Bodega Prime Starts from Scratch
By Candolin Cook · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Left: Condiments from the grab-and-go case. Right: Noela Figueroa, chef and owner of Bodega Prime.
“Get the steak sandwich!” shouts Bodega Prime chef/owner Noela Figueroa to a patron seated at the lunch counter. The man looks up and gives a familiar smile and wave to Figueroa, who is holding up her own half-eaten Aleppo spice-rubbed steak sandwich for him to see. The man hands his menu back to his server, reciting the classic film quote: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Good choice. Layered between warm ciabatta rests local Aleppo-spiced steak, coffee-pickled beets, cilantro, and “smen” aioli (a spread inspired by a fermented butter popular in the Middle East). The spicy, tangy, and smoky flavors meld together beautifully. But this chef’s choice is hardly the only stellar option on a breakfast and lunch menu teeming with local produce, meats, breads, and cheeses as well as house-made chutneys, pickles, aiolis, relishes, and jams. My own selection this afternoon is the buttermilk brined fried chicken with bok choy slaw, sweet pickles, honey, and thinly sliced jalapeños on a house-made brioche bun. It’s the perfect choice to satisfy my sweet and salty cravings. It’s also the worst choice for trying to conduct my interview with Figueroa—both because the warm honey is dripping all over my hands, making it difficult to take notes, and because it’s so delicious I don’t want to put it down.
Between mouthfuls of our sandwiches and sesame-seed french fries dipped in house-made plum ketchup, I manage to learn that Figueroa is a twenty-three year veteran of the food industry. In Seattle, she apprenticed under William Leaman, a World Cup winner at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris (basically the baking Olympics), followed by positions as pastry chef and chef de cuisine at celebrated restaurants and bakeries in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Santa Fe. At one point, Figueroa became disillusioned with the restaurant industry and debated quitting altogether. “When only fifteen percent of executive chef positions go to women, it’s hard not to get discouraged. I decided to attend college and studied art and cultural history,” she tells me. But she ultimately returned to cooking and, in 2012, bypassed the hiring process by starting her own restaurant, Fold Community Kitchen, in Colorado. The restaurant encompassed many of the elements she’d later incorporate into Bodega Prime: organic ingredients, local sourcing, seasonal menus, and scratch-made cooking.
After leaving Colorado, Figueroa saw a niche for a fast, casual concept restaurant in Santa Fe, with a few tables and a deli case chock-full of prepared and baked goods. Bodega Prime opened in the summer of 2016, and has been so popular they’ve recently knocked down a wall and expanded their dining room. “My original vision was to be more of a take-out deli,” Figueroa explains, “but this town likes restaurants. It’s not such a fast-paced lifestyle here, people want to take their time and enjoy their meal.” And the chef has certainly created a space that few diners are in a hurry to leave. From the stylish enamel cups and stoneware plates to the fastidiously clean, open kitchen and the well-curated retail section of homewares, Figueroa’s attention to detail, quality, and taste permeates every aspect of the restaurant.
For customers who do want to grab and go, counter service offers pre-made sandwiches sustainably wrapped in brown paper; fresh baked goods (try the gingerbread cake and lemon curd); and dozens of condiments, shrubs, and sides to make whatever you cook at home ten times better. Figueroa says her recipes for items like fennel relish, Bartlett pear chutney, and her best-selling garlic conserva are inspired by her travels, time in the Pacific Northwest, and the bold flavors of New Mexico. “I want to provide food that is surprising but accessible,” she says.
At Bodega Prime, customers reap the benefits of both convenience and quality. “With our open kitchen, people can see we don’t pull stuff out of boxes, and when you’re making food from scratch you want the best, freshest ingredients. That means buying organic, and local, as much as possible,” Figueroa says. “Yes, I care about sustainability and don’t want to support industrial monoculture, but buying from local farmers, to me, isn’t meant to be some political statement. I just want to make you some good food and I want to support the local economy.”
Top left, clockwise: Buttermilk-brined fried chicken with bok choy slaw, sweet pickles, and honey; spicy braised pork shoulder with queso fresco, savory peach chutney, and curtido; Aleppo spice-rubbed steak over coffee-pickled beets, cilantro, and smen aioli; grab-and-go case.
Most importantly for Figueroa, supporting the community means treating her staff with respect and paying them a fair wage. “I demand a lot from them. Working in a restaurant is about being a professional. We’re not rock star chefs, this isn’t the Food Network. We’re down on our hands and knees scrubbing the floors, myself included,” she says. “I learn so much from my crew. The give and take of our personalities and our interactions with each other is reflected in the food. Not to sound Santa Fe ‘woo-woo,’ but that’s the reality of it.” And when, I ask, will she and her team start offering their highly anticipated dinner service? “Oh . . . when we’re ready,” Figueroa laughs.
Though we are both full from our meal, Figueroa insists I try some dessert before I go. She brings over a gateau basque. The French cake has an almond crust and appears dense and crumbly on the outside, resembling a coffee cake. After digging my spoon into the crunchy exterior, I discover the center is filled with a semolina pastry cream, made with lemon, rum, vanilla, and fresh cranberries. With the first bite, my eyes open wide and I nod appreciatively at Figueroa. “Isn’t it good? It’s my favorite dessert in the world,” she declares. Yet another reason to always take the chef’s recommendation.
1291 San Felipe Ave A, Santa Fe, 505-303-3535