On A Mission

Date October 31, 2005 at 11:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


Carolyn Sigstedt and Cindy Barreraz, missionaries of heritage preservation and community promotion, deserve our attention. In October, after months of work on a historical building on East DeVargas Street, they opened The Mission Café and Sweet Shop with a shared vision in mind.

Carolyn's initial commitment was not so much to a restaurant, the name of which reflects the church up the street on Old Santa Fe Trail, but to the building itself. It became the residence for her and her children when she bought it fifteen years ago, and she ran a business making art prints out of the oldest part of it. She began what would be a fifteen year restoration project in three phases, the culmination of which would be, she hoped, a public-oriented place that would take its place in, and promote the development of, its wider community. Even when her family was there, "it was a hangout for my kids' friends. We're so close to the plaza. It was a cool place for the kids to grow up."€

Everywhere she's lived as an adult, Carolyn says, she's bought older buildings in need of renovation, and preservation of historical structures has been a passion of hers. She's been active in Santa Fe politics focusing on water sustainability. Carolyn rented out the building to Jane Mitchell (of the eponymous Jane's) and was happy to see people using the building and its courtyard, formerly a parking lot that Carolyn quickly converted. Jane did a terrific job with her coffee shop, she says. "Now we've taken it one step further."€

For Carolyn, the building's future is rooted in its past. The oldest section of it has been standing since the 1600's. Part of the Barrio de Analco in Santa Fe's earliest days, it's down the street from the putative "oldest church"€ and "oldest home"€ in the United States. Analco aptly means "other side of the river"€ in the Nahuatl language, since in its day it was essentially the other side of the tracks, home to poor Native Americans working for Spanish settlers, and later poor mestizos. In 1881 the property came into the hands of Manuel Valdes, one of the city's earliest mayors, and stayed in the Valdes family until Carolyn bought it.

Carolyn found another home and worked at other jobs in Santa Fe when she rented the building out, but after Jane closed her café, Carolyn felt the need to utilize the building. Selling it was anathema, and she wanted to further her vision of making the building a public, community place. She thought of opening a restaurant as a way of having it support itself, but had no background in the business. She went to the health department, where she put out the word she was looking for a partner. Experienced chef Cindy Barreraz happened to be looking for a new location since the downtown building in which she had her own restaurant, El Rio Café, had been sold. A health department inspector told them to meet.

So began a business partnership and dynamic activity as sweeping renovations changed the building. New landscaping, stucco, and plaster give a fresh look to the old homestead. Almost the entire rambling building has been converted to dining rooms. The original wood floors have been spiffed up. In one room, a knocked-out low ceiling revealed original old vigas, matching the other oldest rooms. Tin ceilings were installed in the newer parts of the house, in keeping with the early 1900's architecture there. Cindy directed construction of a small but efficient commercial kitchen. A worker-owned co-op in Mexico made the attractive wood tables and chairs. Historic Santa Fe photographs, southwest paintings and art prints, and sculptures in nichos contribute to the sense of a heritage preserved. A light and spacious community/conference room seats ten comfortably, and you can play Carolyn's grandmother's old upright Steinway.

A fourth generation Santa Fean, Cindy proudly prepares recipes handed down from her family. She recalls helping her grandmother in the kitchen, where she helped make slow-cooked beans in a Folger's coffee tin. "I learned how to cook watching her."€ By her teens she was regularly cooking with her mother for the family. Although she studied culinary arts at the University of Arizona, she preserves traditional recipes. Her grandmother would grind dried red chile into a powder to make sauces, so that's what Cindy still does. She eschews most spices in favor of garlic and salt. "I never was brought up with spices like cilantro and cumin. That's not traditional New Mexican. To me it overpowers the food."€ Using fresh ingredients and organic products whenever possible, Cindy turns out delicious quintessential New Mexican food, hearty portions at prices that define "reasonable,"€ and has the goal of developing a reputation for the best red and green chiles in town. She's modernized, too, making vegetarian beans and posole, and healthful soups and salads. The restaurant serves fair trade coffee, a variety of coffee drinks, Tara's organic ice cream, and Santa Fe favorite, Josie's pastries.

After the Mission Café opened in early October, breakfast and lunch took off quickly, without any advertising. Carolyn doesn't try to hide her enthusiasm for what she and Cindy have accomplished. "Creating a beautiful space is a powerful thing. To combine that with Cindy's clean, pure, traditional New Mexican cuisine is a gift to the community."€

She feels like she's hosting something larger than the restaurant. Within a few days of opening, a knitting group began meeting there once a week for ice cream and cake. Roberto Mondrigan holds a Spanish immersion luncheon in the conference room every other week. Non-profits have held meetings there. "People are getting it. They see how this space can nurture community and personal needs."€

Carolyn, a former grade school teacher, says that every job she's ever had has involved building connections, and Cindy sees The Mission Café as a gathering place because anyone can afford to eat her low-priced, high quality New Mexican dishes. They both say they support each other in their vision of what the place can be. "In the end we're all interconnected,"€ Carolyn says. "It's what keeps us healthy. That's the way I live."€

They've improved on the wifi system that Jane's offered, encouraging people to hang out when the restaurant's not maxed out at prime meal times. "There can be music here, or partnering with other entrepreneurial efforts,"€ Carolyn believes. The space will be some part of Santa Fe's future, but exactly what depends on the community. The owners don't believe in pushing. As Carolyn says, "We're allowing it to have its own life."€

Mission Café and Sweet Shop. 239 East DeVargas, between Old Santa Fe Trail and Paseo de Peralta. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Community/conference room available. 983-3033.