Looking for Big Flavors in a Small New Mexico Town

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You know you're in for something good when a man with a tiny plastic spoon asks conspiratorially: "Have you tried the cherries jubilee? It's what got me into the biz."

Alotta Gelato is a typical small-town ice cream shop: rumbling freezer compressor, giddy barefoot kids, board games stacked in a corner. But its product is on a higher level, made from ingredients like sweet-tart Italian amarena cherries. It's just one reason I love Silver City, a town of about 10,000 in southwestern New Mexico.

Silver, as it's known, has recently become a road-trip destination among those willing to drive for a good meal. But it's no overnight sensation. Alotta Gelato's Mitchell Hellman, the man with the spoon, celebrated the store's 10-year anniversary last month, and a couple of other great restaurants have been around just as long.

Silver began as a mining town in 1870, hippies came a century later, and newer artists have since arrived and added their own flourishes, like candy-colored paint jobs on the stately cast-iron facades downtown. The food scene is an extension of this creativity, and it prizes local ingredients -- farmers' market tomatoes can sell out in 35 minutes -- as well as excellent imported ones like Mr. Hellman's cherries. This isn't because it's trendy, but because Silver City's isolation -- the town backs up against the 2.7-million-acre Gila National Forest, and it's 45 miles to an Interstate -- inspires chefs to build their own world.

As a guidebook author, I had been to Silver several times, but was always too rushed to savor the place. Last spring, over the course of four days, my mother, Beverly McFarland, and I ate our way around town and checked up on some new developments. Chief among those is the Murray Hotel, which reopened last summer after being boarded up for more than 20 years. In 1938, the hotel signaled modernity with its solid concrete architecture, glass bricks and porthole windows. Now the front doors were open to the street, and the black terrazzo lobby floor gleamed as if it was laid yesterday.

"Oh, you have my favorite room!" the desk clerk exclaimed as she handed over our key cards. From our window on the fourth floor, I could see the place we'd be having dinner, and I briefly worried that I had planned too much eating and not enough exercise. Downtown Silver City is only about half a mile long.

Jake Politte opens his restaurant, 1zero6, three nights a week. Savvy regulars know to check the short but intense menu online Thursday morning, then call to put dibs on entrees like pork loin bathed in bitter chocolate, Mexican chiles and Thai fish sauce. We tucked into crispy-custardy Cambodian mini-pancakes and "Sichuan ravioli" -- gingery dumplings in a chunky tomato sauce. Mr. Politte's eclectic culinary taste is echoed in the restaurant's décor, in which a billboard-size Bollywood poster faces an Indonesian wood skeleton.

As we finished a fruit tart lined with a slick of bitter chocolate, Mr. Politte, tattoos swirling down his arms, came out to relight the candles on his Buddhist shrine. He told us how he'd arrived in Silver from the Bay Area a decade earlier. He'd been looking for a remnant of the New Mexico he'd known in Santa Fe after high school, in the early 1970s, "back when it was just cowboys and Indians and hippies." Mr. Politte found a little of that rough-around-the-edges atmosphere here.

He relishes introducing customers to new flavors -- fresh banana blossoms, say, which he scored from a grocer in Tucson. Or chapulines (grasshoppers), brought to him by a customer from Oaxaca. "People say, 'Whoa, that's scary,' " he related with glee, "and I say, 'No, man, it's food.' "

The next day, we walked the trails on Boston Hill in town, starting behind old cottages and winding up past the long-abandoned silver mines that gave the city its name. In the wilderness at the top, we rested on an incongruous turquoise blue bench. Below us, Silver's core looked tidy and timeless. The town founders were determined to make a lasting place, unlike other slapdash mining camps. So up rose grand limestone, brick and cast-iron edifices. They weathered the crash of the silver market, two flash floods and the collapse of downtown commerce that beset so many small American towns. Now that sturdy shell fosters creativity -- including our next meals.

Like Mr. Politte, Rob Connoley of the Curious Kumquat also has an educational mission -- and perhaps a more challenging one. He's crazy for molecular gastronomy. Even in a food-centric town like this one, it was a stretch when he first expanded in 2009, from soup-and-sandwich lunches to multicourse tasting dinners. But Mr. Connoley's background is in nonprofit community organizations, so he anchored the flavored lip balms and foams with local organic produce, foraged native herbs and pork raised by 4-H kids.

It also helps that his restaurant is set in a converted cottage. The periwinkle-blue dining room conveys an air of homey familiarity even to a concoction like the third course of my tasting meal: an acorn-flour financier, both sweet and earthy, topped with a dainty quail egg.

Mr. Connoley runs a one-man kitchen, yet he still found time for a tableside flourish, pouring boiling pho broth over a rosette of paper-thin slices of rabbit loin. The scent of star anise bloomed, turning the heads of the couple at the next table, who were visiting from Los Angeles.

Our third night was at Shevek & Co. The chef, Shevek Barnhart, grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and, despite 13 years in Silver, still speaks pure New Yawkese. Few moments in my travels have been as happily disorienting as on a previous visit, when I stood on the silent sidewalk after closing time with Mr. Barnhart, Mr. Hellman of Alotta Gelato and his wife, Starr Belsky, deep in food-geek talk about 19th-century French cookbooks.

