The last time my dear friend Angelo came to visit, we found the best croissant of all time at Cafécito, so I think he maybe has it in his head now that when he travels back here, his hometown, from New York City, I’m supposed to forever up the ante with better and better meals. Santa Fe isn’t facing an amazing-places-to-eat shortage by any stretch of the imagination, luckily, but it’s still a daunting task to find something more exciting than that croissant (seriously, have you not tried that Cafécito croissant yet?!), and yet, somehow, downtown Mexican-inspired Paloma (401 S Guadalupe St., (505) 467-8624) did the trick. As I write this, it’s the following morning, and I envision him on his flight, still full of food and margaritas, already cursing the day he decided he’d leave this weird little town behind.
We arrived late to Paloma by Santa Fe standards—after 7 pm—and though the dining room was packed with an assortment of olds and youngs, hipster doofuses, fashionable middle-agers and even a few toddlers, the hostess was kind and hospitable, and she found us a table in under 10 minutes despite our lacking a reservation. This was a last-minute dinner, as Angelo had been arguing with me about spending time with his family. “Fie and foo,” I told him. “Fie and foo.” I’m glad he came out, too, because Paloma is a sight. Somehow straddling that sublime mix between fine dining and an almost rustic, casual affair, it’s the type of spot that would feel welcoming to many palates and styles; thick glassware and earthenware plates feel right but not stuffy, and the lighting was dim enough to be romantic but not so dark as to feel like creepy.
By the time our guacamole appetizer with warm and thick house-made tortilla chips arrived, I’m fairly certain he forgot about his family. At $12, this one seemed a little high for guac, but the generous portion belayed those fears. The chips were phenomenal, sturdy and load-bearing and easily eaten on their own, I’m sure. The guacamole itself tasted like it was missing a little something, however. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for mashed avocados in pretty much any configuration, but Paloma’s was light seasoning, if it had any, and the diced tomatoes, which I believe can make or break any good guac, were few and far between. This is a high-class problem, however, and we ate the serving in its entirety—with gusto.
Best fish tacos we’ve ever had in Santa Fe. (Alex De Vore/)
Cheers to our server, as well, a kind and quick young gentlemen whom we decided had Paul Rudd vibes. As the driver, I didn’t want to drink, and this can sometimes warrant subtle grief from servers. Oh, sure, Angelo had a couple house margaritas ($10 each), so maybe that offset my teetotaling. Made with Cimarron Blanco tequila (or Rayu mezcal, if you prefer), he described the marg as “pretty good” at the time, though he later cautioned that the included lime smelled strange. Regardless, neither of us hated the large glass bottle of water left on our table (who doesn’t like being the captain of their own water needs and desires?), and if our waiter had any bad feelings about my self-imposed sobriety, our service was so flawless—including from our food runner whom, we later learned, is well-acquainted with Angelo’s sister, but only after she nailed the drop-off and subsequent “thanks bunches,” chat—that we’d never have known. That’s the hallmark of a champion.
We struggled with entree selection, particularly me. As a pescatarian, the crispy fish tacos ($15) with beer battered sea bass and jalapeño slaw served with a chipotle mayo sounded excellent, but then, so did the cauliflower tacos with almond salsa, olives and, weirdly but temptingly, golden raisins ($14). Friends have described wanting to compose poetry to those cauliflower tacos, and items like papas fritas ($8) and crispy Brussels sprouts ($8) mean Paloma has considered vegetarian palates. Non-meat items have become more commonplace in local haunts in recent years, but this was more than bread and cheese. All the same, I had to get the fish tacos. Obviously.
Some will whine and wonder why, if we’re in the desert, this was the choice. Because they sounded good, end of list. My companion, meanwhile, zeroed in on the fajitas with marinated skirt steak and sides of corn tortillas, black beans and rice, plus grilled veggies ($30). The idea, like basically all fajitas, is that you’ll assemble your own ratios of things from the provided cooked ingredients. It looked and smelled incredible, even to a meat-hater such as myself, and though this dish, too, was reportedly a little light on seasoning, being served a literal entire steak softened the blow. If anything could improve here according to my old pal, and this is a small complaint, it’s that he’d like to have been warned the dish was enough for two people. Angelo is a bit of a service stickler, and he waxed poetically on how, when he owned a restaurant in California, he loved to arm customers with as much knowledge as humanly possible. Nevertheless, Paloma server, I don’t personally believe that’s your responsibility, and worse things have happened to people than a $30 steak fajita dish with enough left over for later.
The fish tacos were absolutely incredible, from the satisfying crunch of the fried fish to the ever-so-slightly bitter tang of the slaw. The spice of the jalapeño was mild, just enough to add bite, and when dipped into the red and green salsas our food runner brought along, an entire world of complementary textures and flavors exploded in unison. I know that sounds flowery, but fish tacos is the sort of dish everyone loves if it’s done right. Chef Nathan Mayes? I salute your fish tacos with ferocity and passion!
We closed the night with a dessert from oft-celebrated pastry chef Jessica Brewer, whom SFR has written about before. She’s become a bit of a celebrity around here, and why not? Her desserts are creative and beyond delicious. We selected the smoked chocolate mousse cake served with aleppo marshmallow, whipped caramel and a scoop of ice cream ($14). Like most things Brewer makes, this was a marvel of flavors and mouthfeel. Anyone who has worked out how to effectively use marshmallow is OK in my book, and for this and so many other reasons (cauliflower among them), I find myself champing at the bit to get back over to Paloma as soon as possible.