Local Hero: FOOD SHOP

An interview with Mekala Kennedy and Nathan Sauceda-Halliday, owners 

Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Nathan Sauceda-Halliday and Mekala Kennedy.

“We decided to create a space where people can come in, try some cheese, sit down and relax with a glass of wine and a board, and then grab some cheese and accoutrements for home,” say Mekala Kennedy and Nathan Sauceda-Halliday, owners of The Mouse Hole Cheese Shop. Beginning with La Finca Food Truck in Puerto Rico in 2017, “food has always been the driving force between us.” They opened La Finca Bowls in Albuquerque, Nathan’s hometown, in 2017, and The Mouse Hole three years later in the EDo neighborhood, where they focus on savoring slow foods. “We are dedicated to high-quality ingredients from great producers, local and imported,” the co-owners say. “When you can, go local!”

What’s the origin story of The Mouse Hole Cheese Shop?

Living in Studio City, California, we had a cheese shop at the end of our street. The women there would offer samples with stories and details about the cheeses we were tasting, and we really wanted to bring something like that to Albuquerque. Here we didn’t have a neighborhood cheese shop that people could walk or bike to, where you can take your time understanding what you are eating and what went into making a specific wheel. So we made one!

Why do you think people are drawn to become cheesemongers, and what makes a good one?

Working in a cheese shop sounds like the start of a romantic comedy, and people are drawn to the magic of sampling nibbles of cheese while chatting about the stories behind each one. The reality is similar, but on top of that is a ton of work caring for the cheese, cutting and portioning, rearranging and organizing. A great cheesemonger takes time to research the cheeses and understand the nuances, tasting notes, and history of each one. They’re able to listen and ask the right questions to make sure customers find what they’re looking for and leave happy with a fresh chunk, perfectly wrapped in cheese paper, of course.

Cheese and accoutrements at The Mouse Hole Cheese Shop.

Dairy is the top agricultural commodity in New Mexico, and the state is fourth in cheese production, yet the number of artisanal cheese producers in the state can be counted on one hand. What can be done to support a more robust local cheesemaking community?

This is a huge, multilayered question. In answering, we’ve asked for assistance from one of our cheesemongers, Lissa Knudsen, who recently founded the New Mexico Cheese Guild.

In Wisconsin and Vermont, artisanal cheesemaking is encouraged and subsidized as an investment in creating a sense of place. In New Mexico, despite industrial dairies receiving federal subsidies, small-scale dairies and cheesemakers aren’t receiving much, if any, public funding to support their more labor-intensive, more humane practices. This means that for a cash-strapped entrepreneur, there is currently no accessible pathway for cheesemaking in our state.

In order to shift the culture, we need to invest in community education to teach more New Mexicans about artisan cheese and why eating it matters. We also need to help cheesemaking entrepreneurs defray costs. If the city or state made a capital investment for processing equipment and a cheese-aging facility, with a food-based nonprofit serving as the fiscal sponsor, local producers could pool their milk and share space. Or a community college could dedicate a facility for small dairy producers to have shared access to process their milk, as well as offer courses in artisanal cheesemaking.

Cheese may be the shop’s reason for being, but you also carry a sizable assortment of products that are not cheese. What are your considerations when sourcing?   

We carry all the accoutrements that pair well with cheese, from jams to crackers to tinned fish. Our first consideration is always sustainability, starting with locally produced items. We carry boards from 505 Resin Works, bread from Ihatov Bread and Coffee, chocolate from Eldora Chocolate, Pickle Jar mustards and ferments, Farm Shark pickles, Heidi’s Raspberry Farm jams, Bluefly Farms sparkling waters, New Mexico Ferments kombucha, Milagro Vineyards wines, and produce from Carrasco Family Farm, Montoya Orchard, Vida Verde Farm, and others. Our biggest goal is to support the local food system and create a sustainable, reciprocal relationship that brings value to our community. Although we can’t source many local cheeses, we can offer wonderfully made local items that pair perfectly with our selections.

Cheese case at The Mouse Hole Cheese Shop.

The Mouse Hole is a restaurant as well as a food shop. What’s your most popular menu item? Is there something you wish people would order more often?

Our house boards are by far the most popular, the first being Pardon My French. It is one of four regionally based boards (the others being Vamos a España, Mambo Italiano, and Coast to Coast), each with three cheeses from the represented country alongside tasty pairings inspired by items grown in their region. Meat lovers can choose to add charcuterie to their boards.

We wish people would order more cut cheese! We would love for people to get a little bit more adventurous and pick a cheese from the case to enjoy in store. We will plate up pretty much anything you purchase for you to enjoy right here, so if you come in and there’s a great raw cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland you want to try with Pickle Jar sauerkraut, let’s do it!

With its gluten-free, vegan-friendly menu, your first Albuquerque restaurant, La Finca Bowls, might seem the antithesis of a cheese shop. What common interests and concerns shape your decisions at both venues?

They’re honestly meant to be antonyms, so we enjoy when people notice the differences between the two spaces—La Finca being healthy, quick, clean, and a little wild; Mouse Hole being deep, lush, and patient. Where they meet is in the common goal of sourcing the best ingredients we can. It’s all about moderation. We hope that you aren’t eating only cheese for every meal, but it’s not always about having only greens and gluten-free food. Eight ounces of New Mexico steak isn’t necessarily better than two ounces of a fresh French goat cheese with local tomatoes and cucumbers. There is a place for all food when it’s sourced and consumed responsibly. And of course, both places can cater to a guest’s dietary needs. Also, both places share our value for individual, personal growth among staff. We have one team member at Mouse Hole who has started his own gluten-free cracker company, Izaak’s Table, using La Finca as his commissary. Another has moved into an event planner role to get more involved in the community. We hope to allow the space and confidence in our team to pursue their own ventures.

What are you reading and listening to lately? Any recommendations for readers who want to dive into the complexity of cheese?

Mekala just finished Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, and Nathan is reading Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin. Amanda Brown of Corrales-based Brown’s Micro-Creamery recently recommended The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David Asher, which we hope to start soon. We have several cheese books in our shop, and we encourage our guests to take one to read while they’re enjoying a meal. And we highly recommend Cutting the Curd and Behind the Rind, two podcasts that dive beyond the basics of the cheese world.

Do you have any daily practices or rituals that help keep you grounded?

Nathan is a habitual and ritualistic coffee maker. It takes thirty minutes to brew the perfect pot and he does it every morning to start the day. Mekala is a habitual and ritualistic puppy cuddler. A day is not a day without puppy cuddles. We both try to spend as much quality time together as possible in our garden and at our house.

Anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

Thank you to all the readers who selected us for this extremely high honor and, of course, to the team at edible for highlighting local farmers, artisans, and makers in New Mexico. It’s certainly not easy to run a small business with passion. It is truly an around-the-clock job, so please go out and support your local businesses—in person!

300 Broadway NE, Ste A, Albuquerque, mouseholeabq.square.site