At Joseph's Table, in Ranchos de Taos, four miles from Taos proper, we stare intensely at the distressed frescoed walls, trying to recognize the giant painted face in the corner. Young Elvis?An even younger Liberace?Actually, the aquiline profile is lifted from El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz. The main room, with its gothic lighting, sagging beams, and fuzzy-wire chandeliers, feels like an East Village drag club. The wall painting in the second room delivers the weathered look of an ancient trattoria somewhere in Mantua.
In contrast to the funky exuberance of the space, young chef-owners Joseph and Gina Wrede, who trained in New York, designed a simple Italianate menu. The pizza appetizer is fabulous, a jagged crackle of dough with sweet sautéed onions, pungent Gorgonzola, and biting cracked pepper. The gnocchi are feather-light, stuffed with white-truffle paste (at only $8!) and glazed with a tangy balsamic reduction. When the scallop risotto turns up tasting like something run over by a snowboard, the waiter merrily whisks it back to the kitchen. Waiting for its replacement, we share my steak au poivre with "smashed" red potatoes and mushrooms. It's asphalted with black pepper, but scrape off the poivre and it's a beauty. The Italian spareribs and sausage are worth the wait. The ribs are juicy and meaty, and the sausage delicious, both smothered in a fabulous tomato sauce and bedded with crisp green beans. Dessert?A marvelous bread pudding, with plumped-up dried sour cherries and New Mexican goat cheese, floating in a pool of celestial crème anglaise.
Lunching gallery mavens, honchos in cowboy hats, and even an occasional pueblo resident all congregate at the Trading Post Café in Ranchos de Taos, which actually used to be a trading post. Sure, its wrought-iron chairs with mismatched upholstery, glass tables set with vials of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, rustic Mediterranean crockery, and baskets of sourdough bread are by now as familiar as the Gipsy Kings soundtrack, but you love being here.
The comfort-food menu is as generically persuasive as the room: competent Caesar salad; roast leg of lamb with wilted spinach, encircled by a ruffle of mashed potatoes; succulent oversize Cuban sandwiches piled with spiced shredded pork; homey desserts. Everything is clean and delicious.
On the way out of town, my friend slams on the brakes in front of a real estate notice. "Neo-adobe, three bedrooms, a fireplace, views . . . how about it?" I should have bought him that bolo tie.
Maria's New Mexican Kitchen
555 W. Cordova Rd., Santa Fe; 505/983-7929;
margaritas $4- $29; dinner for two $18.
210 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe; 505/983-9880;
breakfast for two $12.
420 Old Las Vegas Hwy., Santa Fe; 505/983-5319;
lunch for two $25.
724 Canyon Rd., Santa Fe; 505/982-1500;
dinner for two $90.
548 Agua Fria St., Santa Fe; 505/982-8608;
dinner for two $75.
603 Santa Cruz Rd., Espanola; 505/753-3211;
lunch for two $20.
4167 Hwy. 68, Ranchos de Taos; 505/751-4512;
dinner for two $55.
Trading Post Café
4179 Hwy. 68 (at Hwy. 518), Ranchos de Taos;
505/758-5089; lunch for two $25.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.