Are you ready for an incredible drive to relish majestic mountain views, breathtaking scenery and then settle in for a memorable meal? Sit back and enjoy the ride, amigos, because New Mexico has all of that and so much more.
After a lifetime of living primarily in Texas (and the Pacific Coast of Mexico), where it takes countless hours to get anywhere decent and nearly a full day to even cross the state border, it is a meaningful gift to be able to jump in the car and be somewhere completely different in one or two hours. A perk of being both new residents and an insatiably curious couple, we frequently venture outside Santa Fe proper to explore our new state and adorable neighboring towns.
We have visited Abiquiu, Albuquerque, Madrid, Rancho de Chimayo and Taos multiple times for R & D, because if I say it’s “worth the drive,” it better be worth the drive. If you are into stunning scenery and wide-open spaces, the following half-day or day trips are definitely worth the drive. Once you arrive at your destination, treat yourself to a relaxing and scrumptious meal that will lock in the memory of this fun adventure with friends, family and/or your significant other.
If you ever wonder where Georgia O’Keeffe got her inspiration, head north to Abiquiu where you will find the answer. It’s no wonder she settled here from 1949 until shortly before she passed away in 1986 at the age of 98. Gorgeous blue skies and luminous clouds color the wide-open spaces of mountains and mesas which can (and do) take your breath away as the light presents shadows and playful images.
We spent an afternoon with friends on Abiquiu Lake and, when we were forced to cut our trip short because of storm clouds and raindrops, we agreed to make the jaunt again for another perfect day on the water with magnificent views and plentiful laughter and sunshine.
If you need to stop in Abiquiu for a meal or snacks, there is only the Abiquiu Cafe at the Abiquiu Inn, which I really don’t recommend unless you are into mediocre food and no real sense of customer service, though they do have a nice big patio. I do, however, recommend a mandatory stop at Bode’s General Store.
Though Bode’s appears from the outside to be merely an old convenience store and gas station, step inside this unicorn in the middle of nowhere and you will find it is so much more than a place to run in to use the bathroom–and this is their claim to fame. They have free bumper stickers to prove it.
Although this transformation of the general store has likely morphed over the years, the current merchandiser has great taste and stocks the shelves with a wide variety of foods that cater to all eaters, including picky eaters and gourmands. I was surprised to see Bode’s carries so many of the high-quality products we buy and love. Considering you are nowhere near a grocery or wine store, Bode’s has responded to the need to feed and it is much appreciated.
They even have a restaurant within the store where you can buy grab-and-go foods or sit down and enjoy a hot meal. Known for their red or green breakfast burritos and green chile cheeseburgers, if you have time and are hungry, stop for longer than a pee and a snack and enjoy a decent meal on the road.
If you are in search of things to do while in Abiquiu, this is a comprehensive list of options.
If you head south on I-25 and drive about an hour, you’ll land in the big city, Albuquerque. Many locals depend on Albuquerque for purchases beyond what’s available in Santa Fe. It’s where the Costco shoppers drive to and it’s where the closest Gap and Apple stores exist. The drive is beyond gorgeous with vast scenery that varies from desert to black mesa and then you land in Albuquerque, at the eastern foothills of the Sandia mountains.
This quickly growing city of 560,000 is best known for the International Balloon Festival (held the first week in October) and is home to the University of New Mexico. Though we haven’t had much of a need to go to the big city, we have been making pilgrimages there ever since David learned about Trombino’s a classic, red-sauce Italian restaurant.
Trombino’s has been sharing their family’s favorite southern Italian dishes with grateful customers since 1979. In fact, the restaurant probably looks as it did in 1979–a dark and cozy place that clearly focuses on the food and not the interior and that’s fine with me.
Everything is fresh, made from scratch and prepared with the finesse of an old Italian grandmother. From homemade Italian sausage with pepper and onions to eggplant parmigiana to shrimp al diablo to chicken piccata, these dishes are savory, satisfying, big enough to share (or take half home for lunch the next day) and so good you will be thinking about this food more often. Maybe that’s why we make the trip for no occasions and for birthdays.
Only open for dinner, they open their doors at 4 pm on weekdays and 3 pm on the weekends. Not up for a big meal? Slide into the bustling bar where the flatbread pizzas grace nearly every group’s table.
Perhaps your flight lands in Albuquerque and you are driving to Santa Fe? We used to stop at El Pinto, which is classic New Mexican food, but there’s plenty of that in Santa Fe. What there’s not plenty of (or any of) is quality, red and white tablecloth Italian food, so treat yourself to a meal that’s as good as you would find in New York or New Jersey. Mangia!
Santa Fe is not known for a bevy of Asian restaurants. Thank goodness Albuquerque is close enough when we are craving Sichuan style green beans and Chinese food. A friend introduced us to Chopstix and it’s where we go every time the craving hits–and even when it doesn’t.
As a vegetable head, their lunch special mixed vegetables with tofu is all I need to be happy.
