“You been here before?” an older man stepping out of a Subaru asked as I walked toward the historic marker at the Valles Caldera pulloff. It had begun to sprinkle, a late-summer spray suggesting a monsoon that wouldn’t arrive; beyond the dark clouds a field of blue spread itself across the sky.
“Yep,” I answered, more curtly than I intended. I’d been mistaken for a tourist all summer in Santa Fe, though I’ve lived there almost half my life. People had volunteered directions to me, told me what to expect from the weather, advised me that I could let my sometimes skittish dog off her leash. This guy was just being friendly, of course. But I was solo by choice this afternoon, headed for the mountains and angling for a little solitude before my husband came the next day.
Arriving in Jemez Springs in my EV an hour later (and pleasantly surprised to find two charging stations), I realized I’d better get over it. The fact is that while the little mountain town lies close to home, I’ve hardly spent any time here. I parked and set off on foot for Jemez Mountain Brewhouse.
The exterior read beer and pizza, and when I pulled open the door, Dave Matthews’s “Crash Into Me” strummed in the background. But the cliché ended there: the crowd was a lively mix of families with young kids, couples who could have been from anywhere, and yes, a smattering of dudes in baseball caps. I took a seat at one of the only spots left in the place, a barstool facing a line of twelve taps. Just above eye level, two action figures—Wonder Woman and Superman—flanked the chalkboard beer lists, and farther toward the ceiling, a cutout in gold cursive advised me to chill.
Soon a guy with a sweet smile wearing a black T-shirt that read “DRINK LOCAL BEER,” the “O” a Zia symbol, approached. Two chalkboards’ worth of New Mexico beers made it impossible for me not to do as advised. When I asked about house beers, the guy behind the bar, who I’d later learn was co-owner Scott Johnson, pointed me to the JMB Rhapsody Pilsner. “Want to taste it?” he asked.
The shot glass–sized sample was bright, smooth, and crisp as the night air now that the season’s heat was finally letting up. I ordered a 10.5-ounce pour—a whole pint feels like too much sometimes, so I always appreciate a smaller-portion option—along with one of their pizzas, having noticed that every table in sight either had a pie on it or was equipped with a stand and spatula in anticipation of one.
When I asked whether they brewed their beer on site, Scott shook his head. They would soon, he said, in a month or two. They were just waiting to have a drain installed. He gestured toward a black curtain on the far side of the dining room overlaid with a faded “Please Be Kind” flag, signaling the spot where the equipment stood waiting. It was then that I noticed the abundance of Grateful Dead posters on the walls and that “Crash” had given way to the harmonies of “Box of Rain.”
Their menu included pizzas with regular or spicy sauce, vegan cheese, and gluten-free crust, along with salads and specials, which that night included Pollo Loco, a chicken sandwich with barbeque sauce. I went with a ten-inch regular sauce, mozzarella, olive, and garlic pizza, which a passing server offered was her favorite combination, though she also said the carrot topping was not to be missed.
The pizza took a while, and during that time I noticed a lot of customers like me, patiently sipping beer beside a vacant pizza stand. When Scott apologized for the long wait time as he placed my excellent-looking pizza before me, I inhaled its garlicky, tomatoey aroma and told him not to worry about it. The beer was smooth, the atmosphere friendly, it was a gorgeous night, and the next day I’d hike to the springs. And anyway, attentive service and a friendly vibe go a long way.
So does great food. This pizza’s thin crust, its flour imported from Italy, was flavorful, with the right blend of chewiness and heft. Perfectly crisp, it stood up to the rich sauce, ample cheese, and generous (but not overly so) dotting of garlic and black olives. I polished off most of it, taking the last slice with me and placing it in the fridge reserved for guests at Cañon del Rio, where I’d booked a room.
The next morning was sunny and cool. I followed the sound of water to the river not far from my room on the courtyard. After picking an apple off a nearby tree and eating it clean, I realized I’d need a little something to take with me on my hike to the springs, so I stopped by the Highway 4 Cafe & Bakery, leaving my car in the dirt beside the already-full parking area. Inside, I found a whitewashed room not unlike one you might find in Santa Fe or any city, really, offering dishes suited to urban tastes—sweet potato and elk sausage burritos, panini, spinach quesadillas. I took note for later, confirming they’d be open until 4pm like their sign said, and asked for an apple turnover. I planned to save it for midhike, when I reached the pools, but I wasn’t a mile in before I parked my bathing-suited self on a sun-warmed boulder to savor the sweet, flaky envelope inside of which lay subtle but flavorful chunks of baked apple.
By the time I arrived back at the Highway 4 Cafe, I’d dipped in a crystal pool of warm but not hot water, chatted with a couple from Denver about other hot springs destinations, and learned from a local man about another natural soaking spot down the road. Already my suit was dry when I returned to the bakery, and this time I was ready for something hearty. Inside, a sign had been hung above a few tables that had been pushed together: “THE KNITWITS KNIT HERE.” Like the brewery, the café isn’t just for visitors; it’s part of the community here.
