If you are tired of living in the present, afraid of the future and want to step back in time, head straight to the Black Bird Saloon in the tiny town of Los Cerrillos. Located 12 miles south of Interstate 25 from Santa Fe, along the famous Turquoise Trail, this is a haven for those who long for a taste of the Old West while savoring an adult beverage and noshing on excellent grub.
With decades in the restaurant industry, owner Patrick Torres dreamed of having his own restaurant. While his wife, Kelly, had some restaurant experience, she had no culinary background. Together, they worked on concepts and looked at properties for a few years before fate brought them to a saloon in Los Cerrillos.
“As soon as we set eyes on it,” Patrick says, “We knew it would be perfect. The interior has a bar and back bar and the history of it being a saloon in 1900 was a natural fit for us to restore it as a saloon.” They bought the property in 2014 and, after renovations and code updates, opened in 2017. Patrick is the host and Kelly is the culinary wizard in the kitchen.
Committed to local ingredients, they source beef and pork from Santa Fe’s Dr. Field Goods butcher shop. One guest was so smitten with the ground beef, she walked from the patio into the saloon with burger in hand to ask, “Where do you get this ground beef? It’s so good!”
The saloon doors open every Thursday through Sunday where they serve three square meals a day to a rotation of hungry customers. When we arrived on a weekend afternoon, the patio and saloon were filled with a collection of mostly local characters.
Once you place your foot on the wooden floors that date back to the 1880s, you’ll be transported to the Wild West. The bar itself is historic, with antlers as draft pulls and a vase of fresh flowers beckons you inside. The original wood-burning stove in the corner remains a testament to the saloon’s multi-century existence, while a small “store” in the front invites customers and neighbors to stock up on essentials or take a taste of the Black Bird Saloon home.
When developing the Black Bird menu, Patrick and Kelly researched what people ate in the 1880s and early 1900s. “That’s why we focus on game meat. Kelly has an excellent palate, a dedicated thought to ingredients and combinations. It is because she doesn’t have real kitchen experience that allows her to be free to create,” says Patrick.
And create she does.
The chalkboard menu offers an array of mouth-watering dishes with clever names that focus heavily on meat, including ground beef, elk, lamb, steak, pastrami and grilled sausage platters. For those who don’t eat meat, lean into the Cult of the Ancestors or the Crow Jane ($16.50) steak or pork salad, which can be made vegetarian, so don’t be afraid to ask your gracious hosts.
My husband dove in head first and ordered a classic burger, El Chivato ($11), one of the most popular. A thick, 6-ounce Angus beef burger is grilled to perfection and topped with green chile, American cheese, chopped iceberg lettuce, onion, mustard and mayo on a Kaiser roll. Messy, but oh-so-good, he proclaimed this the “best burger in Santa Fe” and ate every bite. Before he finished the burger, he asked when we could come back.
Being that meat doesn’t like me, I tested the Cult of the Ancestors ($13). Toasted rye is layered with grilled king trumpet mushrooms, crispy sage, a shmear of Spanish goat cheese and a brilliant addition of sweet apricot compote. The combination of earthy, herby, zesty and sweet makes for an incredible culinary experience.
We always order a side salad ($6.50) featuring lightly dressed mixed greens, sliced cucumber and radish with a Mead vinaigrette. I add the greens to my sandwich as it offers heft, texture and another earthy layer of flavor. Another vegetarian treat is the Dill Pickled Green Beans ($5.50), which are seriously vinegary.
Their signature french fries ($4.50) are shoestring potatoes which have plenty of chew for such small slivers. They also make Saloon House Chips with Ace of Spades Seasoning ($5.50). Both of these sides are generous enough to share and, similar to Lay’s potato chips, you won’t be able to have just one.
As you do in Santa Fe, we made friends with the couple at the next table, who were first-timers, and enjoyed talking about our collective love of quality food. One of them ordered The Ortiz ($16), a thinly sliced roasted lamb sandwich served on naan flatbread which she lovingly devoured.
The saloon culture begs for friends to hang out together in an Old West setting and we recently brought friends for their first, but not last, visit. One friend ordered The Smelter Grilled Cheese ($12) with smoked trout, whiskey cheddar, mascarpone and apple-onion jam on rustic bread and pronounced it “A festival of flavors.” Similarly, her husband had no problem downing The Black Jack Ketchum burger ($11). This burger is creatively layered with grilled Angus beef sprinkled with gun-powder rub and topped with Tucumcari Jack cheese, onion, cilantro and Bandit sauce on a Kaiser roll. Both my husband and our male dining guest ordered a locally-made Zia root beer with their burgers which was a terrific pairing.
Perfect for the table, try a new menu item, Campfire at the Crossroads ($16.95), a sausage platter of grilled little elk and bison smokies, rattlesnake and rabbit sausage, shishito peppers and blueberry-mustard. With such tasty signature dishes, it’s easy to see why this cozy spot is always hopping.
It is obvious that Patrick and Kelly are deeply passionate about the Black Bird Saloon, a unique destination location. Now is a great time to get in the car for a short road trip from Albuquerque or Santa Fe to relish a delightful taste of history and an experience and meal you won’t soon forget.
Read more about the Santa Fe food and hospitality scene at Heather Hunter’s blog, “The Cowgirl Gourmet in Santa Fe,” at thecowgirlgourmetinsantafe.com.