(All italicized sections are conversations held with or overheard by the author at the Shed Bar between 2018 and the present)
It was just another night at The Shed’s bar. Two older women from Texas were laughing hard and belting back margaritas harder, a Black and Latina lesbian couple were smooching over their enchiladas, two guys from the U.S. Forest Service were having an animated conversation about “fire suppression crew dynamics,” and I was enthralled by a wilderness doctor’s treatment instructions for rattlesnake bite. All eight stools were fully occupied as a mix of emotions swirled about the 25-feet long bar: love and joy, an eagerness to do battle with wildfire, and a seventy-something man revved up to save humankind from a horde of attacking serpents!
For the chosen few who get a bar seat at this Santa Fe, New Mexico restaurant The Shed Restaurant. Best Burrito best Red Chile on the Santa Fe Plaza (sfshed.com), they will enjoy a worldview like no other. Not only do their neighboring eaters offer up stories worthy of the Canterbury Tales, but they may also be treated to a view of bartender Rachel’s bare back whose rippling contours invite both devotion and artistry. If your erotic flights flutter differently, you may wonder how Raphael’s black t-shirt contains his bulging biceps and swollen deltoids. Fantasy, science has found, is like the undulating flow of conversation, both elevating in direct proportion to the number of margaritas consumed.
“I typically sling 200 to 300 margaritas a night,” Raphael tells me. This remarkable output is fueled by deliveries of several cases of tequila twice a week. One drink of his high-octane concoction will make even the terminally dull interesting; two will make you the life of the party, mispronounced Spanish words and all; three will leave you searching the Santa Fe Plaza for your car until you realize you didn’t drive. Ever since I became a regular starting in 2004, there was a sign at the end of bar that read, “Customers will not be served more than three margaritas.” Not too long ago it was removed—permanently or for routine maintenance?
[Two guys in US Forest Service uniforms] If my wife can hold down the house and take care of the kids, I can go fight 3 or 4 fires a year and retire at 55…They’re burning this week in Carson [National Forest], and this guy asks me to help. But I’m not willing to drag a fucking torch for hours unless this dude is dragging one too…Crew dynamics are complex, man! Here I am trying to organize my crew in the middle of a fire when one of them tells me she’s pregnant.
The Shed is an institution in Santa Fe, at least as much as anything created in the 20th century is in this 400-year-old city. Founded by the Carswell Family in 1953 on what’s affectionately called “Burro Alley,” the Shed moved just east of the historic plaza—about the distance a healthy man can throw a corn chip—in 1960. The third generation of Carswell’s now operates the restaurant that occupies a portion of an historic building so quaintly authentic that tourists from New Jersey have been run over just staring dumbstruck at it from the middle of East Palace St. After crawling through the entryway into the Shed’s magical courtyard, they are fortunately revived by the sight of ancient wood, stone, and stucco woven together by a tapestry of trumpet vines. In the warm weather, it’s chock full of similarly dazed people eating at one of the outside tables or waiting, sometimes hours, for a table to open up. In winter, the empty outdoor space is often laced by a dream-like Northern New Mexico snow. As far as I know, heaven grants humans two glimpses into the afterlife: A view of the Manhattan skyline on a summer night from a 20-storey roof-top restaurant, and a view into the Shed’s courtyard on a snowy Santa Fe night. If the bells of nearby St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral happen to be chiming as you glance at the swirling flakes, Manhattan takes a distant second.
[A slender woman in her fifties] I was the head of Condoleezza Rice’s drug enforcement office. I was on a Colombian army helicopter going into the jungle to destroy a drug manufacturing facility. As the highest-ranking American official there, the Colombian army commander gave me the “honor” of throwing a hand grenade into a hole to blow up the drug making paraphernalia. But just after the pin was pulled, flies buzzed around my head because of my hair spray. I started waving my hand with the grenade through my hair to ward off the flies. The Colombian comandante screamed at me to throw it, which I finally did. But that was close!
Once inside its hallowed chambers, a series of cavern-like rooms unfold in labyrinthine fashion, some separated by doorways so low that the wait staff is required to tell everyone to “duck and watch your head.” I find this requirement both humbling and democratic. Not only does it require the 6’ 4” Texans to remove their hats, they have to practically get down on their knees and crawl in.
With respect to artwork, the same eclectic assortment of paintings, mostly depicting some version of Southwest scenes, have hung on the same walls forever. Their value is not measured by any artistic criteria that I’m familiar with, but simply by their association with the Shed. If, for instance, you viewed any of the “collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’d say “so what.” But hanging where it does, say in the north room behind table #16, you’d gasp, “Oh my God! It’s a Shed!” even if Van Gogh’s signature was affixed to it.
