Tom Kerpon, the executive chef of the Hilton Buffalo Thunder Hotel and Casino and its signature Red Sage restaurant, tells me he’s had his eye on the impressive hotel property for a decade. At the end of 2022, the time was right for the chef to come to work at Buffalo Thunder. Tom has had a long career at some of the best restaurants and hotels in the region. From Crescent Court in Dallas to Santa Fe’s Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, La Posada, and Bishop’s Lodge Resort, he’s led prominent kitchens and put others on the culinary map. I asked what appealed to him most about coming here.
Tom immediately gave me several reasons he had been hoping to come work here. “First off, Buffalo Thunder’s a lovely property. Just look at those views out to the Jemez mountains! There’s the mix of cultures, with the strong Native American influence from the Pojoaque Pueblo ownership.”
“I get to put my spin on several styles of restaurants, from casual venues to the signature Red Sage,” Tom said. “Red Sage has a reputation for fine Southwestern dining. I really appreciate being able to work in its extraordinary kitchen. Founding chef Mark Miller, one of the first chefs to promote the region’s foods and cooking style to the world, worked with the hotel on the kitchen’s design. It’s a pleasure to spend my days and evenings in such a spacious well-outfitted space. The dining room’s a beauty too, with its glassed-in wine cellar, and sleek contemporary regional flair.”
Speaking of wine, as I begin looking over the Red Sage menu, I immediately note wine pairing recommendations by both the glass and bottle. Pricing is reasonable for the quality of the choices. I love watching the staff acquire bottles from that striking wine cellar in the center of the restaurant. It’s a glass jewel box, bathed in red light.
ON THE MENU
The menu ranges broadly, with something for everyone. Tom says that their diners are especially fond of red meat. He’s happy to oblige with several options that are menu staples. The filet and ribeye come grilled with sides of rosemary mashed potatoes and a sauté of carrots. The filet’s topped with a pat of compound butter, and the ribeye, a mushroom demi-glace. There’s typically a New York strip steak too, with wild rice, black pepper cream, and asparagus or another seasonal vegetable.
Pork tenderloin gets a molasses glaze here, then is paired with whipped sweet potatoes zipped up with green chile. I want to try the mixed grill, which includes buffalo sausage scented with smoky chipotle chile, a lamb chop, and a braised beef short rib. There are always chicken and salmon preparations, as well as a pasta of the day.
I often like ordering several appetizers for a meal, to try several different tastes. The ahi salad here is a favorite of mine, with a sweet soy-and-sesame oil dressing. Smoked baby back ribs come as an appetizer too, which can be topped with a gingery Asian glaze or a traditional American barbecue sauce. The crispy calamari comes dotted with piquant pepperoncini peppers that contrast nicely with the fried batter. Dunk the pieces in the accompanying green chile ranch to add a bit more zest. Several flatbreads are among the options too, topped pizza-style with marinara, pepperoni, Italian sausage, or more.
Lobster nachos, an appetizer that started as a special, now makes regular appearances on the menu. This isn’t just some pile-up of chips and goo. Each nacho is a separate chip, topped with creamy black beans, blue cheese, and chunks of lobster meat. Don’t miss them, if available.
The Red Sage bar shares the sleek but comfortable stone-and-wood ambiance of the restaurant. There are tables, but I enjoy sitting at the lengthy bar itself, to interact with the welcoming bartenders. A number of local craft beers are on tap, and there’s a full array of wines and spirits.
The other more casual resort restaurants that Tom oversees include The Iguana Café and Turquoise Trail, which serve more New Mexican specialties. The Pueblo Deli created sandwiches to order.
I don’t think there’s a more compelling name for a resort than Buffalo Thunder. The name conjures up a majestic thundering herd, electric with excitement. Managed by Hilton, the resort sits tucked back from Highway 84/285. As Tom mentioned, it’s a striking setting overlooking the Jemez range. The lively casino’s a huge draw, but so are the regularly scheduled concerts. I enjoy wandering the property to experience the Native American art collection, curated by the Pojoaque Pueblo’s Poeh Cultural Center and Museum. It features pottery, paintings, and sculpture, in particular, some by noted artist George Rivera, former Pojoaque tribal chairman. The resort also features a 27-hole golf course, a spa, and indoor and outdoor pools. No wonder the resort is often called Santa Fe’s Playground.
It’s all just 15 minutes up the road from the Santa Fe Plaza. Don’t wait to make your visit. Chef Tom and the rest of the staff will be looking for you.
Hilton Buffalo Thunder Hotel and Casino
Red Sage restaurant
20 – 30 Buffalo Thunder Trail, Santa Fe
Restaurant reservations at OpenTable.com
Story 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.