Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States. It is also the oldest European colonization settlement West of the Mississippi, having been “settled” by conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta in 1609. Prior to 1609, the land was most certainly already settled by the agriculturally based indigenous peoples of the area – who are still very present to this day represented by the 8 Northern Pueblos (and the 9 Southern Pueblos closer to Albuquerque), as well as the Eastern Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache.
Modern Santa Fe is a curated city of legislated adobe structures, historical landmarks of Spanish colonization and Christianization of the Pueblo and other natives peoples, collages of Western and Indigenous iconography, art of all shapes and sizes, and tourists – many, many tourists (and I’m assuming art collectors).
By the looks of the city, which in post-pandemic lockdown is booming and busy, it is fueled by art and tourism as its primary source of commerce. There is so much art, I don’t even know how there can be enough art collectors to purchase it. But perhaps, as I am not a art collector, and gallery curation and management is outside my field of expertise (beyond the legal ramifications), there are enough people who come to Santa Fe just for the art (obviously) that Santa Fe, in a way, is the art gallery of the United States. Santa Fe however, unlike other parts of New Mexico, is very well groomed in its adobe, and if there is grit, it is well hidden behind closed turquoise colored doors.
Santa Fe is not that large. There are portions of it spread out that are residential, then their are the suburban villages just outside of town – like Tesuque (a Northern Pueblo village) where we had an amazing lunch including the best chili rellenos in New Mexico (in my humble opinion), and then there is downtown with all of the tourist activities radiating from the central plaza and Old Canyon Road’s art galleries.
La Conquistadora derives her name from the Spanish Conquistadors who brought her and Christianity to this land. She arrived in the hands of a Fray Alonso de Benavides, a Franciscan Priest charged with heading the Spanish missions there in 1625. Since 1625 she has had a long history as a wooden statue in a small wooden church and as a restored Spanish Queen sitting on a throne within the Basilica that was built around her. Today, she has her own staff who change her clothes/dress her, and ensure she is treated like the rock star of iconography that she is.
In this area, La Conquistadora is only rivaled (and not really a rival at all) of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe is another representation of the Mother of God as provided directly to a one Juan Diego/Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Chichimec recently baptized 55-year old indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill (modern day Mexico City), by the Mother herself in the year 1531.
The image we know as Our Lady of Guadalupe is the image that was provided as “a sign” directly by Our Lady of Guadalupe to Diego (along with a bushel of roses that grew on top of a mountain in winter), so that the bishop would believe that the great mother appeared to an indigenous man such as Cuauhtlatoatzin. Cuauhtlatoatzin was canonized St. Juan Diego on July 31, 2002. Interestingly enough, La Conquistadora, as a statue of the Virgin Mary, already existed at this time and was living in the area where St. Juan Diego witnessed Santa Maria de Guadalupe. She however, was not as finely dressed in those days.
Personally, when I read the story of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe I now understand why I gravitate towards this image of Mary more than the European, Eastern Orthodox, or even Romani representations of the Mother – as she is truly the Lady/Mother of the Americas as envisioned by an indigenous American. She holds the mother archetype for this land. I also can’t help but think how convenient it was for the Spanish missionaries and the Catholic church that an indigenous person, recently baptized, had a vision of the Mother of God, as the church’s proselytization skyrocketed immediately thereafter. But back to modern day Santa Fe.
Before my pilgrimage to see La Conquistadora, we engaged in another very special pilgrimage – to the interactive installation art of Meow Wolf.
Meow Wolf in Santa Fe is a 20,000 square foot art installation built inside an old bowling alley. It is a maze of weird lit with black lights, fake smoke and television monitors. There is a story to follow, but it might take multiple visits to find it all within all the hidden nooks and crannies.
There is a machine that looks like the Tardis, and many many other oddities.
I spent a good 30 minutes just reading the newspaper that created an entire town and lives of people living there. There are books, movies and presentations – it is an entire world for you to interact with, created by artists.
We entered around 9 in the morning, and two hours later, it was packed with humanity to such an extent as we decided it was enough even though we likely barely scratched the surface. If I were a teenager in Santa Fe I would live in this place, meanwhile the former burning man devotee in mean was quite impressed, and the adult in me was very engaged by the layers upon layers of creativity necessary to create such a rich interactive art exhibit.
We spent our days in Santa Fe generally wandering around looking at art and being tourists. All the photos in this blog post highlight the various things we saw and ate, including some 100% dark chocolate infused with herbs, flowers and spices – which packed serious punch.
On our final day in Santa Fe we had reservations at Sazón for Chef Fernando Olea’s daily Degustación tasting menu.
I insisted we do this tasting menu, as its not a vacation without a ridiculous multi-course flavor extravaganza. What I didn’t know going in is that Chef Olea is such a man of heart, and so hands on with his guests.
Chef Olea is originally from Mexico City, but he did a stint living in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 1980s, early 90s. We asked him what restaurant he worked in or opened there, and he said in Minnesota he had a furniture store where he found that Minnesotans did not want anything he had to sell them “Burn it, unless its made of oak!” He said. But then proceeded to only have lovely things about Minnesota, except the “Winters are too cold.” He has been in Santa Fe with his restaurant since 1992 and is truly in his calling as an artist.
