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The New New Mexican

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The molcajete skirt steak and chicken in a spicy pepper sauce is served with avocado, queso fresco and soft corn tortillas.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonSanta Fe Wilmington
2006 Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington, 425-5200
santafewilmington.com

Prices
Appetizers: $7-$12
Quesadillas, fajitas and enchiladas: $11-$16
Entrées: $15-$24

Recommended Dishes
Tamal de elote, salmon with tomatillo-mango salsa, tacos al pastor

 

From the shimmering, celestial lighting elements that dangle beyond the stylized adobe entrance, it’s clear brothers Javier and Andres Acuna invested in refinement when they opened Santa Fe Wilmington, their Latin-fusion venture on Pennsylvania Avenue. But they were after an even more important distinction: It’s different.

Javier Acuna didn’t name names during an impromptu appraisal of Delaware’s sit-down Latino restaurants, but then again, he didn’t have to.

Co-owner Javier Acuna admires a few of his freshly squeezed cocktails. Photograph by Thom Thompson“People in Delaware, they’re used to seeing the same thing from Latin restaurants, the same types of entrées,” he says. “We wanted to incorporate a lot more ingredients and dishes beyond just enchilada and chimichangas.”

The implication: Our local fleet of reliable Tex-Mex chains has lulled us into a culinary torpor, where refried beans and carnitas are our standard.

There’s nothing wrong with order-by-numbers Mexican, but, to Acuna’s point, there’s not a lot of diversity, either. The Acunas opened Santa Fe Wilmington last winter with a mission: to alter Delaware’s Latin landscape. Fusion is their tool, and they use it well.

The Columbia-born brothers, along with chef Jeff Tagle, have created a menu that cherry-picks ingredients and recipes from an array of Spanish-speaking countries. There’s Cuban boniato, sweet Costa Rican empanadas and churrasco from Argentina. The menu is supplemented by Mexican restaurant standards (more in line with the Acunas’ flagship Santa Fe in Newark), yet most are marked by an uptown flair. A quesadilla, for instance, swells with flavorful smoked chorizo, manchego cheese, grilled peppers and onions.

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Desserts include flan—a traditional Mexican vanilla-scented custard accented with a sweet caramel sauce— and skinny tortillas: sweet crepes filled with Mexican vanilla bean ice cream and garnished with berries. Photograph by Thom ThompsonBut it’s Santa Fe’s platos fuertes that allow Tagle to showcase his chops. The entrées, mostly Santa Fe originals, beam with ideas. The idea of distinctive Latin cuisine manifests in dishes like pan-roasted grouper nestled atop beet-infused angel hair pasta salad with zucchini and yellow squash drizzled in poblano-lime vinagreta.

Elsewhere, a salmon filet’s crispy, flour-dipped crust danced with a salsa of tomatillo and mango to create a soothing contrast of textures and temperatures. Even better was an accompanying tamal, wrapped like a gift in a corn husk. The creamy, delicate masa burst with warmth. Its barely caramelized exterior, imparted with toasty, roasted-corn robustez, sent my tongue hitchhiking to Veracruz.

The Blue Rocks would be slick to go old-school Chicago and sell Sante Fe tamales at Frawley Stadium, perhaps with some of Tagle’s piquant mole sauce. Mole is a Mexican standard that practically every household does differently. Santa Fe’s is everything a great mole should be. Topping an otherwise OK chicken breast stuffed with chorizo, the ruddy-sauce released layer after layer of flavors over time—at first wonderfully pungent and bittersweet, then taking the bus tour through a spice rack (you’ll detect hints of cinnamon, cumin, anise and chile peppers) before a final wave of heat takes over like an afterburner.

Though Tagle’s forward-thinking big plates were the clear stars of the menu, his traditional (albeit safe) tacos and enchiladas were delicious, especially the tacos al pastor, which harbor tangy-sweet pineapple nibs that stand up strong to spiced chunks of pork. Even simple black bean dip impressed. Presented with the requisite basket of chips, it integrated chorizo sausage and creamy cotija cheese with mashed black beans.

Short rib spring rolls disappointed, but only mildly. I liked the crispy, non-greasy shell, but why fry a spring roll filled with short rib? The crunchy wrapping detracted from the typically Jell-O-soft texture of the meat. It’s easy to confuse these with their South Philly cousin, the cheesesteak egg rolls found at your neighborhood tavern.

A few other minor follies indicated Santa Fe could stand to iron out a kink or two. Shredded pork empanadas—with tender, flaky, gently sweetened plantain masa crust and roasted tomatillo sauce—exuded homemade charm, but the deep-fried bundles could’ve used a bit more time to drain. A river of oil the size of the San Juan streamed down my arms with each bite.

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Chef Jeff Tagle slices and dices in the kitchen. Photograph by Thom ThompsonAnother night, a waiter outright dissed our beer order to the tune of, “I don’t usually drink that watery stuff, ’cause, ya know, I brew my own at home.” He then disappeared for the second half of our meal, leaving us to settle our tab with the bartender.

And I was underwhelmed slightly by a chicken and beef stew, especially after witnessing its super-cool vessel, a sizzling mortar made from lava rock with the visage of a pig carved into its front. Santa Fe’s molcajete, named for the mortar, had all the trappings of a signature dish, but not enough of the flavor. The bubbling guajillo pepper sauce didn’t do enough to enhance the chicken or beef in any way.

Still, the dish and its ilk are a bold step in the right direction for a city that sorely needs more restaurants like Santa Fe. Along with fusion-forward comrades such as Kooma and Mikimotos, Santa Fe offers nightlife, including ladies’ nights, DJ nights, and so forth. During happy hour, the bar’s excellent freshly squeezed margaritas and mojitos drop from $7 to $5 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Anyone inclined to merengue the night away would be wise to fuel with dinner at Santa Fe, then cap it with a plate of “skinny tortillas,” ice cream-filled crepes drizzled with sinful caramel-tequila sauce. Still, it would be fun to see this kitchen ditch the burritos, bring in some huitlacoche, and make its mark as Wilmington’s pre-eminent place for upscale Latin food.

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