Originally published in Taos News
The name means “The Cave,” but this cozy restaurant in the heart of downtown Taos doesn’t look like a cave at all. The bright-colored walls, an old kiva fireplace and the wood floors make it inviting and comfortable, without trying too hard.
It is small inside, with just five tables, but Juana and Horacio Zarazua, the owners, have just opened the patio for the summer. With the new arrangement the place gains seven more tables, under colorful umbrellas, to dine al fresco.
“We also decorate it with candles at night,” said Juana Zarazua. “The plants provide a nice touch of green, now that all the flowers are starting to bloom. We want to make the restaurant inviting, like someone’s own casa.”
The food also resembles the one you can get at your home—supposing mama or grandma had collected as many recipes as the Zarazuas did, and were such skillful chefs.
Their most popular dish is the chile relleno, made from scratch with Hatch green chile, stuffed with cheese and smothered with red and green sauce. It’s served with rice, beans and pico de gallo (onions, tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeno).
“We don’t use anything frozen,” said Horacio Zarazua. “We buy fresh chiles, clean them by hand and make sure that they are cooked just right.”
That’s the reason why the chile relleno tastes delicious, so soft that it melts in your mouth with cheese and everything.
“The process takes a lot of work, but our patrons appreciate the difference,” said Zarazua.
Sometimes vendors from Costco approach him, Zarazua tells me, and offer La Cueva a good deal on frozen chile, explaining that it would save the cooks time and effort.
“I always answer ‘gracias, pero no,’” Zarazua said. “No matter what you do, frozen foods never have the same texture and flavor as fresh meals.”
The menu includes Mexican and New Mexican plates.
Cochinita pibil is one of the specials today. The shredded pork is wrapped on a banana leaf and has a tangy flavor after being marinated in three kinds of juice—lime, orange and lemon. Like most dishes, it is served with rice, beans and corn or flour tortillas.
The dessert department is as well stocked as anyone with a sweet tooth could wish for. The little chimichangas make good use of the omnipresent flour tortilla. They are stuffed with mango and cream cheese and then deep fried. “We serve them with vanilla ice cream to set off the flavors,” Zarazua said.
According to Treska Stein, a native ofGermany, yummy is the best word to describe the sweet chimichangas.
“I have tried several dishes at La Cueva and love them all,” Stein said. “The burritos are excellent too. You can also order food to go and they are very efficient and fast.”
The Zarazuas and their employees do deliveries around town, mostly to businesses. The service is free.
La Cueva opened its doors in March 2011. Both Horacio and Juana Zazueta are experienced chefs, having worked at The Old Blinking Light, Graham’s Grill, Relleno’s and Antonio’s.
“It was about time for us to open our very own restaurant,” Zarazua said.
Despite their relatively short time in business, the online city guide Yelp recently chose La Cueva as the # 1 Mexican restaurant in Taos. Most reviews are favorable and full of praise.
The Zarazuas want to spread a health-conscious message. Their chiles rellenos, tacos, tortillas and sauces are all gluten-free and there are several vegetarian entrees.
They are planning a new summer menu which will include fresh salads, Mexican- style prime ribs, dulce de leche and their signature coctel de camaron, a shrimp cocktail with tomatoes, onions, jalapeño, lemon juice, cilantro, avocado, ketchup and orange soda.
“We want to capture the spirit of summer inTaos,” said Juana Zarazua, “and translate it into healthy food choices. We are in love with this town and it is always an inspiration for our menus.”
The couple is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, but they have lived in Taos for fifteen years. They have three daughters and the eldest helps occasionally in the restaurant.
“We are very grateful for all that we have received here; therefore, we really want to give back to the community,” Zarazua said. “That’s why we keep our prices down and as affordable as we can.”
The most difficult part of the restaurant business, they both said, is the long hours, particularly in a place that is open every day, from 10 am to 9 pm.
“One of us is always here,” said Juana Zarazua, “so if there is a school event for one of our daughters, we need to take turns to attend. It means a great deal of commitment.”
“There are no work-free holidays for us,” said her husband. “When other people take days off, in Christmas or New Year, we work extra hard. But we love the restaurant business and it keeps us going. At the end of the day, the biggest satisfaction comes from knowing that people are happy with our food, that they have panzas llenas y corazones contentos after dining at La Cueva.”
Panza llena, corazon contento is a Mexican saying that means “full belly, happy heart.”
La Cueva Café is located at 135 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, at the corner of Paseo del Pueblo Sur and Quesnel.
Phone: 575 758-7001
Open daily from 10 am to 9 pm
4 pounds chicken pieces, skin on
sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted, for garnish
Makes 9 cups.
