SHORTLY BEFORE CHRISTMAS LAST YEAR, I pulled the Coyote Cafe’s first cookbook from my library shelves. Published in 1990, it was written by Mark Miller, the founder, creative force, and initial chef of this pioneering Santa Fe restaurant. The book still resonates with its thoughtful and lively updates of classic foods of the Southwest. I wanted to refresh my memory on how to whip up some scrumptious little corn cakes with smoky chipotle shrimp. The recipe has often appeared on my table at the holidays, but just as often in the spring, summer, and fall. In leafing through the book, I was reminded that the Coyote Cafe opened in Santa Fe 30 years ago, an eternity in the restaurant world. Miller sold it some years ago to concentrate on consulting internationally, but his legacy has perhaps never been stronger.
Others have noticed this, too. “I think New Mexico had its moment like 25 years ago, when Southwestern food was just becoming an important thing in this country, and now it’s having a comeback,” star chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay recently told Food & Wine magazine. Flay made his initial splash at his New York City Mesa Grill, serving a menu of Southwestern foods we’d all recognize, thanks in part to Miller’s popular reinvention of our classic flavors. But part of Miller’s enduring influence also comes from the way he trained a second wave of kitchen masters to further the mission.
I first encountered Miller’s culinary mastery back in the 1980s, when I had a job that regularly took me to the Bay Area. On those trips, I methodically arranged to dine at the up-and-coming—and, in some cases, already arrived—restaurants of the day. I heard about this New England guy named Mark Miller who was helming the Fourth Street Grill, in Berkeley, with some intri-guing Southwestern dishes. When word spread that Miller was coming to Santa Fe to open a restaurant called the Coyote Cafe, I could not have been more thrilled.
I first met him not in his restaurant in Berkeley or in Santa Fe, but waiting for a Los Angeles hotel elevator. I timidly spoke up about being a fan of his cooking and he told me he was in town for a star-studded Meals on Wheels event. He didn’t know me from a chair in that hotel lobby, but I have an amber-encased memory of his evangelism on behalf of New Mexico and its chiles. There was some grousing at the time, among home cooks and restaurant chefs alike, over the fact that this dude from Boston via Berkeley had started cooking in Santa Fe with traditional ingredients in some new (and old) ways and had won a tsunami of national press for it. The contretemps flared for years, but ultimately it missed the point: Because of Miller’s ability to communicate with the greater world, he helped fuel that moment when Southwestern food swept the nation.
Cynthia Delgado, with Tourism Santa Fe, puts it this way: “While culinary trends come and go, Mark Miller’s arrival in Santa Fe sparked something more far-ranging. He profoundly influenced what amounts to an army of chefs, restaurateurs, and other culinary professionals who are now creating a broader vision of Southwestern cooking and generally lifting Santa Fe’s culinary bar ever higher.”
It isn’t hard to trace the culinary DNA of Santa Fe’s foodie family tree. Many of those who absorbed early lessons from Miller went on to influence the landscape in powerful ways. An early chef de cuisine at Coyote, Jeff Koscomb, went on to found Above Sea Level, a premier purveyor of quality seafood to restaurants throughout northern New Mexico. Coyote front-of-the-house manager Greg O’Byrne used his experience to land a job as executive director of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, which has grown to international prominence over more than two decades. Line cook Murphy O’Brien had a successful run managing the late, great Mu Du Noodles before founding his wildly popular Café Fina. Miller’s corporate executive pastry chef Andrew MacLauchlan wrote several noted books, including The Making of a Pastry Chef. He now oversees breads, pastries, and other desserts in a quartet of kitchens for the New Mexico Fine Dining group, which includes Bouche Bistro, Maize, Trattoria a Mano, and what will become a new incarnation of the Bobcat Bite on Old Las Vegas Highway.
