In the spring of 2011, Mr.D and I lived in Santa Fe, within walking distance to the main historic plaza. We walked three times a day or more, along the narrow streets that were once cattle trails. Surrounded by the famous adobes made of earth and straw. A grounding experience that naturally slows your pace. So as not to miss the beauty. To take it all in. Breathe. Reflect. Enjoy. And in this food lover’s paradise, to stop often and eat.
When we began to meet the locals we made a point to ask, “Where do you go for authentic New Mexican food — the place that if you moved away it would be the first restaurant you’d go to on your first day back?” Given the number of world renowned eateries to choose from, tiny mom-n-pop cafes to fancy schmancy, we made a note of one name that came up again and again. “The Shed.” “It’s been there forever, you have to try The Shed.” “The Shed is famous for traditional New Mexican.”
So we tried it. Went back for another lunch, then dinner. Became followers. Now that we live in Southwest Colorado, we make a point to eat there every time we visit. Each time I walk into that little charming courtyard and see the bright red umbrellas, turquoise awnings, lavender accents, the Christmas lights, and recognize the familiar smells coming from the kitchen — it’s like that special holiday meal you’ve waited for all year has finally arrived.
Polly and Thornton Carswell first opened The Shed in 1953 in what was described to me as ‘a very small wooden shed on nearby Burro Alley.’ In the 1960s they moved to the current location of Prince Patio, just a short block East of the main plaza. The hacienda style adobe was once the home of New Mexico’s leading families. The building dates back to 1692. Prince Patio was named for Gov. Bradford Prince whose family owned it up until the 1940’s.
Still family owned and operated by the Carswells, their Hatch and locally sourced chiles are from the same original farms, and are still ground on premises. Today the Shed is an award-winning historic landmark, recognized by the James Beard Foundation as an ‘American Classic of timeless appeal.’
They are also known as the restaurant with The Big Door and The Little Door. For all ages, either option is acceptable.
Look at those thick walls and bold patterns. At The Shed, it’s a groovy adobe happening. Watch your head as you follow the host/ess through the maze because some of the doorways are very old and very low. I’m 5 ft 5 inches with three inch heels and was still looking to duck.
We were seated in an intimate interior room, with sunset golden walls and orange painted ceiling beams. And the place, as usual, was packed to capacity. I’ve never been to The Shed when it wasn’t full with a long line out the big or little door.
The family’s art collection is on display throughout the restaurant. But first, the food….
We started off with salsa and as usual ordered a second bowl because it’s Mr.D’s favorite. Fire roasted and robust. They’re also unique for serving baskets of garlic bread instead of sopapillas. When they first started out, the menu had more European influences, including garlic bread. Gradually, they embraced and mastered New Mexican cuisine, but the regular customers loved the garlic bread so much they requested that they keep it ‘to soak up the chile.’ And now they’re famous for it.
Sorry I didn’t get a photo of the bread, I was distracted by the salsa and getting my hands on the chile….which arrived in no time. The service is typically fast.
The red and green sauces are award winning, particularly the red. And on virtually every ‘Best Of Santa Fe’ review. The menu states ‘For those unaccustomed to eating chile, ours is spicy!’ There have been times when one spoonful of the green nearly blasted me off my chair and out onto Palace Avenue. Not saying it wasn’t delicious. Just flavor blasted. On this occasion I was fine with the heat. Maybe it was a milder batch, or maybe I’ve lived in the Southwest long enough now that I’m developing a tolerance. I like to think it’s the latter.
Corn Chowder with chicken, green chile, carrots, spices, topped with blue corn tortilla strips.
Creamy with a little heat from the green chile, and sweetness from the corn. My thanks to the customers who asked to keep the garlic bread, it was perfect for dunking and soaking up more bites. And not that the chowder wasn’t delicious or flavorful enough, but we combined it with our sides of chile. Because we’re always finding ways to get more of those precious peppers into pretty much everything we consume.
Posole of nixtamal corn, lean pork, coarse red chile, garlic and oregano.
