Christon Holtzman describes himself variously as a glass-is-overflowing optimist, a gypsy and a "mad entrepreneur." He's also a long-time graphic designer and painter with an online education in both chocolate-making and nutrition. He loves to entertain, and says he approaches each day like a theatrical production.
Little wonder then that he found himself first overseeing and then recreating a busy, eclectic bistro that started life as a small Subway restaurant tucked into a hallway in the sprawling La Tienda center in Eldorado.
Following a soft opening of Mi Amor Chocolat Artisan Café & Chocolate House in October, the only remaining evidence of the original Subway is the bank of ovens in the kitchen and the counter-style service. A couple of sandwich shops that tried to make it in the space also have given way to Holtzman's ambitious menu of gourmet flatbread pizzas, creative salads and rustic oven-baked dishes.
"I think La Tienda has a great future," Holtzman said, noting his landlords, Steve Ewers and Destiny Allison, have made a strong commitment to the community and to the tenants in the multipurpose center. In fact, Ewers asked Holtzman, who originally planned to sublease the commercial kitchen for his chocolate-making company, to step in when a fledgling cafe called Urban Fix (whose signage is still evident) started up last year and quickly foundered.
"This happened so fast, but it's always been a huge goal of mine," he said. "I'd been concepting a desserts-first chocolate cafe with a French market atmosphere for years." He had even given it a shot in a space on Paseo de Peralta called Mi Corazon a few years ago, but even a spot on TLC's Take Home Chef program couldn't elevate that business to the level it needed to survive in a crowded marketplace.
Now he finds himself wearing several hats, including chocolatier, chef and host. He often runs the counter service as well. Sous-chef Leno Mejia, who has worked in downtown Santa Fe restaurants for years, is his sole kitchen help; a part-time employee also helps out on the counter. The wall of ovens in the kitchen — and a built-in residential population with few restaurant options — led Holtzman to rethink the dessert-first concept. His passion for chocolate as a "superfood knee deep in history" remains intact, however.
A variety of chocolate barks made with pesticide-free cocoa, marcona almonds, red chile powder and other additions are always available, as is a single-origin Mexican drinking chocolate.
But the wide range of breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings on the menu is evidence that Holtzman is working hard to make good use of the opportunity he's been presented with.
His signature Mi Amor Chicken de Chocolat, a rustic roasted chicken dish cooked in a dark chocolate and red wine sauce, has won many diehard fans already; he recently remade it as a topping for his rosemary flatbread pizza, which has become an instant hit (several customers ordered it during a recent interview).
Red chile barbecue spare ribs, baked shrimp wrapped in rosemary ham, and a house-roasted, hand-carved turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce on homemade bread, among other sandwiches, fill out the menu, as do a multitude of fresh salads, muffins and croissants.
Breakfasts options include quiche; traditional croque-monsieur; a frittata made with spinach, green chile and piñons; house-made granola with yogurt; and several burrito options.
Now just "creeping into dinners" on Thursday and Friday evenings, when the restaurant stays open until 9 p.m., Holtzman said patrons keep the space busy all day from
7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"I take a whole-food approach to everything," Holtzman said of his menu choices. "I believe in an old world way of eating, with simple, good ingredients. It's a very clean approach. I use plenty of olive oil, garlic, pink Himalayan salt and fresh-ground pepper; if you have more than six ingredients, your body doesn't understand it."
Noting that he had little time to research sources when he took over the cafe business last fall, he said he intends to work closely with local farmers as soon as the Eldorado Farmers Market opens in the spring, and he's receptive to meeting with local food suppliers any time.
"I've already started with local dairy," he said, adding that Albuquerque-based Red Rock Roasters provides his special blends of organic coffees.
"I really wanted to create something for the community with this, and I've listened to the community. I have a lot of New Yorkers, so now I carry Dr. Brown's soda; I have vegans and vegetarians, so I have those items on the menu too."
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