Why did people love the old Bella Vista Restaurant? Was it the irrepressible allure of fried foods? The all-you-can-eat ethos of bygone times? Or was it because eating at the legendary Tijeras venue meant someone special was in town, family was gathering, an occasion was being marked with a little time away from the city and into the relative cool of the East Mountains?
The Bella Vista (along with the eighties and nineties) may be long gone, but I still love getting out of the city and into the mountain air. It’s usually somewhere between Aluminum Yucca and Rock Canyon Cider that a shift happens. It’s about hillsides of fir and pine and juniper; the slower pace of NM-14 and NM-337; the greener and greener, curvier and curvier turns of the road up toward Sandia Crest.
Whether you’re up for the day or a week or the rest of your life, know this: a bounty of newer, and I daresay better, dining establishments have risen up in the years since Bella Vista departed. Go there, meet them, relax a little, slow down, and sample their fare.
THE SOLID: Greenside Cafe
“Which one is house made?” I ask my server when trying to decide on a salad dressing. “All of them,” she says, enticing me to brave the blue cheese, which turned out to be silky and delightfully light.
One of the few mountain venues offering table service, the Greenside Cafe is located in Village at Bella Vista, a retail plaza named for the storied destination that once stood in its place. I suspect there is no one who lives in the East Mountains who has not dined here at least once, and probably many times since their opening in 2007. It is the place locals go for dinner, and sometimes breakfast, or maybe lunch; the Greenside does all three, and ably. Their brisket enchiladas are very good, and I’ve heard their Friday Night Fish Fry is a hit. I’m partial to their Korean fried chicken sandwich, which comes with a gochujang aioli that is spicy, salty, and just a little funky.
Chef-owner Jay Wulf, whose résumé includes a couple years as chef at Prairie Star and cooking with David Tanis at Café Escalera, says that his time at the Range Café had the biggest impact on his culinary career. The shift away from fine dining was welcome, and the Greenside is firmly grounded in “the appreciation you get from feeding people in a restaurant they can eat at a few times a week.”
On top of crowd-pleasing standards like burgers and mac and cheese, they offer specials ranging from hyperlocal bratwurst to Moroccan lamb stew to a marinated oyster mushroom sandwich made with Albuquerque-grown oysters. For those imbibing, they serve New Mexico and Colorado beers and use Taylor Garrett whiskey in their manhattans, but they’ll also do drinks for kids and they make a nice iced tea. (Dogs, welcome on the patio, get water.)
Wulf counts fifty-some restaurants who’ve come and gone in the East Mountains since the Greenside opened, and there are reasons that his has held strong. Beyond the family-friendly menu, there’s the staff—efficient and always kind.
THE COMMUNITY PLACE: Roots Farm Cafe
Roots Farm Cafe has the kind of patio that makes me wish I’d stopped by while on vacation, a long Russian novel in hand and all the time in the world to lounge there, protected from the sun’s glare, with views of the verdant mountainscape to sip between pages. If you tend to head straight for the Crest, you may have missed this friendly, sustainably minded space in Tijeras. Fancy toasts and sandwiches comprise most of the offerings, which makes it the perfect spot for breakfast before a hike. On a recent visit, I was almost surprised at how much I loved the breakfast sandwich (scrambled eggs, cheese, sausage, and special sauce on ciabatta, with the option for a variety of add-ons)—a testament to simplicity, and good ingredients.
Started seven years ago by Daniel Puccini and Kendall Rattner, Roots sources from a host of local producers and vendors including Polk’s Folly Farm, La Montañita Co-op, and Schwebach Farm. They also have their own farm, where they raise goats and grow as much as they can—and teach. “Before we opened, we were doing farmers markets, we were both passionate about food,” Puccini says. “We opened the café to make that food more accessible to people.”
This is a place that breathes community. You might see a mother and daughter out for lunch with their pup, older guys talking carpentry and retirement funds, or someone settled in with a laptop, making the remote lifestyle look like a dream. Metal cups, not plastic, are stacked beside the self-service water station near the door, and service is attentive even when the café is busy. Plus, the counter is lined with canisters of cookies (the oatmeal is deliciously chewy) that pair beautifully with quality coffee.