If you are ready to live it up, order the vegetable fried rice. It’s packed with bok choy and assorted vegetables and worth the 90-mile round-trip road trip.
The Grove Cafe & Market
The next time you are in downtown Albuquerque or heading north to Santa Fe from the airport, slide into this refined corner of the city situated along Central Avenue. You’ll find a venue that feels more Dallas than Duke City, and perhaps that is the attraction. Part restaurant, part mercantile store, part bakery and a catering arm, The Grove is one of the top restaurants in Albuquerque.
When you walk in, you will find a chalkboard menu overflowing with tantalizing dishes. From an all-day breakfast menu to lunch and everything in between, The Grove is a hot spot for a ladies lunch, a romantic meal, a special occasion or no occasion at all. They offer healthy items, such as this fall harvest salad, as well as carnivorous sandwiches, like the Italian meat lover sandwich David had. For a sweet ending, they have a well-stocked bakery case that will taunt you as you place your order.
With two big outdoor patios, it’s an ideal spot to enjoy a meal and the warmth of the New Mexico sun.
On the way to Madrid, along the famous Turquoise Trail, is a tiny town of Cerrillos. It takes up about a city block and there is a long stop sign. To the left of the stop sign is The Black Bird Saloon, where you can step back in time and enjoy a variety of creative and hearty burgers and sandwiches.
You can read my full dining review in the Albuquerque Journal here. This is a must-visit spot for locals and tourists and a place you will want to return to again and again.
The birthplace of the atomic bomb (The Manhattan Project in World War II), Los Alamos is perched on four mesas of the Pajarito Plateau and sits about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. The scenery along the way is what makes this quick trip worth the drive.
As you approach Los Alamos on a precarious path up a mountainside, the views make up for what’s not in this small town of 12,000 residents. The town has a real department store, CB Fox, and a Bealls, a McDonald’s, the Bradbury Science Museum and the nearby Pajarito Ski Mountain. The town is also adjacent to the Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, both of which offer excellent hiking experiences.
On the way to Madrid, the main stop on the famous Turquoise Trail and the oldest coal mining region in New Mexico, you will pass the Santa Fe Adult Correctional Facility south of town and then you’ll drive through thousands of acres of wide-open spaces that make the drive even more worth it. After covering 20 miles and not seeing much of anything except the stunning and mineral-rich Ortiz mountains, you will pop into a small, sleepy, artist’s village where time has seemingly frozen and characters congregate for a temporary (or permanent) taste of the tranquility and kindness of days gone by.
Madrid is not pronounced as you would expect like Madrid, Spain, but rather it sounds like “madras,” Madrid. Cruise the main drag and you’ll see it all in just a half-mile strip of closely packed stores, artisan shops and the town’s only three restaurants–an old-fashioned soda shop, The Hollar and The Mine Shaft Tavern. A word of advice: slow down and hope someone is driving out of town as you are pulling in because parking is scarce on the street.
After snagging a parking spot that seemed to have been waiting just for us, our first stop was Jezebel Soda Shop, featuring the original soda fountain of the 1920s. David cheerfully sat at the bar and with the gleam of a five-year-old boy in his eyes said, “You want an ice cream soda?”
After agreeing we should eat lunch before having an ice cream soda, we walked up the street and slipped into The Hollar where this entertaining duo was singing as patrons had gathered around tables in the coolness of the shade. This hopping eatery claims to serve home-cooked meals which is probably why happy customers seemed so relaxed and casually sipped on cold beers while they chatted with friends and family.
To get a bird’s eye view of the whole scene, we dropped anchor at the bar where we could listen to the waitresses chatter about how the “rush hour lunch has arrived” and see the downright good-looking food come out of the kitchen. The bar is covered with colorful, Mexican tiles and David was tickled to meet his first locally made and brewed root beer, Way 2 Cool, which is brewed by the Sierra Blanca Brewing Company in Moriarty. We sipped our drinks and soaked in the vibrant yet laid-back Saturday afternoon vibes.
Even though we are nowhere near an ocean, fish and chips is a ubiquitous dish on almost every menu in and around Santa Fe–and we honestly have no idea why. Being the daring one, David ordered the fish and chips. I followed his lead and walked the tightrope by having the seared ahi tuna sandwich. Perfectly cooked tuna was eclipsed by the addition of the pickled ginger which adds a whole new dimension of flavor and makes this a stand-out dish.
Being from the south, the owners have bestowed their southern spin on nearly everything the kitchen sends out. The surprisingly simple yet southern sides include damn good fried okra, which accompanied my sandwich, and homemade sweet potato fries, which David did not get but, instead, went with regular fries and they were neither homemade nor anything special.
If you want sweet potato fries, there is a $2 charge, and after being tantalized by the plates flowing out of the kitchen piled high with skinny and crispy homemade sweet potato fries, it’s well worth the nominal upcharge. The waitress assured me the curry ranch dip they serve with the sweet potato fries make these an even more addictive and desirable must-have.
