NEW YORK — Mexican food New York style has little resemblance to what one finds in Los Angeles. At Santa Fe, a sophisticated and successful spot in Manhattan's Upper West Side, it is a blend of New Mexican and American cuisines, set off by New Mexican rugs, paintings, posters, American pottery and gourds.
Remodeled from what had been an apartment and coffee house on West 69th Street, Santa Fe crowds its customers into a narrow, peach-walled dining room lined with white-shuttered windows, refreshes them with frosty Margaritas and presents a meal that is as likely to involve grilled fish or lamb chops as enchiladas and nachos.
The ownership is not Mexican. Walter Vasconcellos, a Brazilian, was born in Sao Paolo and ran a nearby Mexican cantina for 10 years before launching Santa Fe with his partner, John Bird. Vasconcellos' wife, Janet Cassidy, an artist from Seattle, designed the interior and provided the recipe for the apple crisp that is one of Santa Fe's best desserts.
Obtaining Mexican ingredients in New York is a problem unknown in Los Angeles. "It is very hard to get a fresh chile in New York," said Vasconcellos. He stocks frozen green chiles, buys canned tomatillos and uses whatever cilantro he can get. "Some seasons, you have to throw out most of it," he said.
Vasconcellos sought to change the New York view of Mexican food as "tacky." He opted for well-presented tacos, enchiladas and burritos and lighter foods like the lamb chops and swordfish that are big sellers. "Twenty-five percent of the people who come here want to eat light," he observed.
The lamb chops are marinated with red wine and a passel of seasonings, including rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, shallots and garlic. The swordfish marinade is tangy with lime juice and includes red wine, curry powder, chili powder and oregano.
Instead of rustic Mexican pottery, the food is presented on heavy, black, American-made plates at tables set with peach linens. The brightly colored, cottony dresses that make the waitresses look as if they had just flown in from Puerto Vallarta are not from Mexico but from France.
Waiters reassure that the food is not spicy-hot and ask whether one wants salt on the rim of the Margaritas. The Margaritas are made with a frozen tequila, lime juice and triple sec base. No ice is added.
California-made jalapeno jelly accompanies some dishes, and traditional American corn relish, a confetti-like blend of corn, onion, red and green peppers marinated with vinegar, is as fundamental a side dish as salsa.
Rice and beans, the typical Mexican standbys, are prepared with a different approach. Converted rice is cooked in chicken broth, then mixed with chopped tomato, onion, green pepper, olives and garlic. A spoonful of peas goes on top and slices of red and green pepper on either side of each serving. The beans--pintos--are not refried but mashed and blended with butter. Pork fat is cooked along with them for a rich taste, and bay leaves, oregano, garlic and onion are other seasonings.
In accordance with contemporary tastes, Santa Fe also serves steamed vegetables topped with garlic butter.
Desserts veer far from classic Mexican tradition. One night there was chocolate truffle cake and lemon souffle with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. But nothing could be more appealing than the apple crisp, a blend of sliced Grannie Smith and red Delicious apples topped with a thick, crumbly layer of oats and flour, walnuts, butter, brown sugar and cinnamon.
Recipes for these Santa Fe specialties follow. For those who want to try the food in New York, the address of the restaurant is 72 West 69th St. Call (212) 724-0822 for reservations.
GRILLED LAMB CHOPS SANTA FE 2 cups dry red wine
6 shallots, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons rosemary
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
3 bay leaves, crushed
6 to 10 lamb chops, 1-inch thick, or 18 thin chops
Combine wine, shallots, garlic, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves and season with to taste with pepper. Place lamb chops in marinade, cover and refrigerate for 12 hours, turning chops occasionally. Drain and grill over hot coals or broil 8 to 10 minutes on each side for thick chops or 3 to 5 minutes for thin chops, or until done as desired. Makes 6 servings.
GRILLED SWORDFISH 1 cup lime juice
1 cup red wine
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons mild chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
2 tablespoons oil
2 pounds swordfish steaks
Combine lime juice, wine, onion, curry powder, chili powder, oregano and oil. Add fish and marinate 2 hours in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature, drain fish from marinade and grill over coals or broil about 13 minutes, turning once. Makes 6 servings.
SANTA FE BEANS 2 cups dried pinto beans
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons oregano leaves
1 bay leaf
1/4 pound pork fat back
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Shredded Cheddar cheese