What makes Taos Taos? The question surfaced as I rounded the corner where Route 68 straightens and the land flattens and spreads like spilled ink around the zigzag gash of the Gorge. Taos is the Pueblo, the Ski Valley. Wheeler Peak and the Taos art colony. Movie stars and Earthships and rutted roads criss-crossing the mesa.
But this is a story about food, right? And the grounding forces of flavors and textures, aromas and atmosphere. To that end, I made my first stop on Bent Street, at Cafe Sagrado. This spot has seen a few iterations over the last couple of decades, and it was nice to be in the familiar space, now flooded with morning sunlight, the rafters strewn with marigold garlands and papel picado. My red chile mocha was pure velvet, rich and chocolaty, spicy-but-not-too.
After stopping in to op.cit Books for a browse, I checked in to my room at Casa Benavides, where near the front desk historic photos hung alongside shelves packed with Mexican pottery and a collage of D. H. and Frieda Lawrence hanging out with Mabel Dodge Luhan and Tony Lujan. This was Taos, I thought, the generous common room built in the Pueblo style, housing an overabundance of artworks created over centuries.
Later I and a few friends set out for dinner at El Monte Sagrado’s De La Tierra, where Chef Cristina Martinez has led the kitchen for seven years. From my lavishly upholstered seat, I spied the shiny faux snakeskin of the Anaconda Bar while I sampled a tasty, not-too-sweet Apple Pear Martini. I followed it with their Blood Orange Glazed Duck Breast, a recommendation of our server. The meat was pink and juicy, cooked to perfection and served with a sweet butternut squash puree and apple chutney.
The next morning I followed the lead of a couple of locals and stepped into World Cup. Tiny, bustling, and smack in the center of town, the coffee shop felt like a hot, hissing little star around which Planet Taos orbits. It’s a great spot for grabbing an Americano on your way up to the Ski Valley or just for wandering around downtown; I did the latter until I was ready for a meal at nearby Manzanita Market. Instagrammable and dog friendly, Manzanita hits a note that few businesses in tourist towns manage to, making locals feel welcome while seducing visitors. And no wonder—it’s a spin-off of the local fine dining fave The Love Apple.
I’d sampled the hearty, sweet, and delicious Vegan Corn and Potato Chowder on another visit, so this time I went for The Local, a bowl of pinto beans and brown rice accented with skillfully applied dashes of crème fraîche, cheddar, lime, pepitas, and a delightful green sauce (was it tomatillo?). Far from basic despite its foundation of rice and beans, the dish was finely turned out, the cream and lime juice like a flash of summer sunlight slicing through the wintery foundation. I added an egg and avocado, and I wish I were eating another one right now.
Across the alleyway from Manzanita’s back door sits the sweet shop of your dreams—or at least of mine. Chokola Bean to Bar is a carousel of temptations, from the enticingly displayed mousse bar and cloudlike confections shown off in mixing bowls behind glass to the glistening handmade Florentines made with local honey. The man behind the bar apologized that there were only three mousse flavors available and then served me a scoop of their award-winning chocolate mousse, made from beans sourced from Guatemala and Belize, in an espresso cup. The silky confection was fully worthy of a stroll in the Tuileries.
The next morning I was due at Taos Pueblo. Here, after a sample of steaming horno-baked bread topped with green chile, I spied a doorway beside a vintage chair upholstered in gold set against an adobe wall. The area around it was perfumed with woodsmoke; inside, wood carvings and metal sculptures gave way to Dawn Butterfly Cafe’s chalkboard menu and owner Carpio J.I. (“CJ”) Bernal working a four-burner stove set against the back wall. The space was heated by two crackling kiva fireplaces, and on this day, CJ was serving lunch, a new offering at the café.
What I experienced at Dawn Butterfly was less a meal and more a multisensory painting. A house-made Native tea with mint and sage warmed my hands, mascarpone butternut squash soup soothed, and a cup of blue cornmeal topped with fresh berries and chokecherry honey sauce nourished. When I emerged to gold cottonwood leaves shimmering against the deep blue New Mexican sky, my question had expanded: What is this place? And how could I possibly describe it? But now also: What is my place among all this beauty, this history, the creativity that blooms so ferociously in the shadow of Taos’s alpine peaks?
At Corner Office, a newish downtown spot featuring natural wines and small plates with a long bar flanked by shelves of books on one side and bottles on the other, another story emerged as I shared a meal with friends. Owner and longtime restaurateur Zak Pelaccio told us how he moved with his partner Jori Jayne Emde and their young family to Taos from New York’s Hudson Valley during the pandemic. The cozy spot perched above Paseo del Pueblo Sur had a few customers at dinner time on a winter Saturday, and the room felt quiet and intimate. We shared the Frico, a smooth, crispy potato pancake garnished with a vibrant nest of shaved brussels sprouts and onions. It was divine; we just wished there were more of it. The shrimp sausage was juicy and flavorful, and ideal for sharing. The Slovenian sauvignon blanc Domaine Ciringa, recommended by Jori, was equal to all of it, running like a sparkly thread through the winter night’s meal.
Afterward we stopped by Rolling Still for a nightcap. I was eager to sample their vodkas, in part because this women-owned business is an entrepreneur’s dream, having been created by two friends who met in the Ski Valley years ago and still work together today. Nicole Barady and Liza Barrett told us that they themselves are “not really drinkers,” and so they created their flavored spirits to be smooth and friendly to the tongue. Sipping samples, I fell for the peppery, warm red chile and the still subtle but bolder pecan, made from nuts grown in Las Cruces. Eventually I ordered a Dream On, a creamy concoction ideal for snowy nights that pulls their pecan vodka together with chai spices, maple flavor, and cream.
The next morning I stopped at The Coffee Apothecary under stormy skies that sent down flurries. It was almost time to head home. Inside, an older man at the counter recounted a bit of news to the barista. The snow, he said, caused an accident on Blueberry Hill. Someone had been killed.
As I sipped a jasmine green tea beside the man who delivered the news, the barista chatted with a coworker about how she’d had her windshield smashed soon after moving here a few months before. She seemed to take what had happened, like the morning’s sad news, in stride. It was another facet of the place I’d only touched the surface of. Above the espresso machine, a line of tiny Buddhas, geodes, and plastic dinosaurs stood frozen along a beam in the ceiling, as if in mid-dance across a high wire. Outside, the snowflakes were larger now, the mountains shrouded. My to-go cup warmed my palm as I headed into the gray morning, blasting the heat as I climbed up the road headed south, the sturdy little mountain town with all its stories framed in the rearview, receding.
Note: Dawn Butterfly Cafe is located on Taos Pueblo, which charges a per-person admission fee. Visit Taos Tourism for current admission prices and hours.
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.