The house that Ben built
If you’re on any kind of schedule, you should probably avoid Ben Michael’s restaurant on even a half-busy evening. The slow-moving spectacle that often passes for service will be frustrating if there’s some other place you need to be. But if you aren’t in a hurry, that same chaos could pass as entertainment. And if you show up during a quiet lunch hour and you’re the only one there, expect to be treated like royalty.
The restaurant’s owner, Ben Michael, is the salty embodiment of the highest ideals of the slow food and locavore movements, though it wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t heard of either. He is a pragmatist, rather than a trend-chaser. And taking your time with good food makes sense.
After ordering a beet salad special one lazy afternoon when I had the place to myself, I watched Mr. Michael lumber out the front door toward the garden and return with a bunch of beets. Moments later they were sliced, still raw, on a plate before me, alongside a pile of greens, also from the garden.
Uncooked beet is a tall order for the casual salad eater unaccustomed to the root’s acerbic raw earth tones. These beets were dressed with an equally assertive balsamic vinaigrette and chunks of gamey, salty goat cheese, which offered a decent counterbalance to the deadly serious beets. The accompanying pile of tender greens was a nice refuge when the beet got too intense. While I respected and liked the dish, I couldn’t help but believe I was in the minority. Other diners, I suspected, would be in shock.
In a perfect world, chefs would challenge their customers with dishes like this, nudging them out of their comfort zones. I suspect that most diners would sooner push it away, as is their prerogative, than rise to the occasion. But I don’t get the sense Ben Michael would care if they did.
The restaurant, which doubles as Ben Michael's residence, looks older than it is. Walls of real adobe brick are adorned with photos from the Michael family archives. High ceilings are clad in split-aspen logs. The dining room opens onto a deck, upon which I sat one night while eating ginger-laced fish tacos as the hours lazed by.
The tacos were good, though one of the tortillas was clearly past its prime. A band was setting up, and I gathered from their conversation that one of the members was Ben Michael's cousin visiting from Miami, where he plays in Gloria Estefan’s band. An ancient-looking 7-foot ceramic urn had to be moved to accommodate a speaker, and for a few tense moments everyone’s attention was on the two musicians tilting and maneuvering the vase out of the way.
All this action was interesting, but I preferred the afternoon when I had the place to myself and one of Ben Michael's buddies stood by my table, giving me recommendations. I was asking so many questions about where the food was from that Ben Michael came over to help field them. At one point he turned to his friend and remarked, in Spanish, that this vato sure asks a lot of questions.
Unfazed, I learned that beyond his kitchen garden Mr. Michael has arrangements with other small area growers to supply many of the ingredients on the menu. These offerings include the local, non-certified organic fried egg atop the green chicken enchilada that his buddy practically demanded that I order. It came with a side of organic brown rice—unusual for a New Mexican plate, but why not?
The green chile was strong in that simple enchilada stack. It captured every oozing drop of bright yellow yolk that ran out when I cut into the fried egg. And the chicken required enough chewing to suggest a bird that had actually used its muscles. Ben Michael acknowledged that the chicken, like the egg, was local.
Like the band that finally got to playing on that crowded evening, Ben Michael's has a jazzy spirit—almost to a fault, depending on your expectations. Yes, it can be mildly disappointing when your server disappears and you have to hunt her down when it’s time to leave. But the same mañana attitude responsible for the extra-casual service is behind some of the best guacamole in town.
You’ll have to wait for the chef to mash the avocados and putter around gathering the other ingredients. As you’re blown away by its neon freshness, you forgive the 10 other little flubs, including the excessive grease sweating off of the freshly fried chips. After all, you’re a guest at Ben Michael’s house. You knew what you were getting into, and you’re curious to see what happens next.