“What kind of margaritas do you have?” I smiled, overhearing an obvious first-time visitor to Maria’s, the holy grail of margarita magnificence. The waiter patiently pointed out the bound list of more than 150 variations on the theme, all hand-shaken, and made with 100% agave tequilas. The list includes more than 170 tequilas, too, many of them reposados or añejos, aged tequilas, intended to be enjoyed straight. Tequila was first imported into the United States from Mexico via Santa Fe, so it only seems appropriate to have a place with this kind of selection here today. Take a little time to peruse the list’s descriptions, which are entertaining as well as informative.
Because I’ve had many of the margaritas here, as well as varied tequilas, I pushed myself to try something related but different. That turned out to be a flight of smoky mezcals — Montelobos, Rayu, and Madre — served in crystal, and excellent for sipping. The collection of these agave spirits, along with related distilled beverages, sotol and chawar, is now sizable. Ask the bartender for guidance.
The cozy bar is my favorite room here, whether I’m drinking tequila, mezcal, or iced tea. Maria’s meanders through multiple dining rooms, some a part of the original home on the property. There really was a Maria. Maria and Gilbert Lopez started the business as a pop-up stand for Santa Fe’s annual September Fiesta celebration back in 1950. I loved a past series of advertisements that proclaimed its location was on Cordova Road, just west of St. Francis Drive, since before there was a St. Francis Drive. A succession of Santa Feans has owned the establishment ever since. The Peters family’s Santa Fe Dining runs Maria’s these days.
They incorporated the building next door, which once housed an art supply store, into the restaurant, greatly increasing the seating capacity. In an interesting twist, that building was once owned by Katie Peters’ family. Scattered throughout the many rooms is art by leading artists from past and present — Fritz Scholder, Elias Rivera, and Dan Namingha, among others — and frescoes by Alfred Morang, a contemporary of Will Schuster. The art mingles with some great neon beer signs, too.
ON THE MENU
Meals at Maria’s start with a basket of chips and moderately piquant salsa. Notably, they come included with the meal since that’s not typical around Santa Fe. Many folks order up the beefy green chile meatballs to accompany them as a starter.
My usual go-to here is the enchiladas. They can be cheese, chicken, beef, or carne adovada. Again, pushing myself to try something else, I opted for chile rellenos. They come as a pair, thickly battered and crunchy, oozing white cheese with a Cheddar topping. I got them “green,” but of course, you can request red or a Christmas combination. Sides of refried beans and rice here have more seasoning than is often the case. Maria’s offers all the expected dishes including burritos, tamales, nachos, and — less common in Northern New Mexico — deep-fried chimichangas.
For another recent meal, I chose the fajitas. Instead of using the more traditional skirt steak, the kitchen makes these with top sirloin. It’s denser than skirt and full of beefy flavor. Strips of the meat can nestle in either corn or flour tortillas, to be topped with spoonfuls of guacamole and pico de gallo.
I’m a big fan of the vegetarian tamales here, plump with cheese, corn, and piñones for great texture. Ribs baked in a bath of red chile are a long-time favorite here, as is the tortilla burger in a pool of either red or green. And speaking of green, the pork-enriched chile stew has plenty of local enthusiasts.
Beers on tap include a quartet of choices from Santa Fe Dining’s Hidden Mountain Brewing Company. Desserts are flan and natillas, along with chocolate mousse. I confess I’ve never been hungry enough to get to the sweet stuff.
Collectively, it all feels like a trip to a cool grandma’s house — familiar and fun and respectful of the past. Grandma’s got cooking chops and a heck of a bar too. Check it out.
Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen
555 West Cordova Road
Lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.