By Lynn Cline · Photos by Douglas Merriam

High above the earth, a garden oasis awaits—a paradise of plants, water, sunlight, and calm—a retreat from an overwrought world. There’s nourishing, seasonally inspired food, too, along with a menu of tantalizing teas from around the world. If you’ve already visited this visionary space, then you’ll know that we’re talking about Opuntia Cafe, located in the heart of the Santa Fe Railyard.

Opuntia quickly amassed a large and loyal following after it opened in 2017 its first plant-scaped teahouse, an airy, light-filled space located in the Baca District of the Santa Fe Railyard. But things reached new heights when Opuntia opened in its new location in the fall of 2020. The second-story space has balcony dining and windows offering stupendous views of the Sangre de Cristos on the horizon and the bustling Santa Fe Farmers’ Market below. Every detail of this beautiful botanical realm was created by co-owners Todd Spitzer and Jeanna Gienke.

“When people walk into the space, I want them to feel calm and rejuvenated, even though it’s a busy café,” says Spitzer. “It’s not just about what the space looks like, it’s about how you feel. It should expand your feelings with possibility, rest, or inspiration.”

Gienke brought to the project her background in landscape architecture and biophilic design, which is based on bringing our innate connection to nature into the places where we live and work. “It’s important to honor people’s love of nature, so we wanted to make the space as natural as possible, with meandering lines rather than a grid, and being surrounded by plants,” she says. “I think this is a movement that we’ll be seeing in the future, with more spaces being kind and not so rigid and sterile.”

To that end, Opuntia is bursting with life. Cacti, assorted succulents, and tropical plants are everywhere, growing from the walls, lining windows, and encircling the centerpiece of the space—an enchanting koi pond. (As they were in the old space, the plants are for sale, as is pottery by local artists that the restaurant also uses as dishware.) Large overhead doors, skylights, and windows bring in the breeze along with sunlight and mountain views. Open seating arrangements abound, but the design incorporates more secluded areas as well. A row of booths, each sheltered by three walls, offers a degree of privacy. Diners are tucked away beneath large, beguiling photographs of cottonwood trees illuminated in light boxes, faux windows that were created by Santa Fe photographer Janet Russek.

Spitzer and Gienke constructed the handsome booths themselves using poplar wood, one of many interior materials that were chosen with intention. “Everything’s minimalistic and made from raw materials,” says Spitzer. “We used reclaimed timber and made our concrete countertops ourselves.” Other visual delights include an artist’s wall for rotating exhibits.

Left: Opuntia Cafe owners Todd Spitzer and Jeanna Gienke. Right: Fried polenta oysters with the Hemingway cocktail.

Gienke’s artful green thumb reflects her lifelong love of nature and vivid awareness of how being surrounded by nature benefits our health. She and Spitzer worked together, with the help of their community and friends, to create this vision of a natural space. “Todd’s background is in restaurant design, so we combined our backgrounds and the result is almost an outdoor space,” she says. “Our first space was like that too.”

Noted in Time magazine’s Santa Fe listing in “World’s Greatest Places 2021” for its indoor garden and selection of seasonal bowls and toasts, Opuntia is a gathering spot for the community and out-of-towners alike. It’s a place where artists and writers can work amid greenery and sip a cup of inspiration—perhaps Goddess of Mercy, a smooth Taiwanese golden oolong with deep, sweet notes. Couples, friends, and families drop in to savor healthy food, such as avocado toast, a luscious blend of avocado, radish, arugula, lemon vinaigrette, shaved Reggiano, and lemon aioli all piled atop a house-made multigrain sourdough bread.

Opuntia has just added two exciting new items to the menu—cocktails and dinner. Try pairing a Hemingway, a rum, lime, and grapefruit concoction crafted by mixologist Chris Romero, with a plate of fried polenta oysters and Thai chile lime sauce. You’ll quickly see why this paradisaical place is at the center of the Santa Fe scene.

“We started with a tea culture, but we’ve moved away from that,” Spitzer says. “We focus on clean, extremely healthy food from the Mediterranean and Asian climates. We try to do local sourcing as much as possible and organic whenever possible. The food is healthy, flavorful, and colorful, mostly veggie-based or vegan and you can add on protein like salmon or bacon.”

Opuntia’s new home earned the American Institute of Architects New Mexico’s 2021 elevAte Design & Honors Award of Merit for Interior Architecture, which doesn’t surprise acclaimed Santa Fe architect Michael Krupnick of Krupnick Studio, who worked with Spitzer and Gienke on the project. “It has a lot of space even though it’s an indoor café, blurring the lines of inside and outside,” Krupnick says. “You feel grounded, like you’re part of the earth, but you’re also nearly twenty feet above the sidewalk. It’s a place to be intimate with others and with yourself, where writers and artists can go to be with others and also to be with themselves. Bringing water into the second-floor café makes it feel like an oasis, and that in itself, in the desert, is a really grounding feeling.”

1607 Alcaldesa, Santa Fe, 505-780-5796, opuntia.cafe

Left: Succulents accent the space at Opuntia Cafe. Top right: Avocado toast. Bottom right: Row of private booths at Opuntia Cafe.

Lynn Cline
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Lynn Cline is the award-winning author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes and Tales From New Mexico. She's written for Bon Appétit, the New York Times, New Mexico Magazine, and many other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly talk show on public radio’s KSFR 101.1 FM.