At 18, Mr. Barnhart backpacked around the Mediterranean, and in the four decades since, he has woven together those culinary threads -- Provence, Greece, Lebanon and Morocco all meet on his multipage menu, which includes wine pairings for every dish. My mother whimpered at its breadth, as she had begun to protest our forced march of meals. But a reasonable "tapas"-size portion of the Moroccan date-and-orange salad revived her, and by the end, she was a willing participant in my saffron-laced fig pudding. We sat, full and happy, in the room's buzz of conversation bouncing off the walls lined with wine bottles.

The one break we took from dining was to shop, but that quickly proved overwhelming too. On the main downtown avenue, Bullard Street, flat awnings shield the storefronts -- a mix of galleries, cafes and secondhand shops -- from the New Mexico sun. We spent an hour in a vintage store with hundreds of hats, and the antiques vendor Clementine Mercantile had the hi-fi of my dreams, a radio with Lucite knobs in a Silver-City-built Art Deco cabinet.

Later, as the sun sank, we turned up a side street toward A Space Gallery, where the proprietor, Jean-Robert Béffort, perched on an upturned bucket, putting the finishing touches on a vibrant mural of Billy the Kid, duded up with wings, pink boots and colored pencils in his belt where bullets should be. "Billy was a hero of the 99 percent," the longhaired Mr. Béffort told us, from under a straw hat bedecked with a butterfly. "He fought the cattlemen, the corporate forces of the time." We were soon deep in conversation with Mr. Béffort, pondering how to make a lasting impression in the American marketplace without selling out.

Not that Silverites need to worry about getting too commercial. This is not the next Santa Fe: The economy here lives and dies by nearby copper mines, and the town sprawls into trailer homes. Certainly, everyone downtown wishes for more business -- and for at least one of the three old movie palaces on Bullard, their neon signs dark or stripped away entirely -- to reopen. But cheap real estate makes it possible for Mr. Béffort to fill his gallery, a onetime auto body shop, with paintings by his friends, as well as his own fantastical assemblages and collages. It's also feasible for Jake Politte to spend as many days sourcing exotic ingredients as he does cooking.

Our last morning, we finally got some real exercise, on a hike with Joe Saenz, a local Chiricahua Apache guide who led us into the juniper-dotted hills of the national forest, his backyard and ancestral home. As we walked, Mr. Saenz told us how the Apache purposely left no trace on the land, quite the opposite of Silver's "built to last" ethos. "They could've learned from us," he said, wryly, referring to the white Americans who took over. "We could've taught them how not to overgraze. There might still be ranching here."

Like everyone else we'd met in Silver City, Mr. Saenz was also interested in food. He showed us how to find the sweetest juniper berries, and pointed out where elk had nibbled the tender shoots of datil yucca. After our hike, we pre-empted sore muscles at Faywood Hot Springs, in the flatlands southeast of town. In the late 19th century, the natural springs were built into a fashionable resort, but unlike the Murray, it didn't survive. Now, after an overhaul and last year's reopening, the setting feels like a wild oasis. The hot water is harnessed in large concrete pools, surrounded by trees. A gray cat prowled in the greenery. My mother and I floated in the 110-degree baths, fully sated.

IF YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY

Renovations at the Murray Hotel (murray-hotel.com) are still in progress, so request a room away from any construction. Queen-bed rooms start at $109.

The Palace Hotel (silvercitypalacehotel.com), the town's other historic hotel, with more of an Old West feel, has rooms from $51; those off Bullard Street are quieter.

WHERE TO DINE

1zero6 (1zero6.com) is open only Friday through Sunday; call to reserve. Entrees from $17.

Alotta Gelato (alottagelato.com). Don't miss the pistachio; cups start at $2.75.

The Curious Kumquat (curiouskumquat.com). Make dinner reservations, and give at least 24 hours' notice for dietary restrictions. Most entrees are $15; five-to-seven-course tasting menus are usually $44.

Masa y Mas Tortilleria (601 North Bullard Street; 575-313-7380) makes organic blue-corn tortillas; tacos are $3.

Millie's Bake House (215 West Yankie Street; 575-597-2253) serves hefty salads and sandwiches (about $7.50); locals praise the giant cookies ($1.50).

Shevek & Co. (silver-eats.com). "Tapa" portions ($7 to $13) are generous; three serve one person nicely. "Mezze" size ($14 to $26) is more like a standard entree; and "entrees" ($28 to $52) are better shared. Summer fruit soups are a specialty.

Tre Rosat Cafe (trerosat.com) does upscale bar food: green-chile peppers stuffed with New Mexican cheese ($7), for instance. Mains, like high-grade burgers, are $12 to $16.

WHAT TO DO

Faywood Hot Springs (faywood.com) is off U.S. 180, en route to City of Rocks State Park. Public pools are $12.50 per person per day; private pools are also available ($25 an hour), as are campsites and cabins.

WolfHorse Outfitters (wolfhorseoutfitters.com), run by Joe Saenz, offers guide services for hikes (from $95 for a half-day) and horseback rides, including custom pack trips in the Gila Wilderness ($210 a day).

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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