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Santa Fe’s Local Characters

Inn at Loretto,architecture,adobe,hotel,exterior

Photo: Alex Farnum

“I raise the strawberry because it wears its heart on its sleeve. Its seeds are on the outside! The strawberry has nothing to hide! It is the perfect size. It is not too big; neither is it too small. Nature has created it so that it would fit perfectly in the mouth.” If you’re wondering where this juicy conversation is happening, let me assure you there is only one possible place in the universe: Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m at a party in one of the nicer adobe homes I’ve seen so far (thar be mountain views), talking to the rugged and delightfully Swiss-German–accented Sondra Goodwin, photographer and cultivator of fruits and vegetables, nude wrestler extraordinaire, and maker of Denim Duffs, an accessory that mimics the cuffs of denim jeans but is worn as a kind of 1980’s wristband. On Sondra’s own wrist there is a tattoo of a blazing, glorious strawberry approximating the Sacred Heart of Jesus (“I don’t believe in the Christ, but I love the strawberry”) surrounded by six stars. Why six stars? “You know how there are five-star hotels?” Yes. “This is one more.”

Let me say it from the get-go: I love Sondra Goodwin. And I love Santa Fe. Much like Sondra’s strawberry, this small, mountain-hugged burg in northern New Mexico has nothing to hide, its post-hippie population reveling openly and gaily in its sunny provincial decadence. The scenery, the food, the art will always play second fiddle to this delightful collection of people, most of whom are just too weird to let loose on New York or Los Angeles, where a great deal of them seem to hail from. When I myself sported a Honduran poncho with a free hemp now pin as a senior at Oberlin College, northern New Mexico is where I dreamed I would go after graduation with my equally patchouli-scented girlfriend. Alas, it did not work out. But 16 years later, here I am, the spotless clouds embracing me, the cold desert air tingling my nose with the pine-burning scent of 10,000 expensive kiva fireplaces. Home at last.

First, the cast of characters. I’m dining at the famed Café Pasqual’s, one block south of Santa Fe’s epicentral plaza, with Porochista Khakpour, the excellent Iranian-born novelist; Swedish-born philosopher Jason Leddington; and a woman this whole town seems to know and adore, Nouf Al-Qasimi. Porochista calls Nouf (rhymes with “loaf”) the Holly Golightly of Santa Fe. Her family is from the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Nouf is an accomplished angler—she first came to this part of the world for the fishing—as well as an ex–food critic, a former elk-meat cook at a prestigious local restaurant, a Yale graduate, a Chinese-medicine practitioner, and a conflict-free-diamond trader. “Of all the places where I could afford to buy a home, I thought of Santa Fe,” says Nouf, who is about to turn 32. “I’ve been here most of my adult life.”

We are sitting beneath a festive papier-mâché sandhill crane with a pair of binoculars hanging from its neck. The waiter brings around a kind of amuse-bouche, Pasqual’s-style. It’s called “pig on a date”—a skewer of bacon, caramelized onions, Asian pear, Idiazabal cheese, and dates. It occurs to me that of the beautiful people around me, all are newcomers to the United States in one way or another. Whatever one feels about dating a pig, it is hard not to feel at home here.

“The official state question of New Mexico,” the waiter tells me, “is ‘Red, green, or Christmas?’” Meaning should one’s dish be garnished with red or green chiles, or a combination of the two? We are served chiles en nogada, which celebrates the colors of the Mexican flag amid a riot of shiitake, portobello, and field mushrooms. When tackling Pasqual’s breakfast chorizo burrito or nearly anything else on the menu, it is helpful to ask for the restaurant’s red chiles—sweet, smoky, and as complex as the last Don DeLillo novel. Nouf also steers me to the lunchtime BLT and green-chile sandwich, with its chile-rubbed brown-sugar bacon on toasted chile corn bread alongside a refreshing kale salad.

“I am organic!” a woman was recently overheard screaming at Santa Fe’s Whole Foods. It’s not a sentiment one can easily argue with around here. The search for the earthy, the authentic, the original runs strongly through the town’s citizens. At first, I am confused by the overall adobe-or-death aesthetic of the place, even as my lungs are depleted by the lack of oxygen seven thousand feet above sea level. On my first snowy night, with the mud-brown architecture all around me and the big sky lounging impassively above, I am shocked to run into a United States mailbox. (Am I really still in the States?) Within five days I become an earnest appraiser of farolitos and vigas (small paper lanterns containing a candle and wooden beams typical in adobe construction, respectively). I begin to rate churches. San Miguel Chapel, possibly the oldest church in the United States, with its coziness, simplicity, and warmth, has beautiful vigas. In late November, the weather is cold, the tourists are sparse, and the town is nearly empty. I traipse back and forth between the chapel and New Mexico’s adorably easy-to-walk-into capitol building. The pink adobe glow of De Vargas Street, which lies at the foot of the chapel, may well make it the most calming thoroughfare in the nation.

