In a stroke of luck, we landed at La Reina on the Santa Fe bar’s inaugural karaoke night. On this brisk desert night, La Reina presented itself as a small white adobe bar with character, filled to the brim with characters: older hippies cued up to sing Paul Simon songs, middle-aged Indigenous artists from out of town looking for a good time, and younger hipsters camped out on the back patio, away from the din of party music and the boisterous crowd, choosing to enjoy their own company.

La Reina serves as a type of centerpiece (showpiece?) for the El Rey Court motel compound. It’s located close to the front of the property, near check-in. The white adobe minimalist aesthetic of El Rey (the king) and La Reina (the queen) is reminiscent of the Mos Eisley Cantina from the first Star Wars movie, and its denizens, while not aliens, do sort of pay homage to the colorful nature of that cantina’s regulars. 

The bar opens at 5 and the crowd was sparse when I arrived with friends around happy hour. We sat outside on the welcoming U-shaped front patio across from some stylish ladies discussing the similarities between Tulsa and Santa Fe. I’d been on that patio once before, when it was later in the eve, and the space seems to lend itself toward a communal atmosphere as the night deepens and libations settle in. During sunset it serves as a way station, a transition from the workday to the evening and whatever program it holds. 

The lineup runs from karaoke to live music to DJ Christina Swilley. Swilley’s a staple of Santa Fe nightlife and has a residency at La Reina, where she DJs the last Sunday of every month. She gushes when she gets to talking about the venue. “I’m very sensitive to aesthetics and lighting,” Swilley says, and La Reina’s architecture simply makes her happy. “With white adobe, you can’t go wrong, you don’t need to decorate.” Swilley’s been spinning records at La Reina for two years now, and she’s impressed with the way La Reina supports the community. “A lot of people in Santa Fe, business owners and bar owners, don’t care about local musicians, they don’t care about making something cool for the community,” she says. La Reina stands out by being a space where out-of-town visitors, who’re a staple of Santa Fe’s economy, can mix harmoniously with locals. Programming hits a similar sweet spot, balancing visiting musicians with local performers. As Swilley puts it, “You know you’re gonna see the local community there and musicians and that’s cool—where else is that here?” 

Heather McKearnan, an industry veteran of twenty-plus years, has been bartending at La Reina since 2018. “I don’t know if I’d be inclined to keep bartending if I were anywhere else,” she admits. When asked what makes La Reina so special, McKearnan shares much of the same sentiment as Swilley, saying, “The space is just so beautiful and has this kind of serene quality.” You can get a good feel for a bar by knowing what the most popular drink on the menu is, and at La Reina that is La Ultima Palabra. The mezcal and tequila–focused bar’s spin on the Last Word, it’s also McKearnan’s favorite drink to make. Composed of “Rey Campero Espadín mezcal, génépy, lime, and maraschino liqueur, equal parts,” the cocktail is apparently so loved that people come in from out of town just to drink it. McKearnan shared a story of a recent visitor who’d been waiting a year and a half to return to Santa Fe for that purpose. “It’s so well balanced,” McKearnan says of the drink. “It has sweet and smoky and tart and bright, it just hits the spot.”

I like to keep things simple, so my go-to drink is usually a margarita, often the house margarita (don’t judge), so I naturally opted for La Reina’s version, the King’s Margarita. This is far from your basic house marg. Rare is the occasion when I am overpowered by the first sip of a cocktail, but the King’s Margarita, made with Arette Blanco, made me open my eyes wide and wonder at all the flavors I had just experienced. It wasn’t that it was strong so much as that I could tell, without having checked the ingredients, that it was not the usual margarita made with well tequila and cheap triple sec; it was complex. “I love when someone takes their first sip of one of our drinks in front of me,” McKearnan shares wryly.  “Almost always there’s an ‘ah,’ then there’s an ‘ahhh,’ like an ‘oh that’s good,’ and then an ‘oh that’s what I needed.’” I didn’t say those words out loud, but the sentiment was largely there upon tasting the King’s Margarita.

La Reina stops serving at 11 but you can sip on your drink ‘til midnight; my friends and I opted for water in the closing hour, sipping from special black plastic La Reina cups that McKearnan gifted us. While there are countless quirky drinking establishments to choose from in Santa Fe, La Reina, with its sun-bleached adobe walls, stellar cocktails, quality mixture of clientele, and fun and interesting programming, manages to distinguish itself from the rest. “I often find myself [here] on nights off,” McKearnan said. “One would think you wouldn’t want to go back to where you work [for a drink], but it’s really my first choice, almost every single time.” 

If you go, know that Tender Fire Kitchen is in residence Sundays and Mondays through October. Starting May 16, One Trick Pony Burger will be at La Reina every Thursday. The onsite Turquoise Trailer no longer does dinner, but it is open for breakfast daily.

Jason Asenap
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Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee writer and filmmaker based in Albuquerque. You can find his writing in Variety, Esquire, Alta Journal, Grist, High Country News, Salon, and New Mexico Magazine.