Let’s face it: The only reason to order a chicken-fried steak is pure guilty pleasure. Some people prefer to use the more wholesome-sounding synonym of “comfort food,” but it is what it is—in this case, beaten, battered, fried and coupled with creamy mashed potatoes and rich, fatty gravy—no matter what you call it. And really, what’s the point of indulgence if you’re going to pretend you’re seeking solace rather than pleasure?
Lots of places in Santa Fe reliably offer grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, but Zia Diner is the only one I can think of with the cojones to package such a commodities—typically marketed as precious—in the form of chicken-fried steak. It’s easy to cook up steak and add a premium to it because of its locavore status or organic-fad value. But to buy a more expensive raw ingredient and then treat it dirty—well, it multiplies the guiltiness of the pleasure, you see.
You may have your choice of white or brown gravy, made respectively with cream or beef. Neither can make you look better in the eyes of God, vegans or first dates, but there’s a lot to be said for the simple glory of options when it comes to the tools used to hasten one’s demise.
This particular penance-inducing platter has been an offering on Zia Diner’s menu for as long as anyone can remember, which is to say, before time. But the use of local meats, pastured chickens, grass-fed beef and all those popular but smart and delicious products is a more recent phenomenon.
The Zia has been through a few stages of reinvention over the past several years and managed to emerge visibly unchanged. That sounds like a contradiction but, really, it’s a compliment.
The interior is the same weird blend of vintage diner and Duran Duran album cover it’s always been. The black bean flautas are still at the top of the menu. The masked barstool monument to the time when a heroic customer halted a crazed gunman in his tracks is still in place. You’ll never really notice that potatoes, of all things, have been planted just outside the front door, nor that the cocktail list has become slyly sophisticated, nor that your chicken-fried steak has become a little less guilty in terms of where it’s sourced and a little more pleasurable in how it tastes.
With regular specials and regular contributions to community causes and organizations, the Zia still feels like the place where I’m bound to see ya, but it’s a secretly reanimated restaurant.
You might not believe it, even after you’ve tried it, but that’s the beauty of the Zia’s transformation: It’s a secret.
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