Now that The Hollar food passed the test, let me assure you this casual watering hole with good food is also humming with international characters that even made me feel normal for a few moments. As a deeply rooted international tourist attraction, Santa Fe seduces an immense cross-section of locals, transplants and transients that adds even more sparkle to the beauty, serenity and native charm that is northern New Mexico.
While sitting at the bar, a tall blonde woman wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt that proclaimed her a cowgirl walked up to order another beer. She spoke to us and David playfully remarked, “That is not a cowgirl accent, is it?” “No,” she chuckled and we both joined her for a good laugh. “I am German but don’t live there. We have land here and I also live in Cyprus, a little island.” This Cyprus happens to be the one in the Mediterranean.
Even in the tiny village of Madrid, which proclaims a population of 204 people in 2010 and maybe 300 people today, you are certain to feel a connection to the place. There’s something jubilant in the air. The freedom. The spirit. Funny thing, the tables of people were actually talking to one another and no one had their head shoved in their phone.
This is proof that a great sense of community tossed with ample whimsy in this village that time seemingly forgot is a good thing and no one is complaining. Instead, they keep returning to share in the magic.
As we drove back north to Santa Fe, we agreed we would definitely return to The Hollar in Madrid and bring friends for an even bigger and better experience.
Rancho de Chimayo
The high road to Taos is one of the most spectacular drives ever. The scenery is stunning and well worth the one-and-a-half-hour cruise to this long-time artisan colony and beloved mountain town.
On the way to Taos is Rancho de Chimayo, a traditional New Mexican style restaurant and seven-room hacienda steeped in more than 150 years of rich (and tasty) history and traditions.
The Chimayo valley is known for the fertile ground that produces some of the area’s most revered varietal of red chiles, so expect the piquant and spicy flavor to be the menu’s focal point. David went for the dish Rancho de Chimayo is famous for–carne adovada. This pork dish is marinated and stewed in red chiles and, after languishing in the sauce for hours, the meat melts in your mouth.
Our dining companion and I both opted for the vegetarian plates and they were monstrous in size–enough that we could (and should) have shared a plate. Be sure and save room for their famous sopaipillas which requires a generous drizzle of honey and brings a sweet ending to this traditional New Mexican meal.
Once you meander the breathtaking scenery, historic churches and artistic mountain villages on the High Road and land in Taos, your eyes will likely be glazed over at the sheer beauty of the wide-open, rugged and diverse terrain as you cruise the 70-mile stretch and you will be needing to refuel or at least hydrate as you’ve been acclimating to the 7,000 feet elevation.
The artistic and hyper-local-focused residents of Taos have done a good job of creating a vibrant food scene that offers a wide variety of options for all eaters. From low-key to diner to New Mexican traditional to beer pub food to chef-driven to high-end mountain restaurants, everyone will find something to eat and be happy about in this small but bustling artisan colony.
When you arrive in Taos, it won’t be hard to find Michael’s Kitchen as it is situated right smack dab in the center of this bustling artisan town an hour and a half north of Santa Fe.
As we first entered, we knew we had landed in the gathering spot of Taos. This combination bakery and restaurant is where everyone–locals and visitors–gathers for nourishment, fellowship and doughnuts.
Established in 1974, Michael’s remains one of the town’s best dining options for breakfast, lunch and dinner–all of which are served all day. The service is friendly and the food is hearty. If you order a New Mexican breakfast plate, you may want to request they hold the cheese. It’s a lesson we learned the hard way.
Whether you are needing a serious breakfast before you hit the slopes or a casual dinner to close another magical day, let Michael’s serve you. They have been doing it this way for nearly 50 years and I am guessing they won’t make any drastic changes anytime in the near future. Sometimes, consistency and no change is what we need.
192 at The Blake
The Blake is a new hotel destination at the revitalized Taos mountain and one we will definitely be returning to for a weekend or weekday getaway.
It was a blistery cold winter day when we took the high road to Taos for an excursion, but the sun was shining brightly after a recent dusting of much-needed snow. We cruised around the mountain area for a bit before landing at The Blake’s restaurant, 192.
As hoteliers and restaurateurs, we generally shy away from dreaded hotel restaurants but decided this one was worth a chance, as it appeared to be a much better option than the dive beer joint we first walked into that barely offered any edible vegetarian options.
After making delectable kale salads for well more than 10 years, this particular kale salad was the highlight of our meal. Gently tossed with a creamy jalapeno and lime vinaigrette, studded with toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds and topped with pickled carrots and a dusting of cotija cheese, we could have easily ordered a second salad and been over the moon happy.
The spectacular pot of hot tea I savored gave us another reason to return to 192 at The Blake and Taos. This special tea is prepared by a local company and tea shop, tea.o.graphy. Being in the high desert, I ordered the High Desert Sage which features a smartly concocted blend of sage, cinnamon, lavender and peppermint. It was beyond delicious and I am anxious to visit the shop the next time we trek to Taos so I can stock up on other exquisite blends of tea to enjoy at home.