But as much as the décor and ebb and flow of sunlight across the beams and stucco beguile and delight, the margaritas will eventually force even the most pliable of bladders in search of the rest rooms. Gentlemen, be forewarned, this is the only restaurant in America where the line into the men’s room is longer than the women’s. I surmise that when the Shed’s 1960 architect shoe-horned what a modern restaurant needed into a multi-centuries old building, they had only an empty burro stall left for the men’s room. Effectively, this means that the restaurant has a “one-holer” available for the couple of hundred males who pass through daily. At times charming, but mostly annoying since peeing and patience aren’t really a “guy thing,” you stand in line with your brothers in a small space made more congested by their female companions who, contrary to expectations, are waiting for their men to finish rather than vice-versa.
Finding myself number 7 in line on one occasion, I thought I’d put my time to good use by sketching out a new configuration of fixtures for the men’s room on a cocktail napkin. My design, I believed, would allow two men at a time to use the space. I proudly showed it to the manager on duty who said he’d take it under advisement. It’s been several years now, and nothing has changed.
[A stylish young woman] That guy sitting next to me propositioned me after only 10 minutes! Don’t you know I’m loyal to my boyfriend, I told him!
But the main event, the reason that otherwise impatient tourists will endure humiliatingly long waits for a table, that reservations for holidays and the busy season must sometimes be made a month or more in advance, is the food, and more precisely, the chile. Of the approximately 243 times I’ve eaten there I’ve never had a mediocre meal. Granted, 90 percent of the time I have what the menu calls the “#4 Enchiladas (GF, V) Two flat blue corn enchiladas with cheddar cheese & onion, smothered in red chile, and garnished with lettuce & tomato.” I add a side of posole and substitute green chile because of its delicious smokey flavor which, I swear, tastes slightly different every time. And by different, I mean varying intensities of heat, more/less smokey, and the acceleration of pain to pleasure ratio (“AP2PR,” an indicator not yet recognized by any professional body).
Non-locals, of course, will approach the chile factor with a wide range of emotions. The white bread types from Connecticut will tip-toe up to their chile choice with a look of abject terror. A hip Bay Area techie will attempt to enhance their coolness by requesting extra heat, but only after producing the requisite doctor’s note. I must confess that I fell into the former category when I made my first visit to the Shed in 1992. Thinking that “chile” was something like a can of Chili Con Carne, I ordered a burrito “smothered in red.” Barely one bite had cleared my gullet before my toes curled and scalp sweated. “Dad, are you alright?” asked my daughter who was with me, thinking she saw vapors coming from my ears. I waived to the waiter for a second glass of ice water and 30 extra napkins which I used to sponge up the sweat now pouring from my brow. “Dad, your head is soaking wet; it looks like you just got out of the shower!” she said growing ever more concerned. Fortunately, we didn’t need to call the EMTs, but it would be ten years before I subjected myself to a repeat. Gratefully, my palate and digestive organs have gradually adapted to where most Anglos arrive: “Hello, my name is Mark. I’ve not eaten Northern New Mexico chile in 7 days.” There is no record, however, of any person even earning a 30-day chip from sustained abstinence.
[From the dessert menu] Red Hot Chile Hot Fudge Sundae
While generally understated, the Shed earns high marks for its commitment to the community and its employees. It is the probably the region’s largest restaurant buyer of local produce, especially Northern New Mexico chile, as well as tomatoes and onions. Local tortilla makers benefit from the Shed’s steady stream of purchases as does the baker responsible for the crusty slices of garlicy French bread. What’s French bread doing in an eclectic New Mexican restaurant, you ask? French fur trappers were among the early settlers of Northern New Mexico, and French-trained clerics largely took control of the Santa Fe Archdiocese starting in the 19th century. If you want to take decadence to a whole new level, celebrate your chile-smothered entrée with a slice of the French apple pie a la mode.
I’m a plastic surgeon from Waco, Texas. I come to New Mexico regularly to go fly fishing…Most of my practice is treating burn victims and cancer patients. But because of weight loss drugs like Mounjaro, I’m cutting away a lot of excess skin after they lose all that fat. I removed 19 pounds of skin from one guy the other day, then stitched up the new edges.
Like every other restaurant in America, the Shed shutdown during COVID. But when it reopened, almost all of its employees returned, unlike so many restaurants that either shuttered their doors for good, or couldn’t find enough staff to return to their previous business hours. When I asked Raphael, who I regard as the resident Shed scholar, what staff turnover is like, he said, “Of the 30 or so staff now, 12 have been here 5 years or more,” which sounds pretty good to me.
