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Food and Travel

At the Shed, chili comes with a kick

New Mexico restaurant is a hot spot

By Andrea Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2009

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SANTA FE - Anyone with a low tolerance for spicy food should heed the warning on the Shed’s menu: “For those unaccustomed to eating chile, ours is spicy!’’ Most dishes specify whether they come with red or green, but some, like the enchilada and taco plate, offer a choice of red, green, or “Christmas’’ (red and green). The red chili is like a fireball exploding in your mouth. You get the sensation of eating, then boom! Taste buds you never knew you had wake up and there’s a prickly feeling inside your cheeks. The green is much more subtle; a delicious complement to a blue corn enchilada.

The Carswell family opened the Shed in 1953. Chef Josh Carswell, 38, is a member of the third generation. Younger sister, Sarah, 35, is responsible for the bar, customer service, and aspects of the business side. Their father, Courtney, who was the chef for years, and mother, Linnea, are still integral to the operation. The Shed won a James Beard award in 2003, its 50th anniversary, as an “American Classic.’’

The entrance to the Shed is through a beautiful courtyard a couple of blocks off the central plaza here. Housed in a former residence that dates to 1692, the cozy restaurant has five small dining rooms and a spacious bar area. Each dining room is a slightly different decor, and signs above the doorways leading from one to the other caution, “low ceilings.’’ They’re not kidding.

On a recent evening, every seat around the bar was taken. At one of the tables, a couple pored over a pile of maps and guide books that threatened to topple their glasses of wine.

The bar seems more suited to sitting back and letting the friendly ambience envelop you as you sip an excellent margarita, such as the top-of-the line Don de Oro, with Don Julio Anejo tequila and Grand Marnier, or the basic Silver Coin, with El Tesoro Platinum tequila and Cointreau.

An introduction on the menu says the restaurant is known for Northern New Mexico cuisine. According to Sarah Carswell, that’s to “let people know in advance that it’s not Tex-Mex, it’s not Mexican.’’ To her, Northern New Mexican food is typified by enchiladas, tacos, and burritos “smothered in chili and baked.’’ The Shed has won numerous local awards for its red and green chili sauces. Carswell explains that the family has been buying chilies from the same farm in nearby Hatch for decades. In the kitchen, the chef grinds whole pods daily, so the chilies are always fresh. This “preserves the integrity of the chili,’’ says Carswell.

The blue corn enchilada is wrapped around melted cheese and a soft blue corn taco is folded over your choice of meat, with cheese, lettuce, and tomato.

Both pinto beans and posole accompany the enchilada and taco plates; and carne adovado (lean pork slow-roasted in red chili, garlic, and oregano with a blue-corn cheese enchilada). Posole is an addictive stew made with pork, garlic, oregano, coarse red chili, and nixtamal, a hominy-like New Mexico corn. In Mexico, where the dish originated, it is made with hominy.

Garlic bread is an interesting feature on the menu, a fixture since the place opened. Sarah Carswell says that the tradition goes back to her grandmother, Polly Carswell, who pioneered the restaurant’s cooking. “It’s an amazing experience to eat your chili with bread that soaks up all of the sauce and then get an extra hit of garlic,’’ she explains. “[My grandmother] did it because she enjoyed it.’’

Her grandmother also liked zabaglione and individual fresh lemon souffles, which are still on the menu, now made by her grandson, Josh. He prepares all the desserts, including a dense, irresistible mocha cake with frozen dark chocolate and coffee mousse.

Any of these are perfect to douse the fire still smoldering on your tongue.

The Shed, 113 1/2 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe, N.M. 505-982-9030, www.sfshed.com