Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:33 am, Thu Oct 20, 2016.
By Tantri Wija
For The New Mexican
Once upon a time, there was a steakhouse. It was loved and it was legendary, and it seemed like it would be there forever, but one day it shut its doors and the locals waited, with bated breath, for the day the lights would flare back on and the music would once again pump out into the cool mountain night. Located in Tesuque on Bishops Lodge Road, El Nido was a fixture for roughly 80 years, during which it was, variously, a pre-opera dinner spot, a venue for the legendary flamenco dancer María Benítez, a celebrity hangout, a dance hall and possibly a brothel. Something for everyone. El Nido as was closed in 2010, supposedly a victim of a depressed economy, and the building has sat vacant, waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, for its prince to come.
As it turns out, that prince’s name is Enrique Guerrero.
“Somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody else that knew me got in contact with me,” Guerrero says. “Two of the building’s partners got a hold of me and brought me to talk about El Nido.”
For Guerrero, the choice to revive El Nido was personal.
“The first restaurant that I ever ate in New Mexico was El Nido, 17 years ago,” he said. “It was very busy — everybody knew everybody, and I was amazed how the servers were calling everybody by name, the customers knew the owners, and I remember ordering a steak and some enchiladas.”
Guerrero has been a chef and cook in Santa Fe ever since, at one time cooking at La Mancha restaurant in Galisteo, a now-closed eatery named in 2008 as “one of the 52 best restaurants on the planet” by Condé Nast Traveler, among other accolades. He is the owner/operator of swoon-worthy burger truck Bang Bite.
“I love what I’m doing, and it’s very easy and doesn’t need much supervision,” Guerrero says. “It’s kind of like I’m retired but I’m not retired.”
And as it turns out, he has definitely not retired. Guerrero got involved in a project to open a restaurant and bowling alley in the Railyard, which stalled, so he knew that any big project he undertook would have to have real guts behind it for him to get involved.
“If I’m going to do something that is going to bring me back to cook, I want to be sure that it’s something that I can feel,” he says. “The feeling that I had when I got hired at La Mancha is very similar to the feeling that I got when I walked through [the El Nido] building — it brought me 17 years back, when I was here with my little one and my wife. I got the feeling this is a good thing, this is the right fit. I got the offer to open a few restaurants downtown, but this one is special.”
The actual building is historic and remains as it ever was on the outside, but the inside has been renovated from dining room to kitchen.
“We wanted to be El Nido, but we wanted to be the ‘new old El Nido,’ ” says Guerrero. “The building is the same, but inside it’s 100 percent changed. We got rid of the bar, now have an exhibition kitchen, new floors, new walls, the bar is two times bigger than it used to be. It’s gorgeous. I’m very pleased with what [the owners] had done with the building.”
The new kitchen is fueled entirely with wood, and 80 percent of the menu will be cooked over an open fire. There is a new rotisserie and a grill, and even a new wood-fired pizza oven. Because while the old El Nido was a steakhouse, the “new old El Nido” will be a variation on that theme: an Italian steakhouse.
“We want to have the steaks they had before and lot of seafood, but we want to have fresh-made pastas, pizzas and a huge selection of appetizers,” Guerrero says. This means a ribeye, a lamb steak, a rotisserie chicken, osso buco, etc. The appetizer menu features Mad Men-lunch classics like oysters rockefeller, burrata (cream-filled mozzarella, aka the food of the gods) with candied butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds, and roasted mushrooms (with black truffles).
Guerrero also wanted to emphasize that the new old El Nido is for everyone, whether they want a glass of wine and an inexpensive appetizer or an $80 steak. The appetizer menu starts at just $5 for fried olives stuffed with anchovies, and meanders upward accordingly, but you can get fresh, handmade pasta starting at $13, like “Chianti-stained pappardelle,” egg tagliatelle with creamy burrata and fried egg yolk (the heart attack you’ve always dreamed of), and maccheroni alla chitarra with albacore tuna and peppers.
“I want people to feel very comfortable, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to be expensive,” he says. “We don’t want you to come here and think ‘I cannot afford it’ — if you want to order pasta and pizza, you’ll be happy only spending $25. I think the menu will please everybody.”
The choice to go with an Italian theme had a bit to do with the neighbors (Tesuque Village Market has both American food and New Mexican food covered) and a bit to do with what Guerrero actually loves to cook.
“My formal background is in Italian restaurants, and I love Italian food,” he says. “Anything, if I put myself in it, but Italian food comes very easy to me.” But this is not necessarily “classic” Italian food, in The Sopranos sense — there will be no meatballs, no bolognese, no fettuccini alfredo.
“I want people to see a different side of the pasta,” laughs Guerrero.
El Nido is aiming to open at the beginning of November for dinner only (for now) so keep your ear to the ground for a series of soft openings before the grand opening.