9 mulato chiles*
7 pasilla chiles*
6 ancho chiles*
1 cup plus 9 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard plus additional as needed
4 or 5 tomato’s
5 whole cloves
20 whole black peppercorns
1-inch piece of a Mexican cinnamon stick***
1 tablespoon seeds from the chiles, toasted
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
8 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
4 garlic cloves, roasted
3 tablespoons raisins
20 whole almonds, blanched
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds****
2 corn tortillas, torn into pieces
6 to 7 cups reserved chicken broth as needed
1 1/2 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped
*Mulato, pasilla, and ancho chiles are three varieties of dried chiles often used in Mexican cooking. The ancho chile (a poblano that has ripened to a dark red color and dried) is rust-colored, broad at the stem and narrowing to a triangular tip. The mulato, a relative to the poblano, is dark brown and triangular. The shiny black pasilla chile, a dried chilaca chile, is narrow and five to six inches long. Good quality chiles should be fragrant and pliable. Wipe them carefully with a damp cloth or a paper towel to remove any dust.
**Tomatillos are often referred to as “green tomatoes,” but are members of the gooseberry family. To prepare tomatillos for the salsa, remove their papery husks and rinse away their sticky outer coating. Canned whole tomatillos are available under theSan Marcosbrand.
***Mexican cinnamon, known as canela, is the bark of the true cinnamon tree, native toSri Lanka. It is sold in very thin and somewhat flaky curled sticks and is much softer than the more common variant of cinnamon, which comes from the bark of the cassia tree.
****Also known as pepitas, the pumpkin seeds used in Mexican cooking are hulled.
When frying or toasting pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet, keep a cover handy, as they will pop like popcorn.
In a large stock pot, parboil the chicken in water seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Drain, reserving cooking broth, and refrigerate until ready to assemble the dish.
Prepare the Mole Poblano. Clean the chiles by removing stems, veins, and seeds; reserve 1 tablespoon of the seeds. Heat 1/2 cup of the oil in a heavy skillet until it shimmers. Fry the chiles until crisp, about 10 to 15 seconds, turning once; make sure they do not burn. Drain on paper towels. Put the chiles in a nonreactive bowl, cover with hot water, and set aside for 30 minutes. Drain the chiles, reserving the soaking water. Puree the chiles in a blender with enough of the soaking water to make a smooth paste. It may be necessary to scrape down the sides and blend several times to obtain a smooth paste. In a heavy Dutch oven heat an additional 1/2 cup oil over medium heat and add the chile puree (be careful — it will splatter). Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and set aside.
Puree the tomatillos in a blender. In a coffee or spice grinder, grind the cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and toasted seeds. Add the seed mixture and the garlic to the pureed tomatillos and blend until smooth. Set aside.
Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy frying pan. Fry each of the following ingredients and then remove with a slotted spoon: the raisins until they puff up; the almonds to a golden brown; the pumpkin seeds until they pop. If necessary, add enough oil to make 4 tablespoons and fry the tortilla pieces and bread slices until golden brown, about 15 seconds per side; remove from the skillet with a slotted spoon. Add raisins, almonds, pumpkins seeds, tortillas, and bread to the tomatillo puree and blend, using 1 to 2 cups of the reserved chicken broth, as needed, to make a smooth sauce. This may have to be done in batches. In a heavy Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the chile puree, the tomatillo puree, and the Mexican chocolate (be careful — it will splatter). Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often. Add the remaining 5 cups of chicken broth, cook over low heat for an additional 45 minutes, stirring often enough to prevent the mixture from scorching on the bottom. During the last 15 minutes of cooking time, add the parboiled chicken and heat through. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and serve with Spanish rice.
1 lb halibut fillets (or use a mixture of fish and shrimp) or 1 lb sea bass fillets (or use a mixture of fish and shrimp) or 1 lb red snapper fillet (or use a mixture of fish and shrimp)
5 -6 limes (Enough Juice to cover fish)
1 cup diced fresh tomato
1 green pepper, sweet, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped parsley or 4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 jalapeno peppers, chopped (or more to suit your taste)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
lettuce leaf (to line serving bowls)
black olives, sliced (for garnish) (optional)
Dice the fish (approximately 1/2-inch dice if using shrimp use cleaned shrimp).
Marinate fish in the lime juice in the fridge overnight (this step cooks the fish).
Pour off most of the lime juice (just leave it moist).
Add remaining ingredients except lettuce, avocado and olive. Do this preferably a few hours before serving and refrigerate.
Toss well and arrange in individual serving bowls that are lined with the lettuce leaves.
If you wish, garnish with sliced avocado and sliced black olives.