Dinner starts with a savory dessert called Dolce Symphonia meant to open up the palate. It features earthy avocado, beet, pine nuts and a finishing note of chili. It is served with an artistic crown of candied sugar.
Starting with dessert seemed like a horrible idea but the dish really did open us up to a whole host of flavors and showcased chef’s creativity.
Our next dish was the Camarontini – a spicy tempura shrimp in a martini of aioli. I didn’t realize that marigolds were edible until this meal, but a marigold dipped in aioli is quite amazing.
Next came carnitas or Barrigita de la chone (I’m sure I’m butchering the spelling of these as my Spanish is rudimentary at best) – a piece of pork belly with micro greens and a mini tortilla beautifully plated. The heat and the rich fire grilled tomato/pepper flavor were my favorite part of this dish.
This course was followed by a bowl of tender octopus with savory bits of spice and salty meat bits – the name of which I never caught because we started talking to Chef about Minnesota.
Squash Blossom came next stuffed with a trio of cheeses and covered in a sweet balsamic reduction.
Then there was a soup – Soupa de anore – possibly the most curious tasty thing I’ve ever eaten. It was a puree of poblano pepper, with lump blue crab, topped with an amaretto foam with cinnamon and chocolate dust. Somehow this mixture of things worked on the tongue, the amaretto and crab were both sweet, and the chocolate and poblano both earthy so it balanced just like two people doing the salsa, dancing sensually next to each other.
Sea Bass came out next. This was the first time I’ve had sea bass that I can recall, as I never choose it on menus. This was not Chilean in origin – so hopefully more sustainably farmed. Its tomatillo spinach cilantro mole verde made it perfectly tender and earthy in flavor. It was served on a platter that mimicked the sensory experience we had at Meow Wolf.
While we ate this course, the table to my right, with a couple from Colorado who were dressed quite fabulously, whome we had engaged in niceties and chit chat with before the meal fully began, were having a moment. I observed them up until this point, and noticed that they had ordered one of almost everything on the menu (but hadn’t done the tasting menu like us), and had sent almost everything they ordered back. As we were eating the sea bass course, she complained loudly that her fish was dry, and chef very soon brought out a new plate he had cooked himself. She refused to eat it, even though the chef kindly presented it to her as solving the problem. I’ve never seen a chef bring out a replacement plate when someone complains like she did (I’ve also never seen anyone complain like this table inside a fine dining restaurant). Before they took the fully uneaten plate away I asked her, because it was such a loss of such a kind gesture if I could taste the fish. She said “If you want to eat dry fish go right ahead.” I did take a bite, and it was scrumptious, not dry at all and perfectly delicious. I’ve eaten a lot of fish in my life, dry and moist, so I don’t think it was that my palate was undiscerning. There was clearly something else going on, and it was coming out in an expensive display of tragic food waste of an endangered fish species.
One of the reasons I know the chef’s heart is so big is that he was so AWARE of what was going on in his restaurant. He knew that I was concerned about this table across from me, and that I was concerned about his feelings regarding the fish dish incident. He came out to check on us after they left and asked us about our neighbors. I expressed that I thought there was something wrong with the woman’s heart/well being, and he replied “99% of the time, when there is a complaint at the table, there is something going on at home or with the relationship of the people at the table.” He said some other care filled words that expressed nothing but love for these hurting human beings, no arrogance or ego about his food being rejected, and filled with reassurance to me that he was not upset and held only compassion for these people (and me obviously – as he was reassuring me, that his feelings were not hurt by them!) Amazing.
We had two more dishes after this – Emalato de Papo with mole. Duck served in a rolled corn tortilla with blanched red beets, honey and jasmine rice. Despite all of the sweet it was so balanced with the earthy duck and mole spices. Yet my memory of it is like it was a duck dessert with the tastiest single bite of rice ever.
Our actual dessert was a cup of hot Mexican chocolate that was very tasty, so much so I forgot to take a picture. And then we couldn’t stop there so we ordered another savory ice cream and a blackberry cobbler. Which put us over the top into gluttony that I paid for later in the evening because of the high exposure to dairy. It was worth it though, as this was a meal of a lifetime.
Before we left I waved to Chef again so that we could express our gratitude for his artistry and one of the best meals of our lives. Dan, who had initially been skeptical of this dining experience, told Chef it was the highlight of our trip and that he was so happy I insisted we come for this experience. Chef beamed, and expressed that it was his pleasure to provide these type of experiences and returned our gratitude with more gratitude, and a signed set of prayer cards for each of us (above). He also was gracious enough to be photographed with me – so here I am grinning in caloric ecstasy next to his intense cowboy stare.
It was an amazing night crowning our time in Santa Fe with a meal that topped the French Laundry in my personal set of high end foodie experiences. All of this enhanced by the heart-filling meeting of such a caring non-ego driven chef. I will advocate for any food loving traveler going to Santa Fe to make a reservation at Sazón for the tasting menu – it is beyond worth the $150 per person cost, and the experience itself is priceless.
We left Santa Fe early the next morning to drive to the Denver area to see Trampled by Turtles at Red Rocks Amphitheater. It was definitely a fulfilling trip and exploration of two New Mexico cities.