After 10 days nothing surprises me. There’s a sensible-seeming middle-aged woman walking down the street with a parrot she has dressed up in a Santa Claus outfit. There’s a guy who reputedly fixes only Mercedes-Benzes and Wurlitzers. There’s a biodiesel taxi. There are battle-weary detachments of women from Dallas and Houston running up and down Canyon Road’s art district, out to purchase the $70,000 life-size statues of heroic American moose that are sculpted expressly for them.

Porochista and Nouf take me to the gorgeous 1930’s Moorish-style Lensic Performing Arts Center to see the Circus Luminous, a local circus show that doubles as a kind of morality play for children. The acrobatics are spectacular, but the narrative is hard to follow—a perfect village is taken over by generals who have small bodies but rule with giant telescopes. It must be a subtle critique of Santa Fe or Burma, or both. Nouf points out one of the more capable acrobats, a burlesque-dancing champion who used to be part of an outfit called the Gender Offenders. The audience loves every minute of it, but as the show progresses we all begin to suffer from clown fatigue and decide to leave.

Some of us go off to Ten Thousand Waves, a spa complex styled like a Japanese onsen, about 20 minutes northeast of downtown. Ten Thousand Waves is pretty much the answer to all of life’s problems, and when we show up, half the town seems to be in attendance. This being Santa Fe, the communal bath has been known to get randy. A sign now asks for swimsuits to be worn after 8:15 p.m. We book the Waterfall, which has a large bath, an intense wet/dry sauna, and a waterfall sputtering into the cold plunge. Jason, the Swede, reminisces about his homeland and saunas past; our feelings oscillate somewhere between Stockholm and Kyoto. The crisp mountain air, if not the stars above, settles onto our steam-warmed shoulders, and all of us are very happy.

Walking through Santa Fe’s central plaza the next morning, where a drum-cello-accordion-dog quartet has been keeping the beat to “Hava Nagila” throughout my stay, I feel the familiar languid pleasure of strolling though a sunny Italian hill town. After a shot of caffeine at Holy Spirit Espresso, on San Francisco Street, I let go of my East Coastness and check in to the rich adobe nuthouse that is Santa Fe. It will be hard to leave.

I walk down to Canyon Road to meet some friends at the Teahouse, a good place for matcha green tea with ginger on the rim and a tremendous bowl of oatmeal swimming in cream and strawberries, banana, maple syrup, and sticky rice. All around us is 12-step-speak infused with Hopi wisdom and generalized arts-and-crafts blather. “I have a new anger in me today.” “I would crochet hats and sell them at art sales.” “The strawberry,” I want to declare to all present, as I pick a specimen out of my oatmeal, “is the best fruit. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It has nothing to hide!”

Instead I decide to check out the art. Since its opening in 1995, Site Santa Fe has been gradually shifting the center of gravity of the contemporary art scene from Canyon Road to the revamped Railyard district, thanks to its superb biennial exhibitions. The space is easily the best reuse of a Coors beer warehouse ever, and has featured important artists of the day from Marina Abramovi? to Takashi Murakami. The Eighth International Biennial, titled “The Dissolve,” blows me away with its take on moving-image art. Thomas Demand’s 35-mm wonder Rain re-creates the effect of raindrops falling on a hard surface; spending 20 minutes in front of this piece is no less than an act of meditation. The Austrian Maria Lassnig’s semiautobiographical blend of live action, animation, and found photography restored my faith in that Alpine nation’s sense of humor. Mary Reid Kelley’s You Make Me Iliad, a mixture of live-action performance and stop-motion animation set in a German-occupied brothel at the end of World War I, defies any description other than epic. What’s truly great about Site Santa Fe is its willingness to reconfigure itself year after year. For the Eighth Biennial, British architect David Adjaye divided the space with scrim curtains of various colors—the works seem to talk with one another.

Next to Site Santa Fe I find a cluster of the town’s trailblazing galleries, including a new space for the formerly downtown fixture Charlotte Jackson Fine Art. Jackson features a delicious installation of Charles Arnoldi’s Tasty Spuds sculptures of the beloved starch, a series of stacked tubers made of black bronze that leaves me both hungry and more appreciative of large carbohydrates.

At the suggestion of Janet Dees, one of Site Santa Fe’s brilliant curators, I pay a visit to Eight Modern, a happy place off Canyon Road where I encounter 27-year-old Santa Fe artist Katherine Lee’s series of drawings, Animal Violence & Topless Women Eating Jam. True to this title, the jam-eating women are topless and the animal-on-animal violence is vivid. Opened five years ago, Eight Modern is unpretentious and fun, a modest but inspired gallery amid a sea of whirligigs on Delgado Street. Even the old-school galleries on Canyon Road can sometimes surprise. Stopping by the Matthews Gallery, I stumble upon Gino Severini’s study for his famous Pierrot the Musician, and I also find Käthe Kollwitz’s Beggar Woman and Child, a masterly work from the anti-Nazi artist. But what I really want for Christmas is that $70,000 moose.

And then I want me some food. The Santa Fe dining scene is hopping. There’s a lot of fallback on black truffles, prized bacons, and the inspirational power of homemade chorizo, but some innovative thinking, too.