Other Coyote veterans continued in Miller’s footsteps, further elevating and evolving the concept of Santa Fe cuisine. Mark Kiffin, chef-owner of the Compound, in Santa Fe, came to New Mexico initially to audition with Miller, who needed someone to take over the Coyote kitchen while he and his chef de cuisine hit the road on an extended tour for the Coyote Cafe cookbook. Kiffin had to come from his job at the Arizona Biltmore for a tryout, first cooking on the kitchen’s line. After surviving that literal trial by fire, Miller gave him an eight-page essay exam. Kiffin aced it and went on to helm the kitchen, then took charge of Coyote special projects. Coyote’s Pantry, The Great Salsa Book, and Mark Miller’s Indian Market Cookbook were authored jointly by the two Marks. Kiffin also played major roles in the opening of other Miller restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, Nevada.
After a few years in Philadelphia and Dallas, Kiffin returned to Santa Fe to take over the Compound, a restaurant that had been at the early vanguard of City Different fine dining. The Canyon Road architectural treasure had an interior created by international designer Alexander Girard. Kiffin had the good sense to leave that alone, while updating the menu and things behind the scenes. Today you might experience high-concept dishes like sweetbreads and foie gras with a hint of cayenne and a splash of sherry vinegar, but the lunch menu and the bar always feature a green chile cheeseburger, something that Kiffin sees as a direct homage to his days with Miller. Kiffin still carries Miller’s mantra that even the most humble dishes should be of the highest quality. “He was completely focused on taste,” Kiffin says, “and he continues to have the best taste memory—of flavor combinations he has experienced—of anyone ever.”
Quinn Stephenson is a direct keeper of the Coyote flame, as sole owner of that restaurant today. Just out of Pojoaque High School, he started there as a busser but quickly worked his way up through the bar, developing a passion for innovative cocktails and gaining experience as a sommelier. Now he’s been involved with the Coyote Café for half of his life. After previous ownership veered away from the South-western concept, he is returning to Miller’s original vision. “Mark Miller defined modern Southwestern cuisine,” Stephenson says. “He still sends me ideas about flavor combinations and cooking techniques nearly every week. By the time readers see this, we will have closed for a month to remodel and refurbish the space, and our chef, Eduardo Rodriguez, will have added a number of new Southwestern dishes.”
In a sense, I’m a Miller acolyte, too. When I started to write about outdoor cooking in the mid-1990s—some years after I saw him by that elevator—Miller shared his expertise in wood-fired grilling, as a traditional form of Southwestern and Mexican cooking and as a restaurant technique. One New Year’s Day, I invited him over for lunch. I thought about the lessons I had learned from him on cooking techniques and how my own love for bold-flavored food was not unlike his. I decided to make a Mexican crab stew called a chimpachole or chilpachole, which starts with a base of fire-roasted tomatoes and chipotle chiles. He may not even remember the experience now, but at the time he talked about how I nailed it for him. I have never forgotten those lessons.
“It’s gratifying to see the continuation of the philosophy I encouraged,” Miller says, musing about how he became the senior statesman of Southwestern fare. He hopes he helped cooks and eaters learn more about other cultures and new flavors, he says. And, of course, he has. Miller maintains a Santa Fe home with a library that a college would be lucky to have. He travels the world in search of the most extraordinary flavors and cooking techniques for achieving them. Not long ago, I stumbled into him at a food festival in Lima, Peru. He was in Rome while I was writing this. From the beginning, he envisioned that Coyote Cafe would keep alive old traditions but create a new form of cuisine for a new audience. Little could he have known how far that effort would reach. As he puts it: “Whoever thought the day would come when an American restaurant might offer 47 kinds of mezcal or be nixtamalizing corn for their tortillas and tamales?”
Coyote Cafe’s Classic Cowboy Steak with Red Chile Onion Rings
This hearty steak has been on the Coyote menu from the beginning, and you can still enjoy it in the restaurant today. Fortunately it’s easier for a home cook to find USDA Prime beef today than it was 30 years ago.
- 4 Prime bone-in rib-eye steaks, or other high-quality bone-in rib-eye steaks, cut 1½ inches thick
- 4 white onions, cut into 1/16- to 1/8-inch-thick rings
- 3 cups whole milk
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup ground dried New Mexico red chile
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons hot Spanish paprika
- Vegetable oil for deep-frying
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Let steaks sit at room temperature for about 1 hour. Soak onions in milk in a large bowl for 1 hour.
