It's getting chile

Ain't nothing like the real thing.

Santa Fe Caf鍊

2255 N.E. 65th , 524-7736, 5910 Phinney N., 783-9755 5-10 p.m daily AE, MC, V / full bar THE BEST TIME to visit Santa Fe is early fall—specifically Labor Day weekend. That's the time Zozobra burns (long story, but it involves a pagan deity that takes all your gloom away), the Fiestas celebration fills the plaza, and the smell of roasting chiles pervades the air so intensely you're nearly always salivating. It's impossible to understand unless you've lived there for a while, but people in Santa Fe have a huge thing about the green chile. "Green chile" means a bunch of things, but most simply it's chiles (especially Hatch chiles, which are grown in southern New Mexico) that are roasted, like red peppers, until their skins blacken. Then the skins get peeled off and the soft chiles are chopped and cooked. Red chile is made from dried chiles and ground into powder, which is then blended with liquid to make a sauce. The key thing to understand about chile is that it's more a condiment and an ingredient than a sauce. During the fall roasting season, Santafesinos get into intense debates over which roasting stand makes the best chiles—which type is hottest, which is the most flavorful, and the best way to remove the blackened chile skin (hint: freeze the chiles, skin on, and when you're ready to use it flakes right off). Chile doesn't seem like it should be complicated, but somehow it is. It also seems like it should travel well—especially red chile powder. But despite many meals of trying, I've never eaten anything outside of the Land of Enchantment that comes close. Sadly, Seattle's two Santa Fe Caf鳠are no exception. Let me begin by sharing a classic New Mexican recipe for green chile stew: Cut a pound or so of lean pork (not ground beef!) into cubes and brown. Remove from pan. Saut頴wo large chopped onions and two cloves chopped garlic in the fat. Return the meat to the pan with about eight peeled, seeded, and diced chiles, two chunked potatoes, two diced (or one can of) tomatoes, and a couple of cans of chicken broth. Cook for a while. Cut the heat with sour cream if needed. (Note the absence of beans.) Of all the things that are disappointing at the Santa Fe Caf鬠the green chile stew ($7.75 for a large bowl) tops the list. First of all, it's red. Second, it contains beans and ground beef. Neither fact would matter so much if the stuff actually tasted like green chiles. Or if there was heat to cut with sour cream. This good-sized serving comes with two house-made tortillas that, while thick and authentic, were doughy and somewhat wet. THE GREEN CHILE stew, at least, is meant to be soupy. Several other Santa Fe Caf頤ishes take the concept of sauce to a new level. Buried on the Santa Fe Plate ($12.50), a blue corn taco and a cheese enchilada are nearly undetectable under a pool of red chile. At a place like Dave's Not Here in the actual City Different, the taco comes on a separate plate to avoid this very problem. Worse yet, the red chile has the gritty, almost dirty taste that comes from not cooking the chile powder thoroughly. Equally liquidy is the Blue Mesa Plate ($12.75) of one mushy enchilada, ground carne adovada stew, tough posole, and pinto beans. Even the straightforward chicken enchiladas get lost under their chile puddle. Less authentic and equally off-putting, the Santa Fe crepes ($12.75) involve blue corn crepes (?!) filled with chicken, mushrooms, and sliced almonds in a white sherry sauce. They were unfortunately reminiscent of something you'd come across at a Midwest potluck. The carne adovada burrito ($12.75) is more successful, with actual chunks of pork cooked until falling-apart tender in a thick and earthy red sauce, wrapped in a chewy tortilla. On the plus side (and it's a big plus), the margaritas are excellent, tart and fresh ($4.75). And the chips ($2, $3.25) arrive hot with a couple of salsas (it's annoying to have to pay extra for them, though, especially since the prices aren't exactly a steal). But both outposts of the Santa Fe Caf頡re quite popular with locals. Waits of up to 60 minutes are not uncommon, and many patrons seem content to hover at the bar with margaritas and chips—or maybe an artichoke ramekin ($6.75), a gooey meld of artichoke hearts, green chile, and red peppers baked with cheese. (Well, at least it's creative.) It's the basics here that disappoint the most. Maybe if you've never had green chile at Tomasita's or Pasqual's, you'd think you were getting the real thing. But trust me, real green chile is worth making a trip for. It's just that you'll have to go further than the Santa Fe Caf頴o get it. avanbuskirk@seattleweekly.com

 
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