By train is the loveliest way to travel. The obvious pro is that it is cheap. But so much more than that, I love the pace of trains, I love watching the world go by out the window in an unhurried fashion, I love being able to walk around and find a new nook on the train to observe from and I love the conversations you engage in and the stories you discover, from many strangers more than just the one you may have been allocated a seat next to on an airplane.
We rode “The Southwest Chief”, which terminates in Chicago, from L.A. to Lamy, New Mexico (population approx. 300). It was a thirteen hour train ride to Lamy, where we were picked up by Tony-the-Amtrak-shuttle-guy and delivered to our front door, thirty-minutes away in Santa Fe. Our tickets were $160 each roundtrip. Of that thirteen hours, I slept five and during the rest, took photos, read newspapers and rubbish magazines, daydreamed out the window, eavesdropped on people, watched people, met people and listened to people tell their stories.
So this is how our eating holiday began. But how was it conceptualized you wonder? I’ve been told for years by folks who know me and who know Santa Fe that I, in particular, would love Santa Fe. I had also heard that there was a lot of great food to be had in that area — regional dishes born out of the wonderful, cultural melting pot of the Southwest, that encompasses Native American, Mexican and Cowboy flavors in both food and living. Discussing this with my friend, Sophie one day, she talked about how she had often thought of taking the train there from L.A.. For those of you who don’t know me, I have a tattoo of a railroad crossing sign on my left wrist. Suffice it to say, I was in. Sophie then went on to explain that her father has a condo there that he uses only occasionally, which we would be welcome to stay in — a condo that came with a 4WD. Next thing, we were on the Amtrak website buying train tickets and collecting our lists of restaurant recommendations from foodie and Santa Fe-born friends.
As we rocked gently along aboard the Southwest Chief, to the desert tableaux drifting by, we watched and listened to a new friendship unfold between a stylish, non-English-speaking, Japanese man with a very fancy camera and a strapping, young cowboy in full regalia, boots on up to the hat. He used a translator application on his phone to discover that his new friend was an architect, that he photographed animals for fun and all manner of other trivia. It would have been a completely boring-for-us, silent exchange, with the two of them passing the translator back and forth across the table, had the cowboy not felt the need to repeat each of his discoveries aloud to a nearby buddy.
We first observed our new friend, Anthony Lee as he sat silently at a nearby table, laying out his tarot cards, earnestly giving himself a reading. I didn’t even need to know all that I found out about him once we’d actually met later, to see in that moment that this was a boy headed on a big journey. It turned out that this nice, eyebrow-less, young drag queen — drag name, “Charlie Rose” — was moving from the Inland Empire, California to tear up Lupis, Missouri. He’s hoping to make it on Ru Paul’s, “Drag Race" next season by the way, so root for him with us, won’t you?
During the night, we ran out of the sandwiches, strawberries and seaweed snacks we’d brought on board and so most unfortunately, we had to take breakfast in the dining car. The first meal of our journey was the worst. But we knew that was to be expected. At breakfast we shared our table with Sherry, the rancher from Colorado — they do Angus Beef. She was tall and lean with a long, silver ponytail, weather-worn and as beautiful as a dramatic cliff-face in the morning sun. She’s a horse lady. One of her eight boys is married to an Australian, is in banking and lives in Melbourne. None of the boys chose to become ranchers. Sherry rides the Southwest Chief, once a year. We also sat with Martha, the breast-cancer survivor from Albuquerque who had returned to L.A. — her original home — for her class of ‘90 high school reunion. They both ordered French Toast. We should have done the same. Just so you know, don’t order eggs on the Southwest Chief.
We arrived at Sophie’s dad’s condo at about two-thirty in the afternoon. Our first meal for our first day in Santa Fe would be dinner. This also coincided with Valentine’s Day. My husband and I don’t do Valentine’s Day. We think it’s baloney. Every day is Valentine’s Day at our house. Sophie is of a similar mentality. We knew that we’d find it tricky to get out to any of the great restaurants on our list that night with all the lovebirds out on the town. So instead, we hit a nearby diner that Sophie’s family frequent, at the senior-citizen-dinging-hour of 4:30pm and plotted. Below is the crazy schedule we concocted for ourselves for our stay.
