“Hand-muddled margaritas.” Are any other words in the English language that suggest the perfect antidote to a busy, hot workday and the sweet-and-sour hint of a great meal at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint?
At Santa Fe, chef Marc Elliot’s one-year-old south-of-the-border outpost that’s a few blocks east of the well-worn Williamsburg trail, the words “hand-muddled margaritas” do much more than that.
From the first sip of bartender John Watterberg’s concoctions (yes, plural — who stops at one?), you know you are in good hands.
That feeling continues as you make your way to the spacious outdoor garden (and away from the overly loud music in the front room) and start perusing the menu, where Elliot mixes Mexican comfort foods (tacos, quesadillas and burritos), Oaxacan haute cuisine (mole anyone?) and some downright weird — but surprisingly satisfying — stuff like a beet and gorgonzola salad called “the Beet Down” that just might become my desert-island appetizer.
A wide variety of daily specials were available — including a blue corn “lasagna” and a whimsical dish that Elliot called “Contradiction of Farms,” and featured blackened white peaches, giant baby tomatoes and jumbo shrimp — but we opted for the main menu.
Starters, which range in price from $7–9, run the gamut from the sublime (there’s that Beet Down again!) to the ridiculous (queso frito — literally “fried cheese” — was surprisingly uninspired). A chilled cream of chile soup was delightful — a rich blend of hot and cold that never got too spicy or too wan.
On the “entrada” side ($9–18), you can order a hamburger (albeit Mexican-ized by Elliot), a burrito, a taco salad or more ambitious projects like Killer Camarones (tequila-drenched shrimp “looking for a fight”) and a red snapper with capers, olives, tomato and garlic.
In addition to that seminal beet salad and the insipid queso frito, we had a plate of bacon-wrapped shrimp that represented the perfect marriage of pig and crustacean (damn those GOP senators for continually blocking such civil unions!). A mound of rich, creamy guacamole rounded out the plate.
Serious pork lovers will flip for Elliot’s braised pork mole. Not only is the shoulder meat achingly tender, but Elliot’s mole — a mix of 11 peppers, chocolate, nuts and, believe it or not, a dash of Coca-Cola — is complex, but never overpowering. A thin tortilla layer adds crunch and cuts some of the mouthful of flavor. It’s a bargain at $13.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the taco salad ($10), which we ordered to see how Elliot would handle something so mundane. He did it brilliantly, thanks to an abundant portion of tender grilled steak and prominent chorizo.
As in Mexico itself, desserts are not the reason to go to Santa Fe. Where Elliot’s whimsy is welcome in other parts of the menu, desserts like chocolate nachos miss the mark. The cinnamon-dusted strips of deep-fried nachos were too greasy and the melted chocolate, caramel, sour cream and marshmallows all seemed to be fighting for my attention like 3-year-old twins.
Much better was the upside-down Boston Cream Pie ($8), a rich, pudding-like concoction that’s stuffed into a large coffee mug. The Oreo crust on top gives way to creamy delights below — and the pudding is so rich that this mug is perfect for sharing.
As lovely as a warm night in the garden is, insiders are starting to flock to his weekend afternoon barbecues, where Elliot, whose prior credits include Whim and Blue Star in Carroll Gardens, rolls his grill onto the patio and cooks up burgers and other savories while he also roasts his poblanos and chilies for the week ahead.
Santa Fe (366 Union Ave., between Powers and Grand streets, in Williamsburg) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Appetizers: $7-$9; entrees: $9-$18. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday–Friday, noon–4 pm; dinner, every night from 5 pm; weekend brunch 11am–4 pm. Subway: G, L to Metropolitan Avenue-Lorimer Street. For information, call (718) 599-2655 or visit www.santafewb.com.