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A Taste of Paradise at New Mexico’s Los Poblanos Inn

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Los Poblanos Inn has been drawing visitors since Congressman Albert Simms purchased the Albuquerque ranch in the 1930s. Jayme Moye checks in and finds a food-lovers’ retreat, where guests can literally enjoy the fruits of the working organic farm

Photography by Wynn Myers

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The welcoming committee at Los Poblanos.

Driving up the long, tree-lined entryway at nightfall, I struggle to catch my first glimpses of
 Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. Unfortunately,
I can’t make out much of the surrounding 25 acres of lavender fields, cottonwood groves and formal Spanish-style gardens. I certainly can’t discern the pond, nor its floating pink lotus blossoms, or even the backdrop of the sacred 10,000-foot Sandia Mountains, said to glow orange-red at sunset. Even so, I quickly confirm that Los Poblanos is special. Because there, at the end of the drive- way beside the elegant adobe structure marked “Check In,” stands a giant cottonwood tree. And in the tree’s lower boughs roosts a white peacock — impossible to miss, even in the darkness. As it turns out, this magnificent ghost of a bird is just the first of many surprises I will experience during a long weekend at the food and nature lover’s hideaway of Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm.

Much of the allure of this 22-room agritourism refuge in central New Mexico comes from its grand history — a rich tradition of art, architecture and agriculture.

Originally inhabited by the ancient Pueblo peoples — master craftsmen and architects — Los Poblanos was most recently part of an 800-acre ranch owned by Congressman Albert Simms and his wife, Ruth Hanna McCormick. In the 1930s and ’40s, the progressive couple put the land
to use as an experimental farm, running agricultural research projects like the cultivation of sugar beets, along with alfalfa, oats, corn and barley, in an attempt to wean America off foreign imports. They also leased some of the land to Creamland Dairies and its herd of Guernsey and Holstein cows, providing much of Albuquerque’s milk. But most notably, they commissioned the region’s foremost architect, John Gaw Meem — a man whose name is now synonymous with Santa Fe style — to convert their ranch house into a cultural center. Today, La Quinta Cultural Center is considered one of the most important historical structures in the North Valley, and stands in testament to Meem’s enduring architectural genius.

Other elements of Los Poblanos’ appeal are perhaps less obvious, but equally powerful. The current owners, Penny and Armin Rembe, raised four children in the adobe house where I check in. They’d planned to retire there until, in the late 1990s, the property next door that housed La Quinta went up for sale. Fearing the land would be subdivided into urban sprawl, like so much
of Albuquerque’s formerly rural outskirts, the Rembes, together with their children, bought it. “Growing up in the ’70s, we saw so much of the land get eaten up over time,” says son Matthew Rembe, Los Poblanos’ executive director. “Considering the history of this property, with Meem’s architecture, we felt that we were stewards and needed to do whatever we possibly could to ensure these 25 acres were properly preserved.”

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Treh Steffensen mans the Farm Shop.

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It’s hard to say which element of Los Poblanos best showcases the Rembe family’s commitment to an authentic preservation of the land and its historical structures. Many would argue that it’s La Quinta, which the Rembes restored to all its former glory and which now serves its original pur- pose and then some, with a library, art gallery and ballroom. While I am here in the fall, Andy Cruz, the art director
at House Industries, speaks before a full house in the La Quinta Grand Ballroom, and the La Quinta Gallery debuts an exclusive Los Poblanos salt-glazed stoneware collection designed by House Industries and Eldreth Pottery.

But for me, the Rembes’ defining contribution to Los Poblanos is the restaurant, La Merienda. Stepping inside the warm, inviting space, the first thing I notice is the adobe kiva fireplace, an original, along with the hand- hewn log ceiling accented by tin chandeliers. Floor-to- ceiling windows draw my gaze across the property to the mountains — which light up in shades of orange as the sun sets, exactly as I’d been told they would. Seated at a cozy table for two, my dinner companion and I discuss the menu in earnest, because it is that kind of menu — one that deserves nearly as much deliberation as executive chef Jonathan Perno had clearly put into creating it. I eventually settle on the housemade fettuccini with wild mushrooms, while my partner agonizes between the red wine-braised short rib and the smoked Los Poblanos pork belly. When I remind him that we have another night
at Los Poblanos, his relief is palpable. One dinner at La Merienda is not enough.

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The dining room at La Merienda.

What puts the quality of the food at Los Poblanos on par with that served at standout restaurants in New York and Los Angeles is more than an award-winning chef. As cre- ative and talented as Perno has proved, he is blessed with immediate access to ingredients that urban chefs can only dream about. Many of the vegetables and herbs in Perno’s dishes come straight from the on-site organic farm, or from someplace close by. The wild mushrooms in my meal came from Exotic Edibles of Edgewood in New Mexico, and the leeks in my companion’s (he ends up choosing the short ribs), from Ray and Mary Arrowsmith in Albuquerque. The organic grass-fed beef is a bit farther-flung — hailing from a couple of hundred miles north in Colorado.

The honey drizzled on our artisanal cheese plate came from Los Poblanos’ own bees — introduced by Armin Rembe in 2005. I comment on its fresh floral notes (including a hint of lavender) to our server, who informs me that this exquisite honey is one of the kitchen staff ’s favorite surprises, typically reserved for special occasions like weddings and special holiday menus. Chef Perno uses it in both sweet and savory forms, paired with figs from the property, as an accompaniment to imported cheeses, and in artisan cocktails.

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Chef Perno harvests lavender-scented honey from the inn’s beehives.
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A delicious spread of artisanal cheeses and relishes.