Meal #1 - Dinner While we Plotted
Location: Harry’s Roadhouse, Santa Fe
Order: BBQ Pork Ribs, Beans and Slaw and Strawberry & Rhubarb Pie
Rating: I would be super happy if Harry’s Roadhouse replaced 50’s Cafe in Venice. Good-quality diner food.
When we returned to the condo, we sat on the balcony, with a glass of wine and cigarette, quietly taking in the distant mountains and far-off lights of Albuquerque and it began to snow. Snow is novel and magical for me, having seen it but a handful of times in my life. But there is something even far more enchanting about snow falling on a desert.
Meal #2 - Breakfast
Location: The Teahouse, Santa Fe
Order: Steelcut Oatmeal and Sticky Rice with Cream
Rating: Best oatmeal I’ve ever eaten. I know “oatmeal” just like that doesn’t sound exciting, but trust me, even for the 90s garnishings, this was spectacular. Can’t wait to get back and eat more things. Bought teas from wide selection which I’m looking forward to trying at home. Absolutely adorable, cozy ambience.
After breakfast, we wandered around downtown Santa Fe and hit up vintage stores and chili shops. We happened upon “Kowboyz”, an amazing western outfitter with one of the most comprehensive selections of cowboy boots I’ve ever seen, where I purchased a pile of of ridiculously well-priced, western shirts (actual, real-deal worker ones which had my husband comment, upon my return with his gifts, “Someone’s gonna throw me a lasso and I won’t know what the hell to do with it!”)
The delightful owner, Suzy greeted us. We were there a while and as she observed our ever-growing pile of booty she said, “You girls aren’t from ‘round here. You know how to shop!” Turned out Suzy and her husband, Brad had first had their store in Hollywood for many, many years. Photos of the happy, beautiful couple, beaming in their cowboy attire, from various years of their lives together, hung on the walls. I peered closely at a great shot of her tall, handsome husband in his Stetson, plaid shirt, worn jeans, boots and turquoise as she revealed to me that he’d passed away only two years ago. He was, I think, from Kentucky originally and she from Chicago. She’d met him one day many years ago, when her and her sister stopped at a gas station in L.A. to pick up supplies on their way out to go trout fishing. Turned out the gas station was closed and Brad would use it on Sundays to lay out his many hundreds of cowboy boots and sell them. By the time her sister had walked back to the car, Suzy had his number. I smiled and said, “You married a real cowboy.” And she said, “Yes, yes I did.” And I said, “Cowboys are hot!” And she laughed heartily and replied wistfully, “Yes, yes they are young lady!”
Meal #3: Lunch - Deviation from schedule as the Shed was closed for roof repairs.
Location: Pasqual’s, Santa Fe
Rating: The Smoked Trout Hash was hands down one of the way better things we ate on the entire trip - such a full flavor profile. Make sure you order it. I have brought a half-case of Santa Fe Pale Ale with me back to L.A.. Had a hoot of a time talking to server, “Roblair”. Odd name, great guy.
Following lunch, we drove up into the Santa Fe foothills and hit up 10,000 waves — an incredible, Japanese-style outdoor spa — for a bit of absolutely-not-needed or deserved R&R. We paid $23, got naked, scrubbed down and jumped into the women’s hot tub, out in the icy air, on a deck under snow-kissed trees and blue sky and went some other place for a couple of hours. Unable to resist, I invested in some of their organic body lotion to bring back to L.A.. I’m not a lounge-around-spas kind of girl at all, but this place is pretty magical. They have women only and communal, co-ed tubs, open to the public and have tubs available to hire privately for singles or groups. They offer facials and massages and all other manner of indulgences. I still feel as soft as a baby’s bum all over.
Meal #4: Dinner
Location: El Farol, Santa Fe
Order: Tapas Selection - Aceitunas: Salt-cured Moroccan Olives with Roasted Garlic & Oranges, Mountain-cured Spanish Ham with Mustard, Chorizo de Rioja: Smoky Paprika Sausage with Fig Aioli, Pato Asado: Roasted Duck Breast with Moroccan Carrot Sauce, Pulpo: Grilled Octopus with Smoked Paprika, Gambas al Ajillo: Spicy Sauteed Garlic Shrimp with Lime & Madeira, Polenta a la Mancha Machego: Polenta with Romanesco and Cabrales: Spanish Blue Cheese with Marcona Almonds & Honey. We washed it all down with a 2009 Veramonte Pinot Noir from Chile.
