The magical place currently known as Ojo Caliente (“warm eye”) is one of the longest continuously inhabited spots on the continent. It was once the home of the ancestors of today’s Tewa tribes. The ancestral Tewans built terraced gardens around the fertile area with which to feed themselves, and today the garden vibe continues in the restaurant’s kitchen, which offers inventive renditions of seasonal dishes with many local ingredients.
Accordingly, our visit began with a soak, which was a welcome reward after the two-hour drive. I’ve been to many hot springs around the West and around the world. They run the gamut from puddles of hot water bubbling out of the ground in the middle of the wilderness to polished resorts with full spa amenities. Both sides of this spectrum have their charms, but Ojo is perhaps the nicest of the developed springs that I’ve been to. It’s designed in a way that accentuates the natural character of the landscape. Charismatic boulders are left in place in pools nestled at the base of beautiful cliffs. Each pool has a different theme and personality, such as the grotto-like Soda Pool (many are named after minerals in the water) and split-level Cliffside Pools.
Irrespective of their attire, or lack thereof, the fact that most of your fellow diners have recently been soaking in the hot springs pretty much guarantees an upbeat vibe in the dining room that reminds me of a ski area bar at the end of a powder day, if a little less rowdy.
The only bummer was that our son, for whom we were charged the full entry price, was restricted to just one pool because he’s under 13. There is a strict whisper policy, and the chillness of the place is protected with a quiet relentlessness, as it should be. Unfortunately, the one pool to which he was allowed access was also the coldest pool (85 degrees °F) onsite. He was shivering after a few minutes in the water, and his mom and I were pretty uncomfortable, too. She and I ended up taking turns sitting by the fire with him. We could have spent an additional $50 for an hour in a private pool, but I’m just saying, why charge a kid full price when he can only use 1/10 of the amenities?
A grilled artichoke appetizer was easily my favorite artichoke ever. It was softer than I’d ever had, silky even, and smoky, and came with a large helping of lemon aioli, which looked like a puffy yellow cloud floating in a bowl. Another vegetarian option so good many carnivores wouldn’t miss their meat while eating it is the roasted vegetable chile relleno and quinoa tamale. The two iconic morsels, recast in a way that was different yet familiar, were surrounded by a red ring of sweet pepper salsa. The quinoa tamale was dense and spicy; the goat cheese and vegetable stuffed relleno, made with a poblano-like chile, was loose and mild. (We found out too late that the tortilla soup, also vegetarian, comes highly recommended.)
Many of the dishes elegantly weave New Mexican ingredients into internationally themed dishes. I’m not much of a shrimp man, but the Mexican Shrimp with smoked chile lobster sauce and green chile risotto cake was nonetheless tempting because it was so intriguing. And the pork belly carnitas with black bean mole, pico de gallo, guacamole and flour tortillas was alluring as well, because, you know, pork belly carnitas.
But I had to go with the El Rito lamb chops with Zinfandel sauce and smashed potatoes, and have no regrets. The sauce, reduced and dark, was a rich and luxurious companion to the medium rare, local chops.
And consider yourself warned: Rare means just a hair past still twitching, as we discovered in a mammoth, decadent chile-cured beef ribeye, which came with a slightly incongruous side of garlic cream potato slices. Despite the ribeye being so much more meat—utterly delicious meat at that—I’d take the chops again if I had to choose because of the grace with which the whole dish came together. The wine sauce married the tender, juicy, fatty meat with the savory smashed potatoes in a way that did justice to the spectacular surroundings of Ojo, even if it didn’t have chile in it. A glass of Black Mesa Sirah from Velarde, New Mexico, evaporated as I ate my chops.
If you happen to glance at the dessert menu ahead of time, you might decide to skip dinner. It’s daring, creative and full of secrets. Most importantly, it delivers. The chocolate cigar, for example, is described only as “caution, could be habit forming.” If I rolled my eyes at the description, I rolled them several more times as I chewed on that cigar. A long reservoir of molten chocolate inhabits a cigar-sized cylinder of phyllo dough, and the chocolate gushes into your mouth when you bite down. The cigar rests on a special holder with an end above what looks like a full ashtray, but is actually filled with whipped cream. Truly epic.
Next time, I would pass over the coconut mango tres leches—not because it isn’t delicious but because it was so un-tres leches-like that I couldn’t completely extinguish my disappointment—in favor of the cinnamon crème brulee, described simply as “aka, heaven.” I’m a crème brulee man, and this one was a carefree and satisfying sloppy near-10 on the crème scale, beneath a neat, thin sugar glaze.
But my favorite dessert of all was probably the pumpkin tamale, in which discernible chunks of pumpkin were fixed in a sweet pumpkin puree. It wasn’t too sweet, but was completely decadent nonetheless, and had a deep, soulful flavor. All of this we washed down with decent cups of coffee that our server kept filled.
Ojo Caliente is a local treasure, and you’re cheating yourself if you don’t stop in once in a while. Come for the water, but stay for dinner. And breakfast, for that matter, if you can afford to stay the night. Get a massage while you’re at it. Or lather yourself in the New Mexican mud. Whatever you do, don’t forget your robe, or you’ll have to rent one. And the kids? You might consider getting a babysitter.