Look around Delaware and your options for Mexican food are near limitless. You can go the safe route with a Don Pablo's or Mexican Post. Or you can head for the authentic border at El Tapatio and Tijuana Taco. Heck, even Moe's gives them a run for their money in the burrito department.
But what local Latin cuisine lacks most is a place that fuses Mexican and Spanish cuisines with bold flavors for the refined palate, and does so in an atmosphere devoid of suspended piñatas, streamers and bright, neon Corona signs.
Santa Fe Wilmington has that kind of appeal.
Located in the old Baxter's spot on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Union Street, Santa Fe is an offshoot of the Newark location by the same name, but up the scale a few notches. Like many Delawareans, the restaurant graduated from college, moved to the city and grew up.
Our foursome stopped in mid-week for dinner, stepping through the adobe-like entryway to an open dining room, with three booths to the left, and a buzzing little bar scene to the right, where patrons sipped margaritas and sangria.
We were sat at a four-top in the middle of the dining room and greeted by our server, who returned with our order of drinks, including a couple glasses of pinot grigio (Callia, $7 per glass), a bottle of Negra Modelo ($4) and their golden margarita ($9) on the rocks.
Moments later, after placing our order, our server returned with an amuse bouche or, more appropriately, a boca amusér. The black bean dip with chips was a nice change of pace from the standard salsa and chips, and was both quite flavorful and somewhat spicy, with bits of chorizo and arbol chiles.
Later came the first course of guacamole ($8), an extra creamy avocado dip with fresh jalapeños, tomato, onion and cilantro, and the queso fundido ($7), composed of melted Oaxaca cheese, roasted poblano peppers and served with flour tortillas.
Our group gobbled up the chips and dips while cracking open the short rib and Oaxaca cheese spring rolls, which came with a deliciously spicy tomato-jalapeño jam and alternatingly sweet tomatillo-serrano jam.
On to the main course, starting with a wonderfully rich paella ($24), composed of buttery saffron rice and an assortment of oceanic goodies, like mussels, shrimp and scallops, and a spicy addition of chorizo sausage and crispy fried plantains.
The pollo con camarones ($16), or chicken with shrimp, came dressed in a slightly spicy and smoky rustic tomato and jalapeño sauce. On the side was a healthy scoop of charro beans (also known as cowboy beans), baked with garlic, onion, ham and bacon.
After a sizeable meal, dessert had to be on the lighter side, so we went with the skinny tortillas ($5), which were two warm crepes filled with vanilla bean ice cream and served with fresh berries and a tequila-caramel sauce over top.
It was all delicious, but those extra touches like charro beans (instead of refried), Oaxaca cheese (instead of cheddar) and tequila-caramel (instead of fudge), coupled with a cosmopolitan atmosphere, put Santa Fe over the top, piñatas be damned.