Rating: As far as tapas go, totally good. Not great. If I lived there though, would absolutely go now and then. My favorite items were the Pato Asado, Pulpo, Polenta a la Mancha and the Cabrales. I also loved using the crusty bread for mopping up the oil from the chorizo, mixed with the fig aioli. I didn’t care much for the chorizo itself. The wine was so, so lovely.
After dinner, we tried to hit up Coyote Cafe for a drink only to discover it was closed. Our awesome cab driver, Danny (who we had on speed-dial) dropped us in what he called the “Bermuda Triangle”, where multiple late-night-for-Sant-Fe bars were available within a block. We didn’t make it past the first one, El Matador. Hardcore, old-school punk was blaring from the door, which was located down a shady-looking stairwell with a solitary, red light at street level, announcing to all of Santa Fe, its ill-repute. It was small, shitty, plastered in great band posters, scarcely occupied, had a rockabilly Perry-Farrell-look-alike barman and in the corner the cute, young, blond, girl-DJ was spinning some outstanding vinyl. We sidled up and ordered a couple of Jamieson’s. Sometimes I can drink whiskey now. Good for me.
As one does in bars, we met all kinds of boys. But our favorite appeared a little later in the evening. His name is Jonah. Chef Jonah to be exact. He is dating aforementioned, cute girl-DJ and so, after he knocks off over at modern, French restaurant, The Compound — a heavyweight on the Southwestern food scene, which is high on the list for the next trip — he heads on over to El Matador to hang out with his girl. This became so frequent in fact, that in the end, he took a job there. Now, on the nights his girl spins, he finishes cooking and then bounces at El Matador until she’s done. He has a missing tooth. I’m not sure if that is occupation-related.
Jonah is from northern California and moved out to Santa Fe after a long stint cooking in Portland. It turned out too, that he has a whole lot of Polynesian friends in Portland, and is headed back to a mate’s 30th birthday there next week. Being Tongan this mate of his — those Tongans roll like my mob roll when they get together and eat — Jonah was driving up, with a live pig in tow to gift the family for the celebration. Yum. We talked for ages about various Polynesian food-preparation methods which he was extremely familiar with, and little things like what it’s like drinking Kava.
A couple of way strong whiskeys later, just after the stampede (not exaggerating — and the barman was freaking out) of chemists arrived and upset the equilibrium in our happy little grunge-den, we left. Earlier in the day when I’d asked Sophie what kind of people lived in Santa Fe (she has spent her life visiting Santa Fe, where her parents first lived after they were married and where her two brothers were born), she replied, “Artists and scientists.” Turns out she was right.
Meal #5: Breakfast
Location: Bobcat Bite
Order: Green Chili Cheese Burger - With small hangovers, were weren’t messing around that morning.
Rating: At this tiny, friendly, mom & pop shop diner, located on Bobcat Ranch, I had what was definitely one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten.
With burgers in our bellies, we made the meandering, scenic drive to Bandelier National Monument. The very beautiful, sacred canyons of this area were home to some of the Ancient Puebla Peoples, who lived in small, scattered settlements, occupying surrounding caves. The cave dwellings are preserved for us to experience. The magic in this area is palpable. As Sophie and I walked a large, open field, taking in the ruins of a Kiva, it began to snow.
After leaving the cave dwellings, we continued our scenic journey toward Chimayo, where we stopped in to look at some local, native weaving. We met a lovely brother-sister duo of weavers who explained that the largest part of their income these days comes from Japan, where their textiles are greatly coveted. Much of their work is shipped off there directly.
