A pretty magical restaurant debut happened last week—the atmosphere in the packed dining room feeling like a party. The kitchen hustled to get out orders of New Mexican-inspired dishes to a steady stream of curious customers as the brilliant fall sun lit up the craggy mountains of Zion National Park (in Utah) just outside. The only thing missing from this buzzy scene was the man behind Rosita’s Sante Fe Kitchen: Paul Allen.
Yes, that Paul Allen. The guy who co-founded Microsoft, dramatically changed the landscape of Seattle’s South Lake Union and who fought to keep the Seahawks in the city was—surprise!—an unabashed foodie. He frequently traveled the globe looking for the absolute best meal, whether that was a Dick’s Deluxe or a multi-course feast at a Michelin-rated restaurant. Some of his all-time favorite foods are rooted in the Southwest, especially New Mexico, and those are the dishes featured on this comfort food-focused menu at one of his final passion projects.
I’ve been traveling to national parks around the west in my new RV (and writing about my adventures), so when I heard about this unique launch from one of the chefs working on it, I knew I had to be there. It was so worth the detour.
On opening night, Allen’s personal chef for the past 13 years, Chet Wallenstein, was there expediting, along with consulting chefs, Seattle-based Kelly Gaddis and Sante Fe-based Aaron Sanchez, all realizing the dream of “the boss”, from the green chili cheeseburger and addictive Frito Pie to the tacos that taste unlike anything you’ve ever eaten unless you’ve been to one of his favorite haunts in Alburquerque, the city where Microsoft got its start.
“Food was always nostalgic for Paul,” said Wallenstein, who often traveled to delicious destinations with his boss.
Some of the highlights from this high-level home cooking-style menu:
- Tender, ultra-juicy pan-roasted Christmas chicken, named for the dynamic duo of sauces made from red and green chilis that puddle on the plate in a yin-yang pattern.
- Deeply flavorful posole, delicate shreds of purple cabbage, sliced radish and avocado served on the side so diners can customize their soup, like you would embellish a bowl of pho.
- Super classy queso that tastes more like chili-fueled fondue. Sorry, (not sorry) purists, no Velveta here.
- Those tacos! Who knew ground beef stuffed in delicate, crispy shells could pack so much flavor? Credit the addition of sofrito, potatoes and peas. Sounds crazy, but it works in the best possible way.
- The green chili cheeseburger, which is built around a single, crispy-on-the-edges patty. It looks humble yet packs a whole lot of flavor and a little bit of heat.
- A massive beef rib that’s surely meant to be shared, not that you’ll want to part with any of the falling-off-the-bone, well-seasoned meat.
Customers order at the counter and take a seat in the cozy cabin’s open dining room, big-screen TVs punctuating each corner. They’re tuned on Sundays to the Seahawks, of course. A carefully curated soundtrack plays in the background, not loud enough to drown out conversations. Yes, that’s a photo of the late owner and his beloved dachshund hanging on the wall by one of the two-tops. Her name is Rosie. The restaurant’s named in her honor.
It might seem random that Paul Allen and his team would pick this remote spot in southern Utah to launch a restaurant, but, as Wallenstein pointed out, there are 4 million visitors passing through to the park each year. And once you stand near the entrance, looking over your shoulder at the colorful mountains in Zion, the savory aromas from the cafe pulling you in, it all makes a lot of sense. If/when you’re visiting this special place, you’ve got to go eat at Rosita’s!