- Heat oven to 300º.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, chile, cornstarch, salt, cumin, sugar, and paprika. Drain onions, then dredge in flour mixture. Heat at least 4 inches of oil in a large, heavy saucepan to 360º. Add onions in batches and cook until golden brown, about 45 seconds. Transfer with tongs or a large slotted spoon to paper towels. Transfer onion rings, in a thin layer, to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven.
- Season steaks generously with salt and pepper. Heat two large cast-iron skillets over medium-high for several minutes. Add steaks. Cook to desired doneness, about 7 minutes per side for medium rare, pouring off excess fat before turning. Transfer to plates, scatter with onion rings, and serve right away.
Coyote Cantina’s Chipotle Shrimp with Corn Cakes
Here’s a dish that exemplifies Mark Miller’s talent and culinary influence. It’s served in the restaurant’s rooftop open-air Cantina today. Serve the corn cakes garnished with scallions—or with dollops of guacamole and salsa.
Serves 6 or more
Makes about 18
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup stone-ground cornmeal
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 cups buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 cup corn kernels, fresh or thawed frozen
- 2 scallions, white and light green portions, minced
- In a medium bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk and butter, then whisk in egg. Gradually add dry ingredients to liquid and whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Puree cup of corn and fold into batter along with remaining whole kernels and scallions. If batter is too thick to spoon easily, add a bit more buttermilk.
- Using a nonstick pan over medium heat, ladle corn cake batter and form 3-inch cakes. Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Repeat for the remaining cakes.
- 1 pounds medium shrimp (about 30)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup softened unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoons pureed canned chipotle chiles
- Peel the shrimp. On a griddle or in a frying pan, cook shrimp in 3 tablespoons butter over low heat for about 5 minutes, turning once.
- To prepare chipotle butter, mix together softened butter and chipotle puree and set aside at room temperature.
- Stack the shrimp and corn cakes, spread the chipotle butter over it, and garnish with scallions or guacamole and salsa.
Tangy Citrus Salsa
Citrus is at its peak in the late winter months. This one comes from the Miller-Kiffin collaboration Coyote’s Pantry.
Makes about 3 cups
- 1 ripe medium pineapple, peeled and cored
- 1 grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
- 2 oranges or tangerines, peeled and sectioned
- 2 limes, peeled 1 lemon, peeled
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 jigger (3 tablespoons) tequila, preferably silver
- Cut the pineapple, grapefruit, oranges, limes, and lemon into -inch dice. Combine them in a mixing bowl with the remaining ingredients and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
- Serve chilled with any cut of pork, or with fish fillets.
When Miller and Kiffin wrote Coyote’s Pantry, few folks stateside knew what harissa was. The Moroccan chile condiment is much more popular today and readily available at finer grocery stores. This version is a creative take on the original.
Makes about 1 cups
- 10 dried New Mexico red chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground canela (Mexican cinnamon) or other cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 2 allspice berries
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 4 cloves garlic, roasted in a dry skillet until tender
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Let the chiles soak in a bowl of warm water until softened, about 15 minutes.
- In a small skillet, combine the cumin, canela, coriander, allspice, and caraway seeds. Toast for about 2 minutes over medium heat until fragrant. Transfer to a spice mill and grind together. Alternatively, grind with a mortar and pestle. Transfer spice mixture to a blender. Drain chiles and add them to blender along with garlic, oil, and salt. Puree, adding just enough water to form a thick paste.
- Scrape out and use immediately with rice or posole, or on a sandwich or eggs, or refrigerate, covered, for up to several weeks.
Also from Coyote’s Pantry, this is a side dish that I have made many times for close to three decades. It can accompany everything from tacos to roasts and steaks. The color is as festive as the flavor is lively.
- 2 cups long-grain rice
- 4 leaves romaine lettuce
- 4 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and roughly chopped
- 2 serrano chiles, roasted and seeded
- 1/3 cup minced white onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
- ½ cup loosely packed parsley leaves
- 3½ cups water
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- Rinse rice in cold water and drain in a colander.
- In a blender or food processor, puree lettuce, chiles, onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and water.
- Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large pan, add rice, and cook over medium heat until translucent, stirring occasionally and taking care not to scorch butter.
- Add pureed mixture and salt, bring to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until water has evaporated. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Add remaining butter and fluff up with a large spoon or fork.