Meal #6: Lunch
Location: Rancho de Chimayo, Chimayo
Order: Green Chili and Sopaipillas
Rating: This middle-of-nowhere restaurant on a ranch provided truck-loads of charm and is a busy, regional, road-tripping destination, Sophie had informed me. Due to our post-whiskey, late start however, we found ourselves there during that quietest of times between lunch and dinner. This served us well as the servers had time to talk and the kitchen had time to receive us and give us a Sopaipilla-making-lesson. It is very important for me to assert now that if you have not had a Sopaipilla, you need to make it a priority. Particular to the region, it is a puffy, hollow, fried-bread that I imagine is the evolution of a Native American staple, by the hands of the Mexicans (though you’ll need to research that yourself). Thank God for multiculturalism. It reminds me very much of fried Maori bread which I grew up eating, along with the rest of the native New Zealanders like myself. Sopaipillas are served with warm, cinnamon-infused honey for dipping. The green chili I must report was just so-so.
We left Chimayo, headed down into Taos, taking the scenic high-road. We got a lot more scenery than we bargained for, getting ourselves completely lost in the snow which forced us to see twilight turn into the dead of the night, in completely unmapped territory (for us). It was in being lost however that we found some of the prettiest scenery of the trip.
Meal #7: Dinner
Location: The Love Apple (la Pomme d’Amour), Taos
Order: We had the Beet and Avocado Salad with ruby grapefruit, spearmint and a lime vinaigrette. It was sensational. We had the Quail Nogadas: Wild quail stuffed with green chile, cilantro, feta and quinoa with a creamy walnut and creme fraiche sauce and pomegranate seeds. We had the chicken special which was a super-moist, local, happy chicken with a classic, French mustard sauce that they NAILED. An absolute highlight however was the desserts — which change constantly. We had a layer cake of chocolate, chiffon and marmalade that was unbelievable. And sincerely, the rose custard I would use for a body moisturizer — I actually rubbed a little on myself, truth be told.
Rating: This was, hands down, the best meal of the trip. An utterly romantic, cozy, adorable restaurant, housed in an old adobe church, I cannot recommend it enough. A farm-to-table, northern New Mexican delight, every, tiny detail was clearly thought-through with love. Each of the waitstaff wore a unique, gorgeous, handmade apron by a local artist. In classic French-bistro style, each table was adorned with old wine-bottles, propping up candlesticks alongside locally-picked flora delicately housed in an odd-assortment of glasses. The vintage mis-matched plates charming under the romantic, very-dim lighting. An interesting fact we noted too was that the entire staff — kitchen and floor — was all female.
We got back to our condo, heavily overfed to the point that we had to forfeit breakfast the next morning. I believe I would have thrown up. By the time we arrived in Lamy however, ready to board our train, we’d found a tiny bit of room. With an hour before our train departed, we made our way across the dirt road from the tiny, lonely, little country train station to the beautiful, colonial building across the way — the only other building within miles — which we figured to be a restaurant.
“Legal Tender" as it turns out, was a brothel back in the day and had gone through various incarnations over the years as a train museum, a restaurant and a bar. It had been closed for twelve long years and wouldn’t you know it, that morning of our arrival, had reopened for business as the only watering hole/ restaurant for miles.
The Santa Fe Pale Ales went down far too easily as we talked with one of the owners. Two brothers, Jon and Greg (or maybe it was Craig — I cannot for the life of me tell the difference with an American accent) were running the show along with Jon’s wife and a COMPLETELY VOLUNTEER staff. Also a train museum, this fantastic, old venue had been reopened with great difficulty after much frustrating wrangling of red tape. Apparently, local council is a bitch. All of the staff — locals who wanted the venture to happen, to put this heritage site back on the map — were volunteering their services until they could start making a profit. Jon and his wife had been living in Hermosa Beach (and still dock their boat in Redondo) and decided to head back to the region and get this place up. Greg/ Craig had been living in North Carolina where his wife had passed away recently. Being a good brother, Jon called Greg and said, “Pack what you can fit in one suitcase and get down here and let’s do this together.”
The sun, the quiet, the good folks and great beer, along with the enticement of a live band that night for a big, local opening-night fete, were more than enough good reason to stay. Sophie and I trotted across to the train station and asked the ticket master if we could change our ticket to the next day. Alas, the train back to L.A. the next day was completely sold out. It was with briefly-disappointed hearts that we boarded the train back to L.A..
If you ever get the opportunity to take a train anywhere, do so. If you ever get the opportunity to take a train into the magical heart of the Southwest, do so. If you get to go on any journey with a friend, into any place unknown, don’t let the opportunity pass you by. Live, eat, enjoy this life.