By Allegra Huston
Photos by Jim O’Donnell
In the Pre-construction Era, Aceq was tiny: just three tables in the main room and four more in a little porch. Eating there felt like going undercover, or being invited into a secret society. In May 2015, Michael Wagener, previously at El Meze, bought the restaurant and embarked on building works, which (for those of us who drove past daily) seemed as if they’d never end. Finally, this past August, they did.
The little porch is now an airy, brick-floored space, with a feeling somewhere between art studio and patio. In summer, the big windows are thrown open to the night. Even in winter, the room occupies a halfway point between inside and outside: the walls of the buildings that closely surround it pull the night in like a blanket, making the outer darkness unexpectedly cozy.
When I first walked into the new room, I thought it felt a bit empty, not quite finished. Most restaurants would cram many more tables into this square footage. Once my companion and I sat down and began talking, I appreciated the spaciousness: the distance between tables creates an intimacy, a comfortable zone of personal space. There is never a cacophony of voices, so you can keep your own voice low, and your neighbors’ conversation doesn’t intrude. If you are two, and it’s summer, choose the table to the far left, against the east window. Just outside, at ground level, is a gurgling fountain. That water feature encapsulates what I like best about Aceq: it’s a subtle, thoughtful detail, waiting to be discovered.
Aceq still feels small, hidden, and local, tucked away off the main drag of Arroyo Seco in its little courtyard. Named for the acequias which nourish the fields and farms of Northern New Mexico, it has a strong sense of place and connection to nature. The tables are made of aged wood from Michael’s grandfather’s barn in Wisconsin. The menus, which change often, come tied to little planks with baling twine. The plates and bowls are heavy earthenware by Logan Wannamaker, square and cloud-colored, with shadowy, gorgeously understated decoration. Plates such as these are a mark of respect, both to the food and to those who are eating it. They convey a silent message: the food they bear was prepared with equal care.
On their sign, Aceq advertises “comfort food.” If you’re like me, that phrase will make you think of carb-heavy, cheesy, questionably healthy things that don’t strain your jaw muscles or engage your attention. The fare at Aceq is nothing like that. It comforts by nourishing the body and delighting the senses, rather than by smothering the anxieties of the mind. And it most certainly engages your attention.
The appetizers seem designed for sharing, which always scores points with me. Two stunningly delicious bison tacos with red chile and cilantro ($6): perched on freshly made masa tortillas, they’re spicy without being hot, neither dry nor soggy, everything you want in a taco and nothing extraneous. A bowl of cheese curds, specially flown in from Michael’s home state of Wisconsin, lightly deep-fried with spicy ketchup and an avocado aioli ($8). Something seasonal on two pieces of homemade toast: in the summer it was fava beans and arugula, in November it was mushrooms topped with generous slices of manchego ($9). Do you know that feeling, when you take a first bite of something truly amazing, of being disoriented, almost dizzy? The feeling that, for a moment, time has stopped? If you’ve never experienced it, or you want it again, head to Aceq and order the mushrooms on toast. Here are butter, onions and garlic as fairy dust.
There’s not a dish at Aceq that isn’t absolutely wonderful—or if there is, I haven’t found it and don’t expect to. Pork tenderloin with chipotle corn sauce and onion marmalade ($23), red chile creating a surprising spiciness for a pork dish, and none the worse for that. Rockfish (a new one for me, $24) prepared with a saffron beurre blanc , black quinoa and glazed carrots that flip the usual relationship between meat and vegetable—where the fish is light and airy, the carrots are substantial, almost beefy. Perfect rectangles of sautéed polenta with artichoke hearts ($18), which would make me utterly happy to be a vegetarian.
And now to dessert—though, to be honest, at Aceq I’m frequently tempted just to order more appetizers. Except for one thing: the lemon curd ($8). Made with buttermilk and bee pollen, it sits in a beautiful fog-tinted bowl on a bed of crumble scented with bergamot (the distinctive ingredient of Earl Grey tea). The first time I tasted this, last summer—when it came topped with a sprinkling of sunflower petals—it left both me and my companion as speechless as the mushrooms left us in November. This may be the best dessert in Taos County, if not the entire state of New Mexico.
Beware: if you ask for two spoons, thinking you’ll share it, you may well end up ordering a second. (Lara Santoro and I did that.)
There’s a varied wine list, and Michael gladly pours tastes, and generous glassfuls. I’ve tried a couple of dry whites, and usually end up with something from either Chile or Argentina.
“That must be a nice place to work,” observed another of my dining companions, on a freezing night, which inspired us to choose a table in the inner room, which is open to the kitchen. The chefs were engrossed in their work, bending low over the plates; the atmosphere was remarkably serene. In many restaurant kitchens, you get the sense that the space is just a little too small; but at Aceq, small as it is, the chefs get their due amount of elbow room. Aceq couldn’t be further from Gordon Ramsay-land, thank God. It made me think of Masaru Emoto’s book, “The Hidden Messages in Water,” in which he writes that molecules of water exposed to classical music are symmetrical and prettily-shaped, whereas those exposed to raucous noise and dissonance are gnarled and misshapen. Maybe it’s superstition, that food prepared in a state of calm focus must be better for you than food prepared by shouting, sweating adrenaline junkies, but I choose to believe it. It’s one of the many advantages of a small town: such things happen here.
480 State Road 150
TAOS MAGAZINE | JAN/FEB 2017