When I speak with Chef Steve Riley on a cold afternoon just before the holidays, I get the sense that he’s a major sauce boss. Days later, I eat a meal at his restaurant, Mesa Provisions, and my senses are affirmed.
The former head chef at Farm & Table, Riley spent his twenties playing bass in a punk rock band that practiced in the same Nob Hill area where he opened Mesa Provisions in August 2021. Punk gumption comes through when he talks about food. He casually mentions a rich and involved process like it ain’t no thang: some veal bones he is roasting in the oven, prepping a demi-glace for short ribs appearing on his New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu. “That’s not something I have on my menu all the time,” he admits.
Born in Albuquerque, Riley’s sourcing is driven by his love for New Mexico. He uses local ingredients and builds a hyper-seasonal menu around whatever is available at the moment. “I avidly search out local ingredients. If you’re looking for the freshest stuff, you’re going to find it closest to you.”
Recognizing the diversity of terroir in the Land of Enchantment, Riley looks to New Mexico Harvest to help him hunt for goods. The community-supported agriculture company sources from farmers around the state. “The north is not like the south, and the south is not like the north,” Riley tells me. “New Mexico Harvest helps us buy from growers all over the state and have [products] delivered to us.”
At the time I write this story, Mesa Provisions’ menu boasts dishes like a smoked half chicken, brussels sprouts in a creamy umami dressing, and a tostada with carrot chorizo. Sauce plays a big role in all of them. “There are thousands of ways to make sauce, and they can add a lot of different things,” Riley tells me. “You can use sauce to add acid or fat; they can bring texture or richness. It depends on what you’re making and where the balance is needed.”
The orange salad, with radicchio, Manchego cheese, Castelvetrano olives, and brown-butter pistachios, layers flavor with confidence. The ingredients are an unexpected combination, each giving your palate a strong hit of zest but coming together in one punchy melody. The sticky sweet dressing on the pistachios and the juice from the orange, for example, coalesce in a honey-like sauce that coats the bottom of the dish. It takes restraint for me to refrain from literally licking the bowl.
Left: Smearing pepita crema for the smoked half chicken. Right: Smoked half chicken served with cabbage slaw, pepita crema, pinto beans, and duck fat flour tortillas; brussels sprouts served with miso honey, gochujang, and lime soy sesame dressing.
The conversation Riley and I have concerning sauce philosophy helps me understand some general things about food. First, while sauce may not be named in the title of a dish, it’s essential to the way it tastes. “Sauce is the tie that binds,” Riley says.
He takes shrimp and grits as a case in point. “People order that for the shrimp, but it always has a sauce,” Riley explains. “There are different ways of making it, depending on where you are and who your grandma is, but there is always a saucy element. If you just put dry shrimp and grits on the plate, it’s not shrimp and grits.” Sauce is the unsung hero, the tie, and the tastemaker.
Second, I start to glean that sauce is a place where a chef’s technique and skill shine. I tell Chef Riley that I make red chile all the time, and even though I use the same ingredients and follow the same steps, it always turns out a little differently. How does he maintain consistency?
“I call that my job security,” he says as we laugh. “You could say, with the exception of protein cooking, being a saucier takes the most technical skill. It’s about looking and seeing and smelling and tasting all of those variables and making the adjustments to make sure it comes out the same way every time.”
The smoked half chicken is brined, smoked, and then glazed in a red chile honey. The glaze is cheffed to perfection, with Riley tasting and tweaking until the right balance is achieved. This process forges a candied skin that covers super-tender, juicy chicken bursting with sweet chile flavor. The dish comes with duck fat tortillas, which sound a little pretentious but are actually just really delicious. They’re pillowy, perfectly seared, and make for a great taco when you pile on a bit of chicken, some of the cabbage slaw, and a dollop of pepita crema. The luscious and slightly spicy crema, made with green chile and cilantro, is the fatty note the lean chicken and crisp cabbage crave.
Riley cooks what he loves to eat, and that affinity comes through in his food. He tells me that on his days off at home, he eats smoked chicken with a side of beans and some tortillas. One of his favorite snacks is apples and hummus, which get an elevated treatment on his menu in the seasonal apple and beet salad. There’s an age-old saying that the best cooking is done with love, and Riley does that. He does so with a firm mastery of sauces made with attention to detail, which charm familiar dishes into new experiences.
Maria Manuela is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, where she was born and raised. She works with publications like New Mexico Magazine and Hyperallergic, focusing on stories about creative New Mexicans. She spends all her free time with her partner, Joel, and their three pups, Darla, Hamlet, and Pea. She’s working on a collection of short folktales based in the Southwest.