The Coyote Cafe: A Santa Fe Tour de Force

Gourmet Girl - May 10, 2016

"Hot, hot, hot" even after three decades...

In a city that's legendary for its vibrant cuisine scene, the Coyote Cafe is a fabled restaurant indeed. Opened in 1987 by Mark Miller, the “founder of Modern Southwestern Cuisine,” the Coyote Cafe put Santa Fe on the world's culinary map and nearly three decades on, continues to draw eager diners from around the world.

Miller's restaurant was a tour de force right from the start. “Hot, hot, hot, are the only words to describe the Coyote Cafe, which opened in Santa Fe to rave reviews in late March and has been packed every night since,” the Chicago Tribune reported in a review from May 28, 1987. “The restaurant features new Southwestern cuisine in homey, healthy portions prepared by one of the country`s top chefs, Mark Miller.”

Miller, a Boston native, had moved to California in 1967 to study anthropology at Berkeley. But his path took a different direction, to the revered Chez Panisse where he cooked under Alice Waters, and trips to France where he cooked with Richard Olney. When he opened Berkeley's Fourth Street Grill in 1979, he made a name for himself pioneering Modern Southwestern Cuisine.

In Santa Fe, Miller opened the Coyote Cafe to instant acclaim and the rest is history. But a new chapter at the venerable restaurant began in 2008, when Miller sold the Coyote Cafe to a management team of executive chef Eric DiStefano, director of operations Tori Mendes and sommelier Quinn Mark Stephenson. DiStefano, widely considered one of the best chefs in the region, passed away earlier this year and Eduardo Rodriguez, who had been his executive sous chef, recently took his place.

Today the Coyote Cafe remains one of Santa Fe's most celebrated restaurants, occupying an upper echelon that is uniquely all its own. Among the many five-star dishes on its menu is Miller's signature Legendary Cowboy Cut, mesquite-grilled aged prime ribeye served with chile-dusted onion rings. But DiStefano blazed his own menu, incorporating the flavors of French, Asian and other cuisines in acclaimed dishes such as his Fiery Morita Mexican White Prawns and Tellicherry Peppered Elk Tenderloin. At last year's Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, DiStefano's Mesquite Grilled Maine Lobster Tails had people lining up in droves and was the first dish to run out at The Grand Tasting.

The Coyote Cafe's menu continues to evolve under Rodriguez, with starters that include Eduardo's Tuna Poke, served with Toasted Macadamia, Green Onion and Wheat-Free Soy and Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Tails with Heirloom Tomato, Pea Puree, Sweet Corn Penna Cotta. Exemplifying the creativity that has long reigned supreme at the Coyote Cafe is Chef's Parma Prosciutto Flower Pot, an architectural marvel made with Toronto Grapes, Teenage Greens, Truffle Vinaigrette and Provencal Tomato Compote.

Even the sides are inventive, from Duck Fat Fingerlings to Hatch Green Chile Mac & Cheese with Bacon. And the desserts crafted by pastry chef Erika Rodriguez are sublime, from the Flourless Chocolate Orange Cake with Valrhona chocolate, passionfruit mousse, caramel passionfruit syrup and house-made mango ice cream to the Tropical Key Lime Tart w/pineapple sorbet and blueberry sauce. And chocolate lovers know to leave room for the Chocolate Sphere, a delectable blend of coffee gelato, caramel Strawberry sauce, cinnamon strawberries and piñon shortbread.

While the restaurant is open only for dinner, the Coyote's popular Rooftop Cantina is a festive and fun outdoor eatery serving lunch and dinner from April through October. It's a great place to watch the street life down below, and to relax with topnotch fare. The menu features the Cantina Golden Beef Burger, with smoked ham, crispy fried onions, cilantro mayo and more. Try yours with applewood smoked bacon, green chile or a fried egg. Other popular entrees include Ginger Chile Pork Ribs, Navajo Tacos, Baja Fish Style Tacos and my personal favorite, Tacos El Pastor. Filled with house-spiced pork, grilled pineapple, roasted tomatillo, onions and salsa fresco, this dish is a virtual party in your moth.

The cantina's hip cocktails include the signature Señorita margarita, a combo of Herrera Tequila and Cointreau with salted lime foam; a Plum Martini concocted with plum-infused vodka, fresh lemon and spiced plum bitters.

So the next time you're hungry and want to be impressed, head on over to the Coyote Cafe and Rooftop Cantina for a slice of history as well as some of the best food in Santa Fe.