In the heart of hilly Rosslyn amid the skyscrapers and the steel, the Santa Fe Cafe is an oasis for spicy food lovers. Offering authentic New Mexican food, the restaurant has maintained a presence in Arlington for over 20 years on Wilson Boulevard two blocks from the Rosslyn Metro station.
A New Mexico native, myself, I noticed right away that the restaurant has the same quaint, cozy feel as many of the family owned places in Santa Fe. The staff is friendly and Spanish speaking, and the prices are reasonable. The authentic New Mexican art adorning the walls provides a pleasant refrain from the metropolis above; it’s almost like one made a wrong turn and ended up in Taos Pueblo.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, New Mexican food holds a distinct style from other Southwestern cuisines such as Tex-Mex and Mexican food. Based largely around red and green chile pepper sauces and traditionally spicy and flavorful, the food has roots hundreds of years deep. Traditional dishes include blue corn enchiladas, chile relleno, posole, or green chile stew.
Santa Fe Cafe owner Kip Laramie has adapted his New Mexican menu to include more ‘traditional American’ items to cater to a wide audience, but that don’t compromise the credibility of his classic southwestern dishes.
“I think we’re pretty legit,” Laramie said. “We have a few things which wouldn’t stand up to New Mexico: a steak and cheese burrito, which is Philadelphia meets New Mexico, but I try to marry them with the NM ingredients that would give somebody who is into the spicier cuisine reason to try them.”
Laramie has made a mark with local New Mexicans, including the University of New Mexico Alumni Association, the New Mexico State Society, and many military personnel once stationed in the Land of Enchantment. The Congressman representing Santa Fe, Democrat Ben Ray Lujan, is reportedly a fan; his signed headshot hangs on the wall among other New Mexico statesmen who have visited the establishment.
Laramie’s authenticity extends to addressing the age old New Mexico question: red or green? New Mexico has two main varieties of chile, which vary in color, taste, and consistency based on when it’s harvested. New Mexican culture embraces both red and green chile, but there is definitely a divide between people as to preference. Laramie offers either one on his dishes, or you can get it ‘christmas style’ with both red and green.
“The green chile in New Mexico is the state fruit – no doubt about it,” Laramie said. “I just think most people that know anything about New Mexican food, one of the first things they learn is green chile, whether it’s green chile stew or green chile enchiladas.”
Raw, fresh green chile is a difficult item to find in DC if you don’t grow it yourself. A few grocery stores in the area carry it frozen, but the Santa Fe Cafe gets their supply shipped directly from Hatch, a small farming town in Southern New Mexico known for the fiery peppers. Recently several local grocery stores flew in fresh peppers from Hatch and roasted them in front of their stores, a tradition in New Mexico this time of year. Many stores are sold out already.
The only quintessentially New Mexican item Laramie doesn’t offer is the sopapilla, a deep fried pastry. He once had the recipe it down perfectly, but when he changed deep fryers in his kitchen he couldn’t get them to puff properly anymore. “It’s embarrassing and frustrating,” Laramie lamented. “I will run them every once in a while as a special, but I just know that I’ll have to make 20 sopapillas to get 4 good ones, and just accept it. I just need to consult with someone’s grandmother to find out what I’m doing wrong,” he laughed.
If you’re in the mood for something new or spicy, consider taking a ride over to Rosslyn on the blue and orange lines. Take a moment to talk to Kip Laramie while you’re there – he’s a heck of a nice guy. You’ll be happy you came.
Santa Fe Cafe
1500 Wilson Boulevard (at corner of Oak Street)
Arlington, Virginia 22209