I chose the chicken enchiladas with green chile, swapping the potatoes for raw spinach. They were delivered to me quickly (but not too quickly) on the café’s patio, a generously sized, sun-dappled space elevated from the road, where a few cyclists relaxed post-ride and an older pair chatted companionably. To call my respite pleasant was an understatement, and the experience only improved when I tasted the enchiladas. The chicken was notably tender, shredded and skillfully seasoned, the chile mellow, the blue corn tortillas holding their own beneath. As for the cheese, it was distributed lightly, and I appreciated the restraint.
After my meal, I strolled for a bit on the main road. A sign dedicated a brief ribbon of sidewalk to a boy who had been killed by a car decades ago, and I couldn’t help considering that even more concession to pedestrians might make this a less precarious place to enjoy on foot, especially since most of my fellow visitors were looking down at their phones. But Highway 4 is a busy road, passing as it does between Bernalillo and Los Alamos, and the historic buildings along its east shoulder kiss what was once a dirt path for horses and wagons. It’s nice, too, that the place so closely resembles photographs from the 1800s, when Joseph Aboulseman, a prolific local businessman, was busy building his mercantile and saloon at the site where the town’s most obvious attraction, Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon, sits today.
My husband arrived a few hours later. Part of the reason I’d saved Los Ojos for our dinner together was that the only entrance to the place was through the bar, and from what I could tell, the scene bordered on rowdy. (Tourist or no, when I’m solo I try to be careful.) But as we entered, I felt differently. Families sat in the booths near the door, and the crowd at the bar was friendly and warm. A band was setting up on the elevated stage, and the decor was a Wild West dream, with high ceilings, rifles mounted to the wood-sided walls, vintage cowboy photographs, and no small number of taxidermied creatures, including the entire front half of a bighorn sheep, its hoofs dangling beside the wall of booze. Still, a fresh-air seeker, I wanted to eat outside, and we were ushered through a cluttered hallway and past a sign that I saw everywhere I went on my trip—”Hiring: All positions.”
Outside, the plastic chairs gave a laid-back feel to the space, and you could practically reach out and touch the passing cars. I scanned the menu for vegetarian options, my chicken at lunch already more meat than I normally eat in a weekend, but the menu leaned heavily toward the carnivore side of things. My husband decided this was a good time to break his meatless streak and ordered the green chile cheeseburger. I went with the Frito pie. It was a good and filling meal, but I’d recommend Los Ojos more for the saloon experience than the food. Sticking with the bar area is the way to do this place—especially in warmer months, since we learned the hard way that flies, like me, are big fans of Frito pie, Christmas.
My memory of the brewhouse remained a glowy one, and I wanted to show my husband the place, so after dinner we wandered down the short memorial sidewalk for a peek. A sandwich board with specials sat outside the door, but the dining room was nearly empty. “Our kitchen is closed,” a server told us, a little regretfully. The reason? Not enough help to keep it open tonight. We shrugged and decided that was okay, though I’d hoped to sample one of their salads for dessert. Instead, I topped off my Frito pie with a Bathtub Row Eureka IPA, brewed in Los Alamos. Hefty with a nice sparkle to it, it made the perfect nightcap.
So did the conversation. A different guy stood behind the bar tonight, this one in a Rasta cap, busily checking taps and cleaning up. We learned that this was co-owner Jef Bold, partner to Scott, whom I’d chatted with the night before. (David Martinez is also a partner, and Jef is father to a fourth partner, Eben Bold.) Jef was the source of the Dead memorabilia, and he and my husband speculated they might have been at the same show once. “Tourism here has exploded since the pandemic,” he told us, but it’s hard to find workers—thus the closed kitchen and near-empty restaurant even though it was the Friday of a holiday weekend.
The next morning we climbed to another natural spring, this one closer to the road. The water there was low and the scene was crowded, making me glad to have made it to the other pools. Still, the view of the tall pines and the valley below bathed in soft morning light made the steep climb more than worth it. We relaxed on the rocks for a bit, but when a man with a pistol around his belly came to soak, we took that as our sign to move on.
I had one last stop to make, though: a food truck called Monica’s, which Google told me I’d find on the road north, next to Amanda’s Jemez Mountain Country Store. The parking lot was packed, and outside the door a woman stood loudly relaying directions to the springs on her phone. Good, we thought, this was the perfect time to head home.
“Do you know where Monica’s is?” I asked a guy who stood behind a row of jugs of sno-cone flavoring at a truck that looked suspiciously like the one I’d seen on my phone. “Monica isn’t around anymore,” the man told me, a bit ominously. He pointed to a sign painted on the side of the truck that read “JOE DADDY’S GRILL” in bright red lettering.
This menu was also meat heavy, so I zeroed in on the roasted corn. The choices were butter or “everything.” “What’s ‘everything’?” I asked, and the answer was returned from inside the truck: “Mayo, salt, Parmesan cheese, and chile powder.”
A few minutes later, a smiling man in an apron stepped down from the truck’s back door. What he brought to me looked as enticing as any meal I’d had yet: a generous but not sloppy riff on Mexican street corn, colorful and delicious. I offered a bite to my husband before devouring the rest, enjoying the breeze and trying not to think about the to-dos waiting for me at home. I pulled back onto Highway 4 headed north, still in my bathing suit, wiping the last saucy cheese from my lips.
Susanna Space’s essays have appeared at Guernica, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, and many other literary outlets. She is an associate editor with edible New Mexico and The Bite.