A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my husband and I were the parents of one small child. She was a born vegetable lover, and by the time she was in preschool some of her most treasured foods were raw vegetables fresh from the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market—purple carrots, lemon cucumbers, cherry tomatoes. For a while she loved green onions so much her teacher could tell whether she’d eaten her snack from a quick whiff of her breath.
Alas, little ones, like their parents, cannot live on raw veggies alone. And while my husband and I both love to cook, sometimes we needed a break from the kitchen (and the dishes). As a couple, we loved exploring Santa Fe’s restaurant scene, splurging at romantic, higher-end spots like 315 and the bar at Geronimo. Now that we risked being the kind of customers who left smashed Cheerio dust or a trail of french fry bits in their wake, where could we eat well, and comfortably, without stressing when the baby started to fuss?
Enter Counter Culture Cafe. Located along unpretentious, artsy Baca Street, the place was—and remains—an ideal combination of easygoing atmosphere, spacious dining room, and a menu that checks all the boxes: locally sourced produce, sophisticated grown-up fare (a niçoise salad with salmon, grilled tofu banh mi with cucumber lime and serrano aioli), wine, and espresso. In the corner by the patio door, a trove of plastic dinosaurs offered a welcome distraction, and their children’s menu was (and is) small but good. When our second child came along, his sister taught him where to find the stegosauruses and how to convince Mom to top off lunch with a slice of chocolate cake.
Over time, the scallion-consuming toddler began to dabble in medium-hot chile and her brother refined his mighty sweet tooth, and the Tune-Up Cafe became another favorite spot. Burgers and burritos followed by homemade fruit cobbler satisfied the kids while I enjoyed a local beer on tap with grilled salmon tacos or mole enchiladas and my husband indulged in a thoughtfully constructed salad. We loved the unfussy atmosphere as much as the food, combining neighborhood diveyness befitting its location on the west side of St. Francis (and the former home of the über-dive Dave’s Not Here) with fresh, local ingredients and classics from Greek salad to Salvadorean tamales and pupusas.
Now thirteen and seventeen, our kids have progressed from plain bean burritos to a diet speckled with samosas and salmon nigiri. On a summer visit to CHOMP, new flavors came into the mix. My daughter’s Bombay Bollywood Special wrap from Zaika disappeared before I even sat down. She quickly found another Zaika favorite, the Garlic Grenade (made with garlic everything, with paneer and cashews for protein). We topped it off with spring rolls from Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine and a bright orange Zaika mango lassi, one of the sweetest I’ve tried and an instant hit with both kids.
Wanting to know how other parents navigate the City Different’s high-end restaurant landscape, I asked a few friends (and their kids!) about their go-tos. One tween raved about the chicharron burrito at El Parasol, and the new southside location (on Dinosaur Trail, no less) scores points with a patio accommodating to squirmier little ones. Some parents I talked with appreciate being able to sip a Roca Bonita margarita while perusing La Choza’s solid kids menu (grilled cheese with applesauce! kid-sized enchiladas with a side of sliced cucumbers!). Plus everyone can romp (or nap) in Railyard Park afterward. Also on the list of kid-approved New Mexican options? Atrisco at DeVargas Center. Especially, one middle-schooler friend says, their quesadillas and sopapillas.
Harry’s Roadhouse on Old Las Vegas Highway, always a crowd-pleaser with a huge patio and expansive something-for-everyone menu, is another excellent option. (A third-grader friend with a respectable appetite recommends the turkey meat loaf.) Dolina’s egg dishes are always a hit with teens (this parent can’t get enough of their apple walnut strudel), and for sushi, Masa gets high marks from all ages. (Parents like the relaxed vibe and proximity to after-dinner ice cream treats at La Montañita Co-op.) Jinja, on North Guadalupe, is a decided favorite for Asian fusion for one sophisticated thirteen-year-old.
Another tried-and-true spot for our family has been the French Pastry Shop at La Fonda hotel. Crepes are a yummy lure for screen-obsessed kids, and a little French fare makes for a nice change of pace. (This parent finds the strawberry crepes ideal.) Plus, even for locals, proximity to the Plaza adds a sprinkle of adventure, whether it’s a display of lowriders, a trip to the New Mexico History Museum, or just some people watching.
But where is our go-to, the restaurant my kids crave to fill their (bottomless) tanks and the best bang for the parental buck? Survey says: Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill. Despite having cultivated a more complex palate, my son still craves their pinto bean burrito, and a bag full of them, along with a tray of chocolate milkshakes, recently satisfied a clump of famished teens gathered for an end-of-summer sleepover. The Burrito del Norte with chicken was also a winner, as was their green chile cheeseburger paired with onion rings (don’t forget the fry sauce!).
Not long ago, I met my daughter for lunch. I had just been to the farmers market, and I handed her a carrot from my overfull bag. She wolfed it down, just like when she was a toddler. I handed her another. There’s nothing like watching your kid eat good food.
I suggested a couple of places for lunch. Newer places, ones written up on best-of lists with sleek, photo-ready interiors.
“Those places are good,” she said. “But can we just go to the Tune-Up?”
I nodded. Of course.
She ordered enchiladas. Green, cheese-filled, her favorite. I ordered from the familiar old specials chalkboard, squash-blossom quesadillas with a salad. I admit, I’d been a little disappointed not to try someplace newer. But being with my kid at the same tables where she played with her Matchbox cars and scarfed warm fruit cobbler turned out to be exactly where I wanted to be.
As we walked out together, I remembered walking to the street, her little hand in mine. Now she carried her phone, her nails painted with black and red polish. For a minute I wished I could pop her in her car seat and take her home. But the nostalgia passed, and as I drove away I was happy. Happy for the variety and abundance of food we get to eat here in our little pocket of the Southwest. Glad most of all for having shared another great meal with her.
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.