It may draw inspiration from the cantinas of New Mexico and the mid-century Americana of Rt. 66, but Boxcar Cantina in Greenwich is most deeply rooted in the soil of Connecticut.
Locally sourced and organic ingredients have been a signature of Boxcar’s New Mexican-inspired menu for the past seventeen years well before Farm-to-Table was a claim to fame. With a weekly presence at the Westport Farmer’s Market and a green restaurant certification, the first thing you may notice upon arriving at this Greenwich restaurant are several small raised herb and vegetable garden beds filled with a variety of lettuces, herbs, tomatoes and peppers (depending on the season) that will invariably make it onto your plate. If you're as curious as I was, when I stopped by earlier in the growing season, an impressive lineup of lettuces included: Emerald Oak Lettuce, Mascara Lettuce, Lollo Bionda Lettuce, Lollo Rossa Lettuce, Gourmet Lettuce Mix, and Claytonia.
Behind Boxcar's continued success Farmers' Market participation is owner and chef Nancy Allen Roper. She was raised in Albequerque, New Mexico just 5 miles north of Rt. 66. This cultural provenance is reflected in the dusty southwestern colors that fill Boxcar and its tiled floors, the Boxcar kitchen, and most notably in a menu bursting with chilies, tortillas, organic beans and margaritas.
I know no better place to start on a southwestern menu than with a bowl of guacamole and a margarita in hand. Boxcar’s gently mashed version comes as a neatly molded dome with shards of chips resting in its base. Creamy with big chunks of avocado still discernible, you may find yourself digging into it throughout the meal as we did. The house margarita is a combination of Cuervo Tradicional, fresh-squeezed lime and triple sec which you can have on the rocks or frozen.
Tempted by the soups, we opted for the Indian Posole, a broth-based soup filled with a mixture of shredded chicken, corn, beans, fresh onions, topped with cilantro and avocado and served with a folded tortilla. The flavors of this soup were so comforting, the textures so intriguing, I found myself coming back a week later just to have this for lunch.
As a lunch special, we also opted for the mini tacos. A neat assembly of hard shelled miniature tacos filled with chicken, beef and pork, or a combination of your preference. The chicken, an incredibly moist organic meat surrounded by bits of lettuce and topped with a lightly spiced crema, was by far the best. You can also order the regular-sized Carne Adovada taco which is filled with Niman Ranch beef, a Beef Taco filled with Stuart Farm (Bridgewater, CT) beef, or the wild-caught shrimp tacos
The only item with mixed-reviews was a fish taco. Expecting big chunks of fish either fried of grilled, this comes resembling a cake. Dashed expectations aside, the lightly breaded and herby cakes had a nice tang and were perfectly assembled but lacked textural complexity of the other dishes with its layers of soft cake and soft tortilla. However, we still managed to clean our plate.
Leave it to a Cowboy [Special] to save the day. The Boxcar Burger is an all-natural beef patty sourced from Stuart Farm in Bridgewater, CT (it also has a buffalo version as well). The burgers are served with green chilies, a thick layer of sharp Jack cheddar cheese and wrapped snugly in a tortilla with a side of hand-cut fries. A pitch perfect New Mexican interpretation of an American classic.
Rice and beans are served as sides to many of these meals, and unlike many Southwestern or Mexican restaurants, these are anything but an afterthought at Boxcar. Inspired by Rancho Gordo’s mission of supporting small Mexican farms, Nancy Roper began featuring their beans weekly. As Roper explains, “since Rancho offers 32 types of heirloom beans and there are 29 employees at Boxcar Cantina, we thought it would be fun to have each of our employees pick a bean for our ‘Bean of the Week’ program.” Now that’s my kind of job perk.
If you can't make it to Greenwich to the Cantina, check them out at the Farmers' Market, which seems to double as their second location. You can find them at Westport Farmers' Market at the Imperial Market Parking Lot on Thursdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. year-round selling tamales or tacos filled with whatever is in season (shifting to the winter location at Gilbertie's Herb Gardens on November 17).
As Boxcar Manager Kelly Walsh told me, "The Westport Farmers' Market is like no other local market, it harbors a real sense of community. It's a fun place for people to spend a few hours during their day and feel like they're participating in something really special." Not only is it a respite, but their Market participation allows them build important relationships with the farmers that grow their ingredients. "We also have great relationships with other local farms that do not participate at the Westport Market like Uncle Buck's Secret Garden, Sport Hill Farm, Gourm Avian (chicken farmer) and Stuart Family Farm (beef)," said Kelly Walsh.
Inspired by New Mexican-style cantinas, Roper has succeeded in establishing her own brand of Southwestern farm-centric cuisine for green conscious locavores in our Northeastern corner.
Boxcar Cantina is located at 44 Old Field Point Road in Greenwich, CT. More information at http://www.boxcarcantina.com/
Note: As of July 2014, Nancy Roper sold Boxcar Cantina to a new owner. You can find her continuing her passion for bringing farm to table at her new restaurant TRUCK in Bedford, NY.