Back in October of last year, when co-owners and spouses Melissa Klein and John Watterberg opened Santa Fe BK in Williamsburg, they were only serving up three varieties of Southwestern-style breakfast burritos, french fries, and a green chile burger. It was a small-but-mighty menu that Eater senior critic Robert Sietsema said had him “hooked” and sent him on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. After months of waiting for their liquor license to be approved and hanging in limbo, they’re finally launching dinner service at their restaurant — located at 178 North Eighth Street, near Bedford Avenue — on Friday, April 22.
While opening their own restaurant has been a longtime coming, it’s also been a full circle return to the couple’s roots in the hospitality world.
As serendipity would have it, Klein and Watterberg first met at an unrelated restaurant called Santa Fe, on Union Avenue, back in 2007. While the long-defunct restaurant wasn’t focused on regional New Mexican cooking, it did unlock something between them: Their stints at that restaurant were short-lived, but that summer, with Watterberg behind the bar and Klein as a server, they fell in love. Ever since then, the two collectively have worked in hospitality for two decades (more recently at spots such as Dumont, Red Cat, and Motel Morris).
“Ever since we left [that restaurant] Santa Fe, we dreamed of opening a romantic and whimsical space where people could fall in love and through romance make the world a kinder, more gentle place,” says Watterberg, who is from Albuquerque originally. As the owners of their first-ever spot, they’ve implemented a profit-sharing plan. According to Grub Street, Klein and Watterberg plan to have surge bonuses, where a percentage of the restaurant’s sales during the shift will be added to hourly wages: “The busier you are, the more money you make,” Klein told the publication at the time.
Thanks, in part, to Crown Heights’s runaway hit Ursula, New Mexican cuisine has begun to gain more attention in the city. Watterberg and Klein are excited to be a part of the growing conversation: “For a long time it was one of the few cuisines that was severely underrepresented in New York,” says Watterberg.
During dinner, customers will find enchiladas and smothered burritos, each with the option of being served with either red or green chiles (a quick lesson from the team: a green chile becomes a red chile as it dries and changes color over time), or in local parlance, “Christmas-style” with both. Both the burrito and the enchilada can be stuffed with green chile chicken, pork adovada, picadillo, or beans.
The kitchen is led by Nic Gonzales, an alum of Roebling Tea Room and the kitchen at Metrograph, who runs Besos Locos, a Sonoran-style pop-up that’s a nod to his Tucson roots. Besos Locos specials will occasionally appear on the menu. Watterberg and Gonzales met while playing in bands in the early aughts.
All the flour tortillas used throughout the restaurant are hand-made and pressed. “There’s a restaurant called Frontier in Albuquerque, and one of the components of their great breakfast burrito is the handmade flour tortillas,” says Klein. “We called them and were like, ‘We know we can’t have the recipe, but maybe you can point us in the right direction.’” The restaurant told the duo they needed to buy a Be & Sco tortilla machine, which now lives in the restaurant (allegedly, the team says, it is only one of the two of the Texas-based machines that are used on the East Coast).
Among the lighter dishes at Santa Fe BK is a beet salad with carrots, cabbage, cotija, pepitas, and lime-cumin vinaigrette (the only thing on the menu that’s a reinterpretation of a dish at the original Santa Fe restaurant they met at). For snacks, there’s a pozole, green chile fries, or chips with Gonzales’s green chile queso dip, a trio of salsas, or guacamole.
The current daytime menu will mostly stay the same, with breakfast burritos and burgers served via a takeout window. There is no immediate plans to launch for indoor daytime service.
But no matter the time of day, Hatch green chiles are the central focus.
“New Mexican food has evolved around the abundance of green chile in the region. It’s the only place in the world where the chile can grow with that particular flavor,” Klein says. “So we have imported 1.75 tons of green chile from New Mexico, and it’s here ready to enchant people.”
It’s also one their biggest food costs. The team is working on getting a full pallet, which contains 60 boxes, delivered every month. “We’re spending a lot, but the food could never be what it is without the New Mexico chile, so in our book, it’s so worth it,” says Klein.
The menu is intended to be paired with one of their nine, hand-muddled margaritas, which range in flavor from passionfruit to blood orange.
“It’s an incredibly punishing and labor-intensive process,” says Watterberg, a technique he picked up at the restaurant where he met Klein. “You can’t fresh-squeeze lime juice, because the acid from the limes begins to decay...it tastes different from one hour to the next.”
There are some off-menu items for those in the know: A secret spicy margarita, for one. Also not listed on the menu are the complimentary dessert of sopapillas. As the restaurant opens in full, there will be other off-menu call-outs on social media, such as an option for burritos to be fried into chimichangas.
Some elements from New Mexico have been harder to source. “New Mexicans are really happy to keep to themselves and do their thing, and not feel this need to expand,” says Watterberg. “Like, we can’t get New Mexican beer for the bar — and there are tons of breweries — but they haven’t applied for licenses here.” In the meantime, they’re turning to New York breweries and Mexican beer.
The restaurant, even in its early days of serving a limited breakfast and lunch menus, struck a cord with transplants from the southwestern state by creating a sense of home. “There’s an emotional connection,” says Wattenberg. “So many people who clutch their hearts and are like, ‘Now my mom doesn’t have to send me green chile.’’