There’s nothing wrong with Restaurant Martín, where Iron Chef loser Martin Rios (“He’s still angry about that,” a waiter tells me, adding, “We don’t talk about it”) makes good use of local ingredients, the kind of colorful plates—the organic golden-beet carpaccio couldn’t be fresher—that my doctor has always supported. Restaurant Martín is swell and up-to-the-moment, but at this point what I really want to do is go on a taco crawl with Nouf.

We leave behind the manicured center of town and head down Cerrillos Road. Sunbaked, wide-open Cerrillos brings to mind the great suburban strip-mall sprawl of the American West, like something out of the hit Albuquerque-based television show Breaking Bad. Suddenly style has been replaced with flavor; nothing seems organic, but everything is real. Nouf has prepared a list of 18 notable Mexican places, but sanity dictates we limit ourselves to nine of them.

El Parasol is a counter-only joint with no tables and no nothing, but the soft shredded-chicken taco is excellent and the crisp, intense chicharrón in the burrito—well, let me just say that if you have one pork-rind-and-bean burrito in your lifetime, let this be the one. At Adelitas, the lengua taco is the best in town, house-made tortillas brimming with luscious chunks of tongue, and there’s a mole poblano as rich as Croesus. We dig Adelita’s outrageously festive Toucan Sam décor and note the absence of Santa Fe’s ubiquitous turquoise jewelry, the mostly Mexican crowd joined by a pair of U.S. soldiers of both genders chowing down without a word. At Alicia’s Tortillería, women in drawstring pajamas queue in front of posters advertising lots of opportunities to envio their dinero back to Mexico. What they’re after are the piping-hot tortillas sporting what Nouf calls “a magical elasticity.” The chile burritos are a standout. La Cocina de Doña Clara is a no-frills place with a dedicated clientele deep into their food, sneaking peeks of Shakira busting her moves on the TV. Doña Clara produces an outstanding gordita de rajas con queso, a little spicy pocket of warmth filled with chiles and cheese, and a terrific desebrada shredded-beef taco. The green chiles are freshly cooked every morning, and the difference shows.

Having consumed a total of 12 dishes during the taco crawl, I feel it is time for a drink. I’ve been staying at the Hotel St. Francis, downtown Santa Fe’s oldest, its previously European interiors recently remodeled into a clean and simple haute-monk aesthetic. The “color palate” of the guest rooms, a hotel note tells me, “represents the natural shades of the churro sheep brought to New Mexico by early Spanish settlers.” I’ll just leave it at that.

The best thing about the St. Francis is its bar, the Secreto Lounge. Here I meet a friend of Nouf’s, Bill York, owner of small-batch bitters company Bitter End, who works with computers all day for the New Mexico state government and then comes home to make his amazing essences (he has a master’s degree in biology, which seems to help). He brings his bitters to the Secreto to be mixed by Santa Fe’s premier mixologist, Chris Milligan. “We evangelize for each other,” Bill tells me, which is something people in this town seem to gladly do. The result of their work together is something special. A classic Manhattan with Memphis-barbecue bitters, anyone? It’s a complete rethink of that tired old drink. Or how about Kaffir-lime-infused vodka, green tea, fresh mint, and Moroccan (hints of cardamom and cayenne) bitters? I believe it’s called the Clipper Sipper. In any case, it starts off sweet, and then it burns nicely.

Which is how I’m feeling by the end of this trip. Santa Fe is a small town, but between the bitters, the tacos and chiles, the art scene, and the fairly regular parties, it can be intense. It is time to head to the Encantado Resort & Spa (now the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado) in the village of Tesuque, a bedroom community of Santa Fe that is home to the renowned Santa Fe Opera. The hotel opened in 2008 and features one of the warmest and most attentive staffs I’ve ever encountered. Their pleasantness is almost enough to make up for the fact that many of the rooms look out onto the parking lot and the resort’s gleaming Mercedes coupes, which, on the plus side, you can borrow (first come, first served) and speed off with into the hills. If you close your eyes and learn to ignore the parking lot, you will notice yourself lost amid lavender and the starry New Mexico sky.

The resort’s restaurant, Terra, serves up a lean antelope steak with a heavy bouquet and a strong finish, and a flaky, moist trout tamale. The chef is a proponent of the “modern rustic” style, which is well matched by the cheerfully high-ceilinged dining room and its striking views of the mountain and brush surroundings.

On my final day at the resort, a craniosacral massage at the spa gets my cerebrospinal fluid pumping. My masseuse, the appropriately (for New Mexico) named Anna Aura, finally gets rid of my two years’ worth of sinus troubles. The massage oil, she tells me in that sweet but strong hippie-scientist voice I hear all over Santa Fe, contains spruce, lavender, and grapefruit oil—I wish to thank the gods for each and every one of them. Outside Encantado’s bar, I stare at the mountainous Los Alamos lights irradiating the distance just as the sunset explodes into a spectacular Southwestern fireball, my chakras aligned, my spirit free.

Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.

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