With big chewy pieces of nixtamal corn (posole, hominy) which means it has been processed with limewater then hulled for easier digestion. To soften for masa dough, or for this hearty stew. Tender juicy pork, with just a little heat from the broth. They will offer red or green chile to add as you like. Absolutely yes we did. As a rule whenever anyone asks “More chile?” we answer “Yes please.”
The #10 with Red and Green sauce — Christmas
It’s hard to photograph sauce and cheese smothered foods, to make out exactly what it is. Although generally, the more gooey and overflowing and saturated, the better it tastes. Here we have one rolled blue corn enchilada filled with cheese and onion, covered with red chile. And one soft blue corn taco filled with tender baked chicken, cheese and smothered in so much green sauce that you couldn’t pick it up. Mr.D relished every bite with a knife and fork.
We were talking with our waiter, Clayton, about how the recipes have changed over the years. He said that they don’t mess with them because there are so many like his mother who’ve been going every month for forty years. If she detects the slightest variation in her regular #4 order (two blue corn tortillas layered with cheese, red chile and baked) she asks to speak with the chef to discuss if anything has been altered. A great example of how serious New Mexicans are about their food, and how loyal The Shed’s customers are.
Mr.D with the thermal barrier tongue commented that he was starting to feel the heat from the #10, at which point I said “You’re kidding. Really?” and Clayton said “There are two things you can do about that. Stop or keep going. I’d suggest keep going.” He was talking about Chile Euphoria. When you get that rush and ask yourself “Why can’t I stop eating?” It’s the chiles creating endorphins. It is heavenly. So Mr.D kept indulging and saying things like, “I’m on fire but I can’t stop. This is amazing.”
With all this talk of chiles I think it’s only fair to mention, for those who won’t make it to Santa Fe any time soon, you can get them online. Along with other yummy long-established favorites, you can order them here.
Southwest Grilled Shrimp with Spanish Rice, Calabacitas and Dipping Sauce
I had a taste for seafood so instead of my regular chicken enchiladas, at long last I tried the grilled shrimp. Plump, tender. With a nice char and flavor from the basting sauce of: chile, mustard, garlic, oregano, honey, tomato and a few tasty secrets. Calabacitas is a side dish of sautéed vegetables akin to succotash, with zucchini, yellow squash, onion, tomato, chile and spices. The dipping sauce was a tangy seafood cocktail sauce. I’d order it all again in a heartbeat.
I still had a little corn chowder left in my bowl that I couldn’t part with. So I dunked some of my shrimp into it, and also into the red sauce. I’d adjusted to the heat. Long past the point of no return. Taste buds happier than a lizard on a hot rock after sundown. My nose was running. Circulation working beautifully. Feet tapping.
I was debating on whether I had room for dessert, so I took a quick walk around to photograph some of the beautiful artwork. All from the Carswell family collection….
Exciting. Eclectic. Vivid colors. Being at The Shed is like golden hour all the time.
Sadly, we were too full for dessert. But I can tell you from past visits that the Fresh Lemon Souffle is a splendid ending to a fabulously spicy meal. Another favorite is the Mocha Cake. People love it because it’s rich like a mousse cake, and chilled so it cools you down.
After our meal Mr.D was revving in his seat like a race car. With a delighted, satisfied yet intense expression on his face. We both felt that our bodies wanted to ‘take off.’ Vibrating from head to toe, as can be expected post-Shed. We decided that our traditional walk around the plaza was in order. We exited via The Little Door, because that’s what we always do for the simple reason that it’s so darned cute.
This is the big sky scene that greeted us. We’d dined surrounded by the beautiful sunset colors of The Shed, then walked outside into yet another warm New Mexican welcome.
Many thanks to Kenji, Josh, Clayton, the Carswell family and everyone at The Shed who made our visit so lovely. Always exceptional, friendly, hard to leave. We cannot wait to come back again. And again….
113 1/2 E. Palace Avenue
phone 505 982 9030