from the Pueblo), and grilled ruby trout wrapped in corn husks topped with chipotle crème and served with quinoa fritter and cilantro lime relish.
But if you’re lucky enough to see Quail en Nogada on the menu, commit a bit of gluttony and order two servings of it. Sourced from Broken Arrow, the plump little birds are stuffed with green chili, feta cheese and quinoa. It’s almost like a play on your traditional thanksgiving meal, except this one is rife with New Mexican flair. The tender flesh is ideal for mopping up the creamy nogada (walnut crème fraîche) sauce; the dish is garnished with cilantro and pomegranate seeds for vibrancy in appearance and a touch of herbal sweetness on the palate.
In what was formerly an old gas station and art gallery is now the Taos Mesa Brewing tap room and restaurant. Open for almost a year now, the brews were introduced to the world a mere four years ago by a quartet of friends – Dan Irion, Gary Feurman, Peter Kolshorn, and Jayson Wylie – but today they have 24 types of suds with 9-12 varieties always on tap. This is the second location to the original “Mothership”, a quonset hut located a couple miles from the nearby Río Grande Gorge, which acts not only as a brewery but concert hall and party venue at 5,000 square feet.
The successes of the original birthed the Taos Mesa Brewery – allowing for the same microbrewery experience – albeit in slightly more laid back digs. Its main draw is that it is a community hub, and with an industrial look overlaid with Taos style plaster, there’s a contemporary appeal to the space. As Kolshorn describes it, “…it’s like going into the big city without being too overly polished.’’
It is ideal to order a flight of beer to taste the range of flavours. Start with an IPA such as Three Peaks – a tribute beer to the spirit of folks who carved out a life in the hardscrabble and mesa mud. With generous additions of Amarillo and Citra hops, enjoy notes of pine and citrus in this beer, then work your way into dark porters such as their Black Widow: roast and chocolate malts along with three additional varieties of crystal malt are used – what results is a sweet, cocoa flavor with a hearty, smooth finish.
Although the restaurant is described as “beer-forward,” foods compliment all the suds and flavor profiles are polished. Chef Noah Pettes says that their clean, refreshing IPAs work especially well with spicy foods; case in point, the wood fired confit chicken wings with chili peppers and scallions.
But the drool factor would have to go to the delectable Queso Fonduta, featuring a green chili cheese fondue which uses local cheeses from Bountiful Cow. A molten skillet bubbles and percolates with a blend of cheddar, fontina and mexi-melt. It is served with spiced cheddar cheese pizza crisps hot from their wood fired oven.