Santa Fe: Art, Food, and Chocolate, oh my!

November 2, 2009 at 10:51 am 6 comments

I just got back from my dream vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


San Miguel Church

Photo: San Miguel Church, Santa Fe, built 1610

I knew it would be cool and fun and arty. But I was unprepared for the magnitude of the awesomeness.

It occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t write about it, wanting to keep the secret to myself. But then I realized (1) it’s not exactly a secret that Santa Fe is cool and artistic (after all, even clueless I knew that much), and (2) my obscure little blog is hardly going to make a dent in Santa Fe’s tourism industry.

So fine, let’s talk about Santa Fe and how amazing it is.

Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Barbara J Carter

First of all there’s the food. I love hot and spicy food. Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian, bring it on! The hotter the better. Sadly for me, the vast majority of the US feels otherwise. I’ve lived in New England, California, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest, and I can say with authority that most Americans are spice wimps.

But not New Mexico! This is the one place in the US where spicy is the norm. To New Mexicans, chile peppers are a major food group, and they unapologetically add chiles or chile sauce to just about everything. I love it.

There’s a huge debate in New Mexico over which is better, red or green chile sauce. The difference between the two is quite striking, and I had great fun sampling both and coming to my own conclusions. You can order a dish “Christmas” which means you get both red and green sauces for a side-by-side comparison. The red chile sauce is made from dried, ground-up red chiles, while the green is made from the same chiles picked while still green. The red has a deep, rich smoky flavor. Green has a bright, fresh, tart flavor. Everyone has their favorite. I tried both several times but I quickly came to strongly prefer the green.

Interestingly, in spite of getting all sorts of recommendations from friends, people on Twitter, foodie blogs and rating websites, we never found the holy grail for foodies: the perfect authentic New Mexican restaurant. Not for lack of trying, I assure you. We ate at plenty of decent little places that came highly recommended, but none were real standouts. The best chile sauce we had was on an amazing plate of huevos rancheros at a breakfast place (The Chocolate Maven). The best dinner we had was at a Spanish tapas place called El Meson – amazing food but not particularly New Mexican. I’m sure there are lots of superb authentic New Mexican restaurants, but we didn’t quite find them. Still, the hunt was fun, and turned up a few goodies here and there.

Art. Did I mention art? Because you can’t go to Santa Fe without noticing the art. It’s everywhere. You trip over it just turning around. Our hotel room was decorated with original art. Several pieces. Even in the bathroom! Swoon.

Allan Houser sculpture "When Friends Meet"

Photo: Allan Houser sculpture "When Friends Meet"

Every restaurant and cafe we ate in had art hanging on the walls, all of it for sale. (We bought a small piece from one restaurant where we had dinner.) In downtown Santa Fe, art galleries seem to outnumber all other businesses. One street, Canyon Road, is almost nothing but art galleries for its entire length. But even off of Canyon Road art galleries are everywhere.

Canyon Road, Santa Fe

Photo: Canyon Road, Santa Fe

Sculpture is everywhere too. Just wandering around town you see sculptures in public spaces, at the State Capitol building, at bus stops, in gardens, everywhere. Plenty of art galleries display large sculptures outside. I was particularly struck by the number of private homes, many quite modest, with sculpture visible in the front yard.

For an artist like me, all this art everywhere is almost too much to take. It’s like throwing someone dying of thirst into a swimming pool full of drinking water. I felt overwhelmed and overstimulated (but you know, in a good way). So different from Los Angeles! In Santa Fe art is a way of life, fully incorporated into every aspect of living. I’ve never seen anything like it. These are my people!

So, chocolate. This is the part I really didn’t expect. We hadn’t thought of Santa Fe as a major chocolate destination. But while planning our trip we came across something called the Santa Fe Chocolate Trail, and from that discovered the Mecca for serious chocolate lovers: Kakawa Chocolate House.

Kakawa, Santa Fe

Photo: Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe

Kakawa is not for chocolate wimps. Their chocolates are dark, bitter, rich, varied, and complex. Not to mention extensively researched and historically accurate. The house specialty is their drinking chocolates, hot concoctions that you sip slowly and savor like fine wine. When you go there in person, you can sample as many of their dozens of drinking chocolates as they have on hand (usually about a dozen) for free before ordering. Oh, and they will also cheerfully custom blend a half-and-half version if you just can’t decide between two. Try a blend of Jeffersonian and Modern Mexican. That was our hands-down favorite.

Beyond Kakawa there are several other good places for chocolate in Santa Fe. We didn’t visit the other stores on the Chocolate Trail but did make it to the Chocolate Maven, which is actually a bakery and breakfast restaurant. True to their name the chocolate croissants are beyond description (we watched them being made while we ate breakfast). Their plain croissants are also amazing: flaky and buttery yet satisfyingly substantial. Then there’s the Spanish Table, a cookery store that will blow the mind of any serious cook. They had several specialty Spanish chocolates available so of course we just had to buy them. We came home with quite a bit of chocolate, and a newfound respect for Santa Fe as a serious chocolate destination.

Chocolate from Santa Fe

Photo: Kakawa’s make-your-own hot chocolate wafers on the left, Spanish Blanxart chocolate bars for either eating or making hot chocolate, and a bag of Blanxart powdered hot chocolate mix on the right. Quite a haul.

Was it the trip of a lifetime, as I had predicted? Sort of… it was certainly a fantastic trip, but it won’t be the only one of my lifetime! I’ll definitely be back. I’ve found art-food-chocolate heaven.

Entry filed under: Art Appreciation, Santa Fe, Travel.

Santa Fe Open Studio this Weekend!


  • 1. Terry  |  November 4, 2009 at 11:48 am

    nice post. next time you’re in town, check out the Santa Fe Reporter list of “Bests”. They show some of the most popular restaurants from local voters. They also put out an annual Dining Guide which is quite helpful.

    Tomasitas, Cowgirl, The Shed are some good choices on the low end.

    Pink Adobe, The Compound and Cafe-Cafe are a bit more upscale but superb.

    I’d mention some others, but we DO like to keep a few secrets.

  • 2. barbarajcarter  |  November 4, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Hi Terry, thank you for the suggestions! We’ll definitely check out those sources. We had lots of recommendations, but one person’s “perfect” chile relleno is another’s “meh,” you know? We definitely need to go back and try more restaurants! Good thing the hunt is half the fun.

  • 3. Frank O'Mahony  |  November 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Great story! Nice to see people discover Santa Fe and be pleasantly surprised. I’ve linked to your story at my Santa Fe real estate blog

  • 4. barbarajcarter  |  November 4, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Thank you for the link Frank! I’m honored.

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Barbara J Carter

I'm an artist. I make paintings with dots.

I work in acrylic paint, in a couple of distinct styles: landscapes and abstracts.

Native to California, I've lived elsewhere and only recently returned to my home state. I now live in Los Angeles.

I mostly show my art in outdoor festivals in California. I also occasionally show my work in art galleries or open studio events. You can see an up-to-date list of upcoming shows on my website (click here).

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