It’s all about family at La Choza Restaurant, a popular eatery in the Santa Fe Railyard area featuring New Mexican cuisine. Founded in 1983 by Courtney Carswell, whose parents opened the popular downtown restaurant The Shed in 1953, La Choza reflects the hard work and passion of Carswell, his wife Linnea and their three adult children. While Josh Carswell focuses most of his attention on The Shed and Kenji Carswell divides his time between the two restaurants, Sarah Carswell assumes the helm at La Choza.
When Courtney Carswell bought the building that he transformed into La Choza Restaurant thirty-seven years ago, he thought he had inherited an old bunkhouse and kitchen that was part of the Mercer Ranch. Historical research completed during the past several years has revealed that while La Choza’s property was part of the Mercer Ranch, the actual restaurant building was never a bunkhouse but a stop for travelers.
Close to a decade ago, the Carswell family decided to do an extensive remodel of the restaurant that included changing the location of the entrance, expanding the seating and adding restrooms. They made sure all aspects of the property would comply with local building codes and allow staff to move more efficiently through the multi-room establishment.
The remodel was executed in three stages over a three-year period. During the entire renovation, which began in 2016 and ended in the summer of 2019, La Choza never stopped its lunch and dinner service.
“Many of our long-term customers appreciated that the remodel was gradual,” says Sarah Carswell. “It gave them time to acclimate to the changes.”
Today, there are five indoor dining rooms, a bar with three seating areas and two outdoor eating spaces. La Choza’s signature hues (oranges, pinks, blues and more) still dominate the walls of all spaces, creating a consistent flow of color when walking from room to room.
“The lighting is different in each space,” says Carswell. “Customers often request being seated in a particular room, depending on the atmosphere they’re looking for.”
While La Choza’s warm colors and family-friendly ambience attract diners, the food is the main draw. The restaurant features enchiladas, burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos and other traditional New Mexican offerings. Many menu items are gluten-free.
In recent years, humanely raised meats and locally sourced vegetables have been added to the menu. There’s been an emphasis on serving vegetarian and vegan dishes, including a vegan vegetable tostada with a crisp blue corn tortilla, “refried” vegetarian pinto beans, yellow squash, zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado and a slice of lime. One of the newest items on the menu is a kale salad, which features green kale, Parmesan cheese, roasted pecans and dried cranberries.
Entrees come with a choice of red or green chile. Carswell proudly proclaims that all chile served at the restaurant has been grown in the southern part of the state. “Through the years we’ve been driving down to Hatch every couple of months to buy boxes of green chile and dried red chile,” she explains. “We’ve been buying chile from the same family for decades.”
To complement their dishes, La Choza offers an extensive selection of margaritas as well as beer and wine. The beverage menu has been slowly expanding since Carswell returned from a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico in May 2019. “We’ve been adding more mezcal-based cocktails,” she explains. “While mezcal is the national spirit of Mexico, I think it is also an expression of Santa Fe.”
Lately, Carswell has been thinking about La Choza’s legacy and reflecting on the values that are important to her family, such as extending kindness toward one another and working together with the community.
“I feel grateful for our employees, many of whom have been with us for years, our customers and our suppliers,” she says. “Together, we are an amazing tapestry.”
Emily Van Cleve is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer and journalist. Since 1994, her work has been featured in local, regional and national magazines and newspapers.