The Shed is even making a dent in global warming, though initially to my chagrin. Sitting astride the number 4 barstool whose dark polished seat was starting to assimilate itself to my fanny after years of consistent use, I noticed that my standard silver coin margarita did not have a plastic stir. Mesmerized by the way the summer light streamed through the clerestory and reflected off the glass, ice cubes, and salt crystals stuck to the rim, I initially didn’t think anything of the stir’s absence. When I delicately removed the perfectly perched lime from the rim, and squeezed it into the milky liquid, I panicked—how do I mix the lime juice into the drink? I asked Rachel if I could get a stir. “Sorry,” she said, “It’s our new environmental policy. No more plastic stirs.” Having no cutlery available, my first impulse was to use my index finger to do the job. But unable to remember the last time I washed my hands, to say nothing of how gauche that would appear to my neighboring bar flies, I backed off.
I felt both stress and indignation rise up in me. “Will my grandchildren’s lives be immeasurably altered by climate change,” I sarcastically fumed, “because their ‘papa’ used a plastic stir? After all, isn’t my happiness foremost on their minds?” Knowing the answer to my own question, I grudgingly resigned myself to this new state of affairs. But then, just as Rachel had closed one door, she opened another—my corn chips and guacamole had arrived. Biting into a super crispy triangle, I grabbed another one and immediately dipped it into my drink. Paddling among the ice cubes and lime rind, the chip shed liquid easily, didn’t go limp, and created just enough motion to achieve the perfect blend. Un peu gauche, perhaps, but I drank contentedly knowing that my sacrifice would improve the quality of life of my grandchildren.
[A young man to Rachel] I want you to make me a margarita whatever way you think I should have it.
I’m starting to have second thoughts about writing this piece. The heightened demand that I will no doubt generate will only make it harder for me to get a seat. Sure, I live here which gives me an advantage. I know the secret parking spot that everyone thinks is illegal, but if you carefully read the 4-point type, densely printed across the metal street sign, you’ll see it’s not. I know how far in advance Shed reservations are required, and tourists don’t plan for that which makes the unreserved bar seats the only option. And I know the “rules” for getting a bar seat—there are no rules. The written guidance I drafted on two sides of a cocktail napkin that I proposed be posting was greeted with the same enthusiasm as my men’s room remodel design.
But vying for an empty barstool can get ugly! On those occasions during the high season when I know I should avoid downtown, I’ll succumb to my need for chile fix. I find myself pacing in a small, agitated mob behind those 8 occupied stools watching who might be eating dessert or filling out their credit card slip. There’s no official line or numbering system for getting a seat; it’s all about body language and sharp elbows; it’s how close you can get to your targeted eater before they swat you or are intimidated into leaving. As they finally push their stool back and, in my most gentlemanly manner, assist their exit with a “May I help you, ma’am?” a guy my age comes out of nowhere, pushes me, and says, “You bastard! I’ve been waiting for that seat!” I’d been standing in the same spot for 10 minutes with no other obvious contender nearby. I reach for the now empty seat, but he pushes me again, shouting “bastard” into my face. Several things flash quickly through my mind. The Shed has no rules, therefore, appealing to the “Rule of Law” would go nowhere. Second, the prospect of two men in their sixties rolling around on the floor punching each other was rather unseemly, to say nothing of dangerous. Reasoning with this jerk was going nowhere so I walked away. When I told the story to Raphael two weeks later, after successfully getting a stool at 8:45, he comped my entire dinner and two margaritas. Shed justice comes slowly, but it does come.
[From the Japanese American man sitting next to me] I was born in Tokyo and grew up there, but I’ve lived in California for 25 years. I work for a firm that trains supermarket sushi chefs. [Wolfing down a plate full of red chile] I never eat sushi because I’m around it all day!
My custom-designed weather app told me it was a perfect night for the Shed. I headed downtown where my years-long run of good parking karma continued. I made a mad dash from my car through a late September downpour to the Shed’s sheltering alcove. The monsoon was just enough to wash away the dust and suppress the evening tide of tourists. I ducked under the door and waved to Raphael. He came out from behind the bar to hand me my “usual” silver coin, which, of course, made me some kind of dripping wet Shed God in the eyes of the few people who saw this. He assured me it would only be a five-minute wait since the woman at number 4 was paying her bill. Once seated, the setting sun suffused the bar, its bottles, and its people in a lavender glow. While the margarita softened the sharp edges of my day, I discreetly tried to read the tattooed inscription crawling across Rachel’s bare shoulders. The night’s green chile not only had an extra kick to it, I swear I could taste juniper smoke. Pretty soon I was speculating with the young environmental lawyer next to me about harnessing the heat in chiles and the subsequent rise in human body temperatures as a new form of renewable energy. By the time I had finished my second margarita, we had filled three cocktail napkins with drawings for a presentation to a no doubt-eager Shed management team.
My wife and I are from Oklahoma. We drive all over the Southwest going to art shows. Whenever we’re near Santa Fe this is where we eat. This is the best place on earth!