Restaurant Review - Sundown Cafe
Last fall, when the harvest of New Mexico chiles was at its peak, David Waller happened to be on his way back from that state to Atlanta. He'd left Sundown Cafe a few years earlier to wander between Santa Fe and Santa Barbara. He also worked a stint as chef on a dude ranch in Wyoming with his wife, Sarah. But having accepted an invitation to come back to work at Sundown, he figured he might as well load his truck up with 800 pounds of chiles.
This year, he did not have to transport the delectable chiles himself, but he's had hell buying enough of them — prices have skyrocketed — to satisfy customers who every year look forward to specials made with the peppers. The specials run as long as the harvest does, usually from late August to early October. During that time, the chiles, considered the most flavorful grown in America, change from green to red, their flavor growing more complex and intense as they ripen.
On a Friday morning while the kitchen preps for the restaurant's popular lunch, Waller pulls a box of the tapered chiles from the cooler and begins picking through them. "These are small, really, and not very good for making chile rellenos. I've only got about 50 pounds left. Thank God we've got an 875-pound shipment coming in," he says. He takes one out that is pale crimson. "See, the reds are already starting to appear."
Exactly what makes the New Mexico chile so desirable is of course rather subjective. "It's basically an Anaheim chile and they are grown all over the place, especially in California," Waller says. "But everyone agrees the New Mexico chiles are the most flavorful. In fact, a New Mexico chile grown out of the state has to be called a 'New Mexican.'"
Even at their hottest, the New Mexico chiles are moderate compared to many others, and they retain a powerful flavor. I like legendary Santa Fe chef Mark Miller's description: "sweet and earthy, with a clarity that seems to reflect the skies and landscapes of New Mexico." Perhaps it's that sweet undertone, almost cherry-like, that makes the chile so delicious.
Waller, who is now Sundown's executive chef, inherited the annual tradition of featuring the chiles from Eddy Hernandez for whom he worked earlier. (Hernandez, a partner in the business, is now overall chef of Sundown and its two popular Taqueria del Sol offspins.) He has worked with some of Atlanta's more colorful culinary personalities, including Mike Tuohy, who now owns Woodfire Grill, and Rhoads Fern, among the city's best pastry chefs, who was for a time occupying space with Katharine Krasnow, the famously eccentric operator of the Bread Garden. A Johnson and Wales graduate, he also worked for Veni Vidi Vici when it was more directly under the supervision of Marcella Hazan and her son.
"This must be the most stable gig you've ever had," I say.
"Definitely," he replies. "I taught myself to cook because I had to. My parents divorced. And we moved constantly when I was a kid. So I grew up with this love of cooking and a wanderlust. But, hey, we just bought a house and we're having a baby." He takes his hands out of the bowl of roasted peppers he's rapidly seeding and grips the table's edge. "I'm staying put."
That wanderlust has undoubtedly contributed to Waller's cuisine. It has strong California notes that Hernandez's cooking does not but he definitely retains the restaurant's Southern accent. One of the special tacos served at lunch today, for example, is Cajun-fried shrimp with remoulade, pickles, lettuce and tomato wrapped in a flour tortilla. Working with such creative characters must also have contributed to his willingness to improvise. "I get nearly total freedom here to experiment," he says. "I could always do better, but I'm really most interested in creating the food. In a restaurant without a huge staff, you can't take that approach and be a perfectionist."
As 11:30 a.m. approaches, the three Mexican kitchen helpers pick up their pace. One is using a blender that looks like an extraterrestrial's torture device. Black beans and pintos are boiling on the stove. Carnitas await frying. Sauces, including one made with the New Mexicos, tomatoes and a whisper of cumin, are poured into steam trays. George Trusler, who manages the restaurant, prepares to test the food.
Waller is drumming his fingers and trying to mentally tweak the specials that night. He can't decide whether to put a sauce on one dish. I read his description of the specials and am somewhat surprised how subtle the use of the chiles is.
I return that evening to dine. Of course, the chile relleno, a regular menu dish, is a conspicuous use of the seasonal chile. Fried crispy and stuffed with white cheese, the fruity pepper is sassy but not scalding and a tomato frita sauce is just the right complement.
A special appetizer of baby shrimp salad reminds me of my favorite childhood dish. Here, instead of the mustardy sauce my mother made, a chipotle mayo enlivens the salad, which includes bits of roasted New Mexicos. Abundant green peas give the dish a very Southern touch — or it will seem that way if you've ever been to a covered-dish dinner.
The entree special is flat-grilled slices of cinnamon-brined pork loin with a guajillo-chile glaze. The New Mexico chiles appear here in a jelly used to glaze a blue-corn pecan crepe filled with Vidalia onions and portabellas. In all honesty, the dish is a bit sweet and I'd like the chiles to make a bolder appearance in the future.
The most striking dish is dessert: a chocolate truffle tart whose ganache is blended with the New Mexico chiles. You get quite a sting in the throat that is immediately cooled by the topping of frozen whipped cream strongly flavored with lavender.