While their staples are popular, Puccini often encourages diners to order from the revolving portion of the menu. “Every day we have specials inspired by something we harvested or that someone nearby harvested,” he says. Their guiding vision? To inspire people and contribute to the health of the ecosystem and the community.
THE BREWERY: Rumor Brewing Co.
Rumor Brewing, or, as it’s known in some circles, “the dog bar,” began its life as Ale Republic. The location hasn’t changed, but outdoor seating expanded during the pandemic, and there’s now a small stage where you might catch a local act like Le Chat Lunatique. Led by owner Patrick Johnson, the brewery also grew from a three-barrel to a seven-barrel system. Lately, the brewery has been branching out from farmhouse ales; on a July visit, the beer menu included Cedro Stout, Red Mountain (billed as a hoppy American ale), and three IPAs. Of the latter, I opted for the PermaGrin, a session. Session beers can taste thin and over carbonated, but this one is full in flavor and pleasingly bitter, a true IPA. They also serve wines from Sheehan Winery, hard cider, and a handful of sodas aimed at the kids who might tag along for the cornhole and the pizza.
The pizza: small, wood-fired, thin-crust pies offered in traditional styles like the Margherita, as well as with barbecue sauce and pulled pork or chicken. I went with the New Mexican and found the tang of the house tomato sauce a good match for pepperoni and green chile.
Most of the shade at the beer garden is currently provided by man-made structures, but some comes from an old ponderosa, and younger trees—from privet to aspen to honey locust—along with numerous grasses and flowers, make the space welcoming to pollinators as well as canines and humans (especially if you arrive at a busy time and have to wait on your food).
THE BOUTIQUE: Lantern Ridge Farm Market + Nursery
One of the younger eateries in the area, Lantern Ridge is still growing into the “farm market” part of its identity, but they do have an expansive nursery—on the edge of which is perched the often bustling restaurant patio. The dog-friendly venue opened in May 2022, selling a variety of boutique foods from what was once Pete’s restaurant, next door to the offices where co-owner Seth Stockton practices dentistry. According to Seth’s brother and business partner, Ethan Stockton, the store sells beef from Tierra Amarilla’s C4 Farms and eggs from Seth’s farm, which also supplies some of the produce for the restaurant, but there are also plenty of European imports.
Was I hesitant to order the pork banh mi in such a setting? Yes, but the flavors in the sandwich—made with a sizable but not too fatty slice of pork belly—delivered. The adobo-marinated chicken sandwich was also well executed, and if you don’t want canned kombucha, they do house-made lemonade and teas. In addition to breakfast and lunch, Lantern Ridge hosts special events like the Boston Tea Party that was concluding on my July visit, where attendees sampled menu items like John Adams’s Spring Herb Tartlets plus a bevy of scones.
Powered by family and inspired partly by Seth’s travels across the United States, Lantern Ridge is also inspired by its place. “The East Mountains are so beautiful,” Ethan says; “we just wanted to create a community hot spot where people can relax and enjoy life.”
THE HONORABLE MENTION: El Mariachi Authentic Mexican Food
If you’re looking for Mexican-style chile rellenos or a chile relleno burrito in Cedar Crest, El Mariachi is the place. Carryout will be packaged in Styrofoam, but, happily, if you choose to dine onsite, plates and baskets are used. Although less dog friendly than the other spots on this list, El Mariachi does have covered outdoor seating as well as a shaded, parking-lot-facing picnic table where dogs are permitted. Next time, I’ll try the queso fundido or the chilaquiles.
& OTHER SUNDRIES
Polk’s Folly Butcher Shop and Farm Stand, initially an outlet for pork and other meats raised by Zach and Ethan Withers at Polk’s Folly Farm, has slowly grown into a mostly locally sourced food emporium; whenever I can, I stop by to pick up some ground beef or sausages—and maybe some bread, or a bag of Ness beans, or some squash relish—before I come back down the mountain. Yes, I know the Withers brothers personally, but that likely becomes true of anyone who shops here regularly.
For a more conventional shopping experience, hit Triangle Grocery, next door to the Greenside. The full-size supermarket has a surprisingly large wine selection (natural and vegan wines are tagged for easy finding), local and national beers, and plenty of booze, as well as local salsas and everything else you might need, from cereal to toilet paper.