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A Bit of New Mexico Pulls Into Town

Santa Fe Station offers far more than your usual Southwestern fare, but please hold the diesel oil.

April 04, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Odd idea, Santa Fe Station--going for a train station theme here directly north of the Long Beach Municipal Airport.

But that's just what this restaurant is doing. It's basically a Southwestern place, complete with strings of dried peppers hanging on the booths--and also model train tracks up near the ceiling and menu sections labeled "Caboose Specialties" and so on. Fortunately, the food is generally good, sometimes downright distinctive.

Take the soups. You don't just get the usual Southwestern choices of black bean or tortilla. On Monday, there's fideo soup with chipotle, like a tomato-vermicelli soup with a mischievous bite of smoked jalapeno. Wednesday's special is a rich carrot puree with sour cream.

On Thursday, you actually do get a tortilla soup, like an old-fashioned vegetable soup that just happens to have some avocado, sour cream and bright red tortilla strips in it. The corn chowder (Friday through Sunday) is quite like a seafood chowder: potatoes in a creamy sauce with corn kernels more or less standing in for clams.

The menu lists tacos, wraps, burritos, flautas and fajitas as well as "main dishes" such as enchiladas, altogether 47 options when you figure in all the pork, beef and chicken variations, and they're not necessarily what you'd think.

For instance, tacos de brocheta don't have the usual taco topping but something like fajitas: meat, onions and bell peppers fried together (beef gets fried quite brown). This goes onto tortillas, followed by some cheese, and the plate is put under a salamander until the cheese melts. This is one of the very few restaurants where a waiter has to warn you, "Very hot plate," when you've ordered tacos.

In New Mexico, enchiladas are often stacked because blue corn tortillas are too flimsy to roll up. The New Mexico enchiladas here use three ordinary corn tortillas, but they're still stacked, with your choice of meat, sauce and Cheddar or Jack. The pork is tender and the red sauce hot, but not seriously so by New Mexico standards.

There are also enchiladas suizas blanketed with a very rich, tart combination of tomatillo sauce, melted Jack and sour cream. Various other enchiladas come in red, green or mole poblano sauce. The poblano sauce, which also comes in its accustomed place on pollo con mole, is notable for its restraint. Instead of overdoing the sweetness and chocolate flavor, it has more of a nutty flavor like ground pumpkin seeds.

Carne asada appears to be skirt steak, nicely charred (El Paso asada is the same topped with smoked cheese and chopped New Mexico peppers with a strong green chile flavor). The Santa Fe carnitas are not the usual stewed and/or fried pork--the meat is wrapped in banana leaves and baked, in effect steaming it. It's like very good roast pork, tender and flavorful, though it could use something by way of a sauce.

You may be a little surprised to see barbecued ribs on this menu. They aren't really barbecued--they're baked--but quite good anyway. You get a 1 1/2-pound rack of baby back ribs, moist and meaty, glazed with a barbecue sauce with a bracing dash of vinegar in it, showing again, as in the mole poblano, that this place disdains over-sweet sauces.

Tacos come with rice and beans, burritos with guacamole and sour cream and ribs with rice and plantains, but most of the main dishes give you soup or salad (go for the soup) and a choice of two sides, which include rather rugged grilled vegetables and the enjoyable fideo pasta, more or less Spanish rice made with vermicelli.

The dessert list is just sopaipillas (fry bread), flan or the rich platanos enmielados (caramelized bananas). Breakfast includes familiar American and Mexican choices, such as New Mexico ranchero: fried eggs on tortillas, Jack and mole sauce. One of the big attractions of breakfast is a chewy roll called birote.

I've liked nearly everything I've had here, but I have to say I haven't tried the "Diesel Locomotive Salads." You can take a theme too far, and the suggestion of diesel oil on my salad is where I draw the line.

*

Santa Fe Station, 4101 Lakewood Blvd., Lakewood, (562) 429-8700; fax (562) 429-5522. Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking lot. All major cards. Breakfast for one, $4.25 to $8.25; dinner for two, $26 to $54.

What to get: New Mexico ranchero, carrot soup, corn chowder, New Mexico enchiladas, pollo con mole, barbecued ribs, tacos de brocheta, platanos enmielados.

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