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Perno and the Rembe family have dubbed their hyperlocal, organic, seasonal style “Rio Grande Valley Cuisine.” Think poached eggs in a spicy tomato stew with tortillas and feta — Los Poblanos’ take on shakshuka, a savory North African dish which I have for breakfast the following morning. “The menu is rooted in fresh, organic produce harvested from our own property, as well as from local farmers and herders in our own valley, extending to the greater New Mexico food shed,” Matthew Rembe says. “And there’s really nothing else quite like it.”

Chatting with Matthew, or Matt as he’s called, while strolling through the Los Poblanos gardens, I get the sense that he has experienced a fair amount of life outside the family estate-turned-family business. Lean and handsome, with dark hair fashionably styled and a natural good humor, Matt possesses a worldly ease, reflected in his diverse management team that includes members from Kenya and Ireland. He speaks freely, whether narrating fond memories about working on his parents’ “gentleman’s farm” as a kid in the summers, or admitting more unconventional actions, like his decision to leave New Mexico for Suffield Academy in Connecticut as an eighth-grader. I learn that at Syracuse University in New York, Matt studied Spanish and Latin American art, and then got his MBA from the prestigious Thunderbird School of Global Management. He went on to become the director of Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art in New York City, where he specialized in 20th-century Latin American masters.

Matt’s colleagues and casual acquaintances were surprised when in 1999, at age 30, he returned home to New Mexico to get Los Poblanos off the ground. But those close to him knew that the project combined his biggest passions — art, architecture, agriculture and business. And
as Matt told the Albuquerque Journal in 2011, “The more I was on the East Coast, I identified more as being a New Mexican. ’Cause you start really appreciating where you’re from; you start really appreciating what it’s all about.” Since assuming the role of executive director in 2005, Matt has overseen $5 million in expansions, including the addition of 13 guest rooms (in 1930s dairy-style buildings); a Farm Shop selling Los Poblanos’ line of lavender spa products alongside farm-inspired art, handcrafted gifts and artisan food items; and La Merienda restaurant, whose merits earned Los Poblanos a spot on Bon Appétit’s “Best Hotels for Food Lovers” list in 2013.

At one point during our walk and talk, I spot another peacock — this time in the traditional hues of royal blue and emerald green. Matt tells me there are four on the property, including the white one (named Albert after Congressmen Simms), and that peacocks have been a part of Los Poblanos for as long as he can remember. Matt thinks his parents got the first few in the 1970s, when the Albuquerque zoo (of which they were supporters) had a surplus. “Peacocks actually make good guard dogs,” Matt says. “They get really loud if there are coyotes nearby.”

Besides the peacocks, Los Poblanos is home to 10 egg-laying chickens, four guinea fowl, three sheep, several cats, and pigs in varying numbers (depending on the restaurant’s needs). One day near the end of my visit, as
I sunned myself in a chair outside the Farm Shop enjoying the view of the lavender fields set against the Sandia Mountains, I am joined by Albert the White, an orange cat and a guinea fowl that had escaped from the coop.

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It was kind of how I pictured heaven, at least if you’re an animal lover like me. Or like Fergus Whitney, who manages the farm. Originally from Leitrim, Ireland, Whitney holds a Certificate of Organic Horticulture and started The Organic Gardener Galway — providing eco-friendly gardening services — before joining the
Los Poblanos team in 2013. As expected of the man who cultivates the crops behind the culinary genius happening at La Merienda, Whitney is a behind-the-scenes-kind of guy, wearing jeans and a baseball cap pulled low over his auburn hair. But he has an ambitious goal — to supply as much of the restaurant’s produce as possible. To date, Whitney’s grown salad and saute greens, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, radishes, chilies, tomatoes, tomatillos, melons, apples, mulberries and many types herbs on the property. “I’ve been to a
few places around the world, and this is definitely one of those that stands out,” Whitney tells me, in his delightful brogue. “It may be only 25 acres, but there’s so much happening on these 25 acres.”

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Farm manager Fergus Whitney tends a new crop of beets.

The next morning, as I pack my suitcase to leave
 Los Poblanos, it occurs to me that none of the pleasant surprises I’d experienced there happened by accident. Everything, from the exquisite-yet-welcoming architecture, to the world-class food, to the pastoral animals, is a product of 15 years of the Rembe family’s hard work, and dare I say, love.

The Rembe family’s efforts have been wildly successful with their guests. Matt tells me that they started with six employees. Today, there are 50 full-time employees, ballooning to 80 in the high season, spread across six lines of business: lodging, restaurant, farming, retail, wholesale lavender and events. Every first Saturday of the month, Los Poblanos opens the farm up for locals and guests
to try their hand working as volunteer farmers. The inn also hosts community classes that range from knitting to lavender aromatherapy. The seasonally focused cooking classes, offered monthly October through March by chef Perno and his staff, were voted “Best of the City” in 2014 by the readers of Albuquerque the Magazine.

“I think we’re all moving at such a fast pace, and are so disconnected with nature, with the outdoors, that a place like this helps you slow down and unwind and reconnect,” Matt says, trying to put the magic of Los Poblanos into words. “But then something else kind of happens here; I’m still not sure what to call it. People just respond differently to this place.”

As I walk to check out, I look for the peacocks. But
they are not to be seen. Instead, I spot a feather. Not the iridescent tail feather popular in retail stores — something much more unique. It is a peacock wing feather, scalloped chocolate brown and tan, almost like leopard skin, beautiful in a different way. I scoop it up and tuck it into my purse — one of the many things I want to remember about Los Poblanos.

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