Much in the way that a seafood vendor's stall makes for the perfect setting in which to partake of kinilaw, meat may well be best enjoyed in front of a butcher counter. That, anyway, is what we took away from our lunch at Carniceria Santa Fe, a stubby Pepto Bismol-pink butcher shop cum sundries store just off Santa Fe's Cerillos Road.
Finding great food in spots that fly under the radar is about keeping your eyes open when traversing landscapes that you'd otherwise be tempted to snooze through. Cerillos Road is an unattractive strip mall-lined antidote to Santa Fe's adobified American Southwestern charm. It does not overtly broadcast the presence of good grub. But it was past noon, and we were hungry. Whether because it was tantalizingly hidden on a side street or because its plastic tarp signage suggested newcomer status, Carniceria Santa Fe held promise. We've no doubt that many similar eateries don't deliver on said promise, but this one did.
Carniceria means 'butcher' in Spanish, and while the front of Carniceria Santa Fe is crowded with shelves weighted with canned beans and chipotles en adobo, Mexican herbs and spices, tooth-achingly sweet candies, and plastic toys for the kids, its beating heart lies in back where a meat-filled display case, two tables, and a short counter front a dimunitive cooking area dominated by a table-sized griddle. Tacos, tortas, and burros (burritos) are on offer - choose your filling in its raw state from the meat case. There's also menudo and barbacoa and a daily platillo, the main component of which bubbles away griddleside on a single burner.
This day the scent of costilla en salsa verde (pork ribs stewed with green chilies) slapped us silly the moment we darkened the entryway. It was served with smoky pork nubbin-studded pinto beans and interestingly masa-flavored rice steamed with corn kernels (opening photo). We supplemented with an order of tacos discada, which is the name for both the dish (chopped meats cooked with tomatoes, chilies, herbs - whatever the cook wishes to throw into the mix) - and the traditional flattened wok-like pan it's usually cooked on. Our discada, pulled right from the meat case, was - like everything else save the platillo - cooked on the griddle.
Purists (you know who you are) will rue the presence of lettuce on these tacos but we who come from the land of Sad-Imitations-for-Mexican-Food Restaurants cannot be so choosy. At any rate, the discada (pork? beef? other? we were too busy oohing and aaahing to parse it) was crumbly, fatty in just the right way, satisfying. Even better was the costilla en salsa verde, the ribs so porcine and tender, the sauce not exactly spicy but smoky and even a bit sweet from the roasted green chilies.
'My favorite of our platillo,' is how owner Luis Guzman describes it. He's a native of Chihuahua who works in construction but stops into the Carniceria every weekday to say hello to his wife (behind the cash register) and lunch with his pre-school-age son.
That may explain why the costilla was still on the menu when we returned 24 hours later. No matter. It gave us an excuse to try the torta, carnitas (roast meat) for both of us. Chunks of pork of varying degrees of griddle-infused charred-ness lay on a pillow of chewy grilled bun spread with a layer of guacamole, more lettuce, a sprinkling of chopped jalapenos, a couple slices of tomato. No sour cream, no mayo, red or green salsas on the side only if you wish.
Seated spitting distance from the griddle and a few steps from the butcher case, we ate our meaty Mexican sandwiches gazing at mounds of raw animal flesh while swaddled in the comforting hug of cooked meat aromas, serenaded by the grinding of a bone saw out back.
It seemed, somehow, very right.
Our regret is that we discovered Carniceria Santa Fe late in our New Mexico stay, which left no time to become acquainted with its other platillo or to explore the menudo or barbacoa, let alone the tubs of alluringly creamy, snow-white queso fresco imported from Mexico in the refrigerator case.
Carniceria has been open only 4 months, but it already draws a steady stream of lunchtime traffic, and Luis says it's packed with families on the weekend. The welcome is warm, the food says 'made with love'. Highly recommended.
Carniceria Santa Fe, Felipe Street (at corner of Cerillos Road - a side street just across from the El Rey Inn), Santa Fe New Mexico. 505-983-7281.