Restaurant culture is shifting, and Elijah Safford is at the forefront of that shift.

The twenty-four-year-old chef and owner of ACEQ in Arroyo Seco has been steadily building community around food since he bought the restaurant in 2019, striving to elevate the experiences of both his guests and the people who work there.

As a local who appreciates good food, I’m no stranger to ACEQ. But when I stopped in on a recent Tuesday, the spot was even more vibrant than I remembered, with a bustling atmosphere and a heightened sense of expectation—a nice contrast to the normally sleepy (but beautiful) micro town just fifteen minutes north of Taos.

I came to chat with Safford, but when I arrived, he was busy tending bar, one of his many roles at the restaurant. So I snuck behind the counter to snap some photos of him while he worked, waiting for a break from the havoc. He appeared to be thriving in the “kitchen chaos,” as he would later describe the dinnertime flurry of activity.

The bar overlooks the small kitchen, and the open concept is part of what Safford credits for the busy but welcoming atmosphere ACEQ is becoming known for. In his view, the close, communal-style seating, friendly waitstaff, and front-row view of the culinary process all play into the restaurant’s inviting feel.

I see what he means when a couple strikes up a conversation with me about photography. It doesn’t take long before we’re reveling in our discovery that we live just a few doors down from each other. The meaningful encounter ends with an invitation to tea the next time I’m on a walk.

“You don’t get that at other places,” one of my newfound neighbors remarks, meaning these sorts of serendipitous encounters are part of what makes dining at ACEQ special.

Moments later, I’m stopped by Ryan Trujillo, another young local success story, one who’s made a name for himself in real estate. ACEQ seems to have struck a nice balance between winning over locals while attracting out-of-towners traveling to and from Taos Ski Valley. Trujillo and I delve into our mutual admiration for what Safford has done with ACEQ. “It’s an experiment,” he concludes, “and it’s an experiment that’s working.”

The experiment Trujillo is referring to has to do, in part, with how Safford is investing in company culture. When I speak with Safford, he mentions giving his employees gym memberships and sometimes helping them find affordable housing as examples of his dedication to his business and team. It’s proven to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Safford’s unconventional approach extends to the customer experience. Loud rock music combines with top-of-the-line steaks, a natural wine selection, and a relaxed dress code. These uncommon pairings only add to the atmosphere. And like Trujillo said, the formula is clearly working: the hostess just had to (reluctantly) turn away the third table of the night.

The distinct atmosphere isn’t the only reason ACEQ is making waves, though. The food is also spectacular—consistently so. The signature Wangus (a cross of Wagyu and Angus) steak comes from cattle raised less than a hundred miles from the restaurant, at Lazy6 Cattle Ranch, where the beef is known for its supreme tenderness and rich flavor profile. “They bring us some of the most prime meat that I’ve ever had,” Safford tells me, adding that he takes pride in sourcing the highest-quality local ingredients from nearby farms for both the staple dishes and seasonal offerings. Even the microgreens that make up the garnishes are purchased from places like Taos grower Dewolf Family Farms.

Per Safford’s suggestion, I paired my steak with a natty orange wine. Orange wine, a.k.a. skin-contact wine, is a type of white wine that has been fermented with the seeds and skins intact. (Read Candolin Cook’s “Natural Wine, Unfiltered” for more on natural wines.)

ACEQ is also known, perhaps surprisingly, for its seafood, which is all wild caught, often from Alaska. The scallops melt in your mouth and, with an heirloom tomato beurre blanc with shallots and roasted garlic, they’re packed full of flavor. (ACEQ’s sauces, all crafted from scratch, are a key part of the menu.) If you’re in northern New Mexico and craving seafood—not necessarily the easiest feat in a landlocked state—this would be the spot for it.

Rest assured, ACEQ’s menu also incorporates flavors drawn from the region’s rich culinary roots, serving unique twists on traditional Mexican and New Mexican dishes. Take the Elote Corn Ribs. Traditionally, elote, a.k.a. Mexican street corn, is served roasted on the cob and doused in salt, red chile, lime juice, mayo or crema, and cotija cheese. At ACEQ, the kernels are already cut off the cob for you, so the mingling of spicy and sweet flavors is ready to be enjoyed, no work required.

As interesting as the menu, perhaps, is the story of how Safford found himself buying a restaurant before he was legally allowed to drink—but we’ll save that for another time. More important to know is what you’ll find at ACEQ: a rare magic that comes from pairing stellar fare with a thoughtful approach to company culture, creating cool, casual vibes wrapped in the warmth of community.

Mia Stallard
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Mia Stallard is a travel writer and content creator documenting unique stays and experiences. She's based wherever there’s wifi and a good view, but currently resides in the magical mountains of Northern New Mexico. Her hobbies include drinking overpriced lattes in swanky cafes, road trips through the desert, and skinny dipping in naturally occurring bodies of water across the globe.