Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The combination of a mild spring with vaccine season means that our sleepy mountain town suddenly feels rather … loud. Whether it’s an influx of new residents, tourists or folks merely emerging from isolation, it seems as if people are everywhere these days, filling parking lots and restaurants. What happened to social distancing?
A slower pace, more space and scenic vistas can be found on three patios along N.M. 14, where I recently sought solace from the madding crowd. For the drive time, I was rewarded with such delicacies as pickled green beans, venison sausage pizza, and a hazy, juicy ménage à trois of grapefruit, tangerine and hops.
The outdoor seating at Cerrillos’ Black Bird Saloon amounts to sitting on the Old West town’s front porch. The corrugated tin roof of the 19th century building on Cerrillos’ main drag sets a tone of rustic elegance; inside, the old-fashioned long bar is accented with a vintage wood stove and the beaked faces of several inky ravens. On a breezy weekday evening, you might be lucky enough to have that porch all to yourself, free to float into a reverie about Young Guns as you look onto the dusty street where it was filmed.
For four years now, Black Bird Saloon owner-operators Patrick and Kelly Torres have been quietly serving up the most creative and well-executed burgers this side of Santa Fe. I revisited the Trail Blazer ($14.50), an impossibly juicy elk burger coated with Stilton, and mounted with mixed greens and blueberry mustard on a Kaiser roll. The elk burger sums up the Black Bird’s winning formula: gorgeous, glistening meat, fresh veggies, unexpected and delicious accompaniments. Rustic elegance, indeed.
A few newer items have made their way onto the hearty menu – grilled trumpet mushrooms, crisped sage, goat cheese and apricot compote on rye ($11.50), a liverwurst sandwich with beer-pickled onions ($9.75), a smoked-trout grilled cheese ($11.25). We fell in love with the Crow Jane ($14.75), a tangy marinated bavette steak salad with more Stilton, yellow peppers, cucumbers and a lightly sweet mead vinaigrette, and swooned over the dill-pickled haricots verts ($4.50).
It’s easy to pretend you’re a full-time resident of this sleepier town while sipping a cold local beer ($5) on the Black Bird’s portal. Patrick Torres greets regulars and road-trippers with a familiar ease, and conversations arise spontaneously between tables. The saloon is even offering a small selection of groceries for residents. The sheer number of exciting dishes on the Black Bird’s menu – cow peas with oxtail and cabbage, topped with spicy sour cream and cilantro! – ensures that I’ll always come back to Cerrillos.
A little further north, Beer Creek Brewing Company extends a hearty welcome to those seeking a watering hole off the beaten path. Its expansive flagstone patio, strung with fairy lights and centered around an outdoor fireplace, is a favorite of large families and couples seeking house-made pizza, sandwiches and brews. We sipped the smooth Rowe Mesa Red ale and the chocolatey Picture Rock Porter (both $6, $15 for a four-pack to go) and noted a steady stream of obvious Beer Creek brew fans filling up growlers to go.
Thick-crust specialty pizza is the star of Beer Creek’s menu, and we liked the combo of ingredients on the Big Game ($18/$26): spicy venison sausage, mushrooms, red onions and chopped garlic. The Roadrunner ($13) is one of the better Reubens to be had in this town, perfectly proportioned with gooey Swiss cheese, zesty sauerkraut and dressing on two sturdy slices of rye and served with a pickle spear, pepperoncini and bag of chips. If you like your vibe down-home and unpretentious, with ample views of the prairie and the mountains, Beer Creek is for you.
Things were more bustling down the road at Santa Fe Brewing Company’s new 6,000-square-foot Beer Hall at HQ, which opened in late 2019, but seems to be finally getting into its groove this spring. At sunset on a Friday night, groups of newly vaxxed millennials and families quaffed and bopped to ’80s hits at separate fire pits on the lawn. Inside, despite the pandemonium, beers were ordered and served with maximum efficiency. Drinks are cheap here at the beloved brewing company’s headquarters: most pints of the 10 regular beers on tap are $5, except for happy hour from 4-6 p.m., when they’re a dollar off – and extra discounted on Wednesdays, when they’re $3 all day.
They go down easy in the merry, expansive beer garden. We loved the summery Squeezer, a hoppy blend of tangerine and grapefruit juices, along with the Social Hour’s light, golden wheat brew.
During April and May, the Santa Fe Brewing Company is reportedly auditioning some of the region’s finest foodsters for a permanent stay, featuring rotating pop-up dining gigs from Thursdays to Sundays. Our visit coincided with the residency of Fusion Tacos, which has our vote: their already Santa famous quesabirria tacos ($11 for a plate of four), served with an unctuous burnt-orange dipping sauce, are the perfect accompaniment to a frosted pint.
Fusion Taco’s competition is, however, stiff and tasty. Uncle DT’s Smokehouse takes the reins this weekend, followed by Calidad, Quarterhorse BBQ and the much-anticipated return of Cuba Fe Home Cooking. That variety is all the more reason to make the Beer Hall a regular destination when you’re looking to get just a little bit off the map.