"FISH TACOS? HERE?" SNIFFED MY ROAD-TRIP PARTNER, who was visiting the high desert of northern New Mexico from California’s Monterey Bay. I’d been telling her about the buzz for Café Sierra Negra, just off US 84 in Abiquiú, where we were headed for lunch.
Thirty minutes later, bathed in the cool turquoise tones of the patio sunshade, she was eating both fish tacos and her words. It turns out chef and owner Melodie Milhoan, who moved to Abiquiú in 2013 from—coincidence or fate?—the Monterey Bay area, knows what it takes to serve fish in the desert.
The alchemy of Café Sierra Negra’s tacos starts locally. Griddled corn tortillas from Tortilleria Temosachi, in Española, get layered with the catch of the week (rockfish, cod, salmon, or whatever’s freshest) from Santa Fe seafood wholesaler Above Sea Level. Blackened and spiced fish is fused to a tortilla with melted pepper Jack cheese, dolloped with sriracha mayo and pico de gallo, then served with lime wedges and crisp, sweet-tart honey-cilantro slaw.
As we delightedly devoured them, luxuriating on the color-popping courtyard designed by Milhoan’s painter husband, Ron, whose bright canvases line the café’s interior, I realized a sense of place can be imported—and then transformed by local flavors into something altogether rare and delicious.
The restaurant, which was converted from a former bakery and opened in early 2021, is the culmination of Milhoan’s long culinary career.
Before she and Ron relocated to the foothills of the Sierra Negra mesa, Milhoan learned to cook from Army chefs at an alternative high school, then bartended in Chinese and Mexican restaurants, waited tables at a French bistro, and worked for decades at a prominent catering company in Watsonville, California. After the pandemic eliminated her job managing tours at the Georgia O’Keeffe home and studio, she jumped at the chance to carve out her own nicho in Abiquiú.
The sunny café serves from-scratch meals that reflect the diversity of Milhoan’s cooking background. The menu hops from New Mexico classics like green chile stew and a roasted poblano relleno to crepes, lentil stew, and baby back ribs, along with inspired weekly specials, baked goodies, and local beer and wine. Customers are especially fond of the Spinakopanada, an empanada stuffed with spinach, ricotta, and feta, another reflection of her versatile spins on tradition.
The inspiration came from Milhoan’s work making empanadas for the bakery during the annual Abiquiú Studio Tour weekend. “I started thinking of different fillings that were not traditional,” she says. “I couldn’t keep up with the demand. I was rolling them as we were selling them.”
This winter, Milhoan gives back to the artistic community that has wholeheartedly embraced Café Sierra Madre by hosting dinner-and-a-movie screenings of Abiquiú-focused films at the restaurant.
“I was attracted to this area because it is a small community, but also very supportive,” she reflects. “It appears remote, but it’s really not. You can’t walk a few feet without bumping into an artist here. I probably know more people here than I did when I lived in Santa Cruz County.”