Mexican food New York style has little resemblance to what one finds in Los Angeles. At Santa Fe, a sophisticated and successful spot in Manhattan's Upper West Side, it is a blend of New Mexican and American cuisines, set off by New Mexican rugs, paintings, posters, American pottery and gourds.
Remodeled from what had been an apartment and coffee house on West 69th Street, Santa Fe crowds its customers into a narrow, peach-walled dining room lined with white-shuttered windows, refreshes them with frosty Margaritas and presents a meal that is as likely to involve grilled fish or lamb chops as enchiladas and nachos.
The ownership is not Mexican. Walter Vasconcellos, a Brazilian, was born in Sao Paolo and ran a nearby Mexican cantina for 10 years before launching Santa Fe with his partner, John Bird. Vasconcellos' wife, Janet Cassidy, an artist from Seattle, designed the interior and provided the recipe for the apple crisp that is one of Santa Fe's best desserts.
Obtaining Mexican ingredients in New York is a problem unknown in Los Angeles. "It is very hard to get a fresh chile in New York," said Vasconcellos. He stocks frozen green chiles, buys canned tomatillos and uses whatever cilantro he can get. "Some seasons, you have to throw out most of it," he said.
Vasconcellos sought to change the New York view of Mexican food as "tacky." He opted for well-presented tacos, enchiladas and burritos and lighter foods like the lamb chops and swordfish that are big sellers. "Twenty-five percent of the people who come here want to eat light," he observed.
The lamb chops are marinated with red wine and a passel of seasonings, including rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, shallots and garlic. The swordfish marinade is tangy with lime juice and includes red wine, curry powder, chili powder and oregano.
Instead of rustic Mexican pottery, the food is presented on heavy, black, American-made plates at tables set with peach linens. The brightly colored, cottony dresses that make the waitresses look as if they had just flown in from Puerto Vallarta are not from Mexico but from France.
Waiters reassure that the food is not spicy-hot and ask whether one wants salt on the rim of the Margaritas. The Margaritas are made with a frozen tequila, lime juice and triple sec base. No ice is added.
California-made jalapeno jelly accompanies some dishes, and traditional American corn relish, a confetti-like blend of corn, onion, red and green peppers marinated with vinegar, is as fundamental a side dish as salsa.
Rice and beans, the typical Mexican standbys, are prepared with a different approach. Converted rice is cooked in chicken broth, then mixed with chopped tomato, onion, green pepper, olives and garlic. A spoonful of peas goes on top and slices of red and green pepper on either side of each serving. The beans--pintos--are not refried but mashed and blended with butter. Pork fat is cooked along with them for a rich taste, and bay leaves, oregano, garlic and onion are other seasonings.
In accordance with contemporary tastes, Santa Fe also serves steamed vegetables topped with garlic butter.
Desserts veer far from classic Mexican tradition. One night there was chocolate truffle cake and lemon souffle with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. But nothing could be more appealing than the apple crisp, a blend of sliced Grannie Smith and red Delicious apples topped with a thick, crumbly layer of oats and flour, walnuts, butter, brown sugar and cinnamon.
Recipes for these Santa Fe specialties follow. For those who want to try the food in New York, the address of the restaurant is 72 West 69th St. Call (212) 724-0822 for reservations.
GRILLED LAMB CHOPS SANTA FE 2 cups dry red wine
6 shallots, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons rosemary
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
3 bay leaves, crushed
6 to 10 lamb chops, 1-inch thick, or 18 thin chops
Combine wine, shallots, garlic, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves and season with to taste with pepper. Place lamb chops in marinade, cover and refrigerate for 12 hours, turning chops occasionally. Drain and grill over hot coals or broil 8 to 10 minutes on each side for thick chops or 3 to 5 minutes for thin chops, or until done as desired. Makes 6 servings.
GRILLED SWORDFISH 1 cup lime juice
1 cup red wine
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons mild chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
2 tablespoons oil
2 pounds swordfish steaks
Combine lime juice, wine, onion, curry powder, chili powder, oregano and oil. Add fish and marinate 2 hours in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature, drain fish from marinade and grill over coals or broil about 13 minutes, turning once. Makes 6 servings.
SANTA FE BEANS 2 cups dried pinto beans
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons oregano leaves
1 bay leaf
1/4 pound pork fat back
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Shredded Cheddar cheese
Place beans in large saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to boil and boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 1 hour. Add more water to cover. Add onion, garlic, oregano, bay leaf and pork fat. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender, 1 to 2 hours. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Mash beans in saucepan or skillet. Add butter, salt and pepper. For more moist consistency, stir in some of liquid. Serve topped with Cheddar cheese. Makes 6 servings.
SANTA FE RICE 2 cups converted rice
2 tablespoons oil
5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons chopped tomato
2 tablespoons chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons chopped sweet red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped black olives
1 clove garlic, minced
6 tablespoons cooked frozen peas
6 green pepper slices
6 sweet red pepper slices
Fry rice in oil until browned. Add chicken broth and season to taste with salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and cook 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Stir in onion, tomato, green pepper, red pepper, olives and garlic and heat to serving temperature. Garnish each serving with 1 tablespoon peas. Place green pepper slice on one side and red pepper slice on other side. Makes 6 servings.
STEAMED VEGETABLES 1 1/2 to 2 pounds mixed vegetables (cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, sliced carrot, zucchini and yellow squash)
1/2 cup butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon oregano
Place vegetables on rack in steamer and steam over boiling water until tender-crisp, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat butter, add garlic and parsley and saute lightly. Stir in oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour some of butter mixture over each serving of vegetables. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
CORN RELISH 3/4 cup drained canned whole kernel corn
3/4 cup diced onion
3/4 cup diced green pepper
3/4 cup diced sweet red pepper
1 cup white wine vinegar
Sweet red pepper rings
Halved pitted black olives
Combine corn, onion, green and red peppers with vinegar. Season to taste with salt, if desired. Let marinate in refrigerator overnight. For each serving, place some of drained relish on piece of escarole. Top with 1 red pepper ring and 1 olive half. Makes 3 cups relish.
APPLE CRISP Butter
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons raisins
6 Grannie Smith apples, peeled
6 red Delicious apples, peeled
1 cup flour
1 cup oats
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 cup coarsely broken walnuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Butter 13x9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle dish with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and raisins. Slice apples into baking dish. Mix flour, oats, brown sugar, walnuts, 1/2 cup butter, remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon and lemon juice. Crumble mixture over apples. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Serve topped with whipped cream. Makes 10 to 12 servings.