Barbara Nevins has kept Ridgefield’s New Mexico-inspired restaurant the on its legs for an entire 25 years, a quarter-century milestone which it achieved this month.
Nevins visited New Mexico in the mid-seventies and became enchanted with the art and lifestyle found therein. Several years later, and 25 years ago this August, she founded the Southwest Café, taking inspiration (and a bunch of chili peppers) back to Ridgefield. She originally meant it to be a kind of Mexican Deli but it evolved into something more; now, artwork from friends in New Mexico can be found underneath steaming bowls of chili stew paired with icy margaritas at 109 Danbury Road.
Nevins recently celebrated her 25th-year anniversary with a 5k marathon race on August 4th (click here for photos), with all proceeds going to Ridgefield’s group-home Sunrise Cottage. She said that the turnout was bigger than past races, and that the donation was one way of how she “gave back” to the town of Ridgefield which has been good to her business.
Asked for what advice she would give restaurant owners to stay profitable, Nevins had this to say: “You have to love the businesses and love what you do, and the employees are the most important part of the business. A happy employee is going to make your guests happy, but with unhappy employees you’ll have unhappy guests. I have employees that have worked with me for 12, 16, 17 years.”
“The Mexican food is nothing to do with Tex-Mix. The ingredients are native of New Mexico, santé-fe style,” she said.
The restaurant offers many meals made with hand-picked chili peppers from an organic farm in Hatch, New Mexico, which Nevins said she buys in bulk of 1,000 pounds. The farmer is someone Nevins has worked with for a long while, and she herself has picked chilies during visits to New Mexico. Her chef visits local produce sellers and markets –such as Holbrook Farm in Bethel and also local chili farmers—to grab fresh veggies and fish on a daily basis.
Fajitas, Quesadillas, enchiladas, flat iron steak, chalupas, tacos, nachos, burritos and seafood are part of the dinner menu with rotating specials. And of course there are a number of different kinds of chili which rotate with the special menu. The Hatch Chili Stew, which she describes as a “real traditional chili pork stew” made with Hatch chilies, is a fan favorite. The kitchen-made green and red chili sauces have proved tasty enough to become a staple in the menu for 25 years. First Wednesdays of the month are BBQ Rib nights while Thursdays and Saturdays feature live music.
Not surprisingly, tequila is the liquor of choice here. The standard margarita is the most popular drink, said Nevins, although there are several types available. Tequilas infused in-house with ingredients like ghost chili peppers, mint and cucumber, and watermelon and rhubarb make for untraditionally interesting margaritas.
The businesses adjacent to the Southwest Café have a lot to offer: there’s the t for groceries, for coffee and fresh-baked goods, the for sweets, and for, well, cheeses and wines.
“They’re great neighbors. There are all sorts of food-related businesses around here,” said Nevins. Notably, 109 and the Southwest Café team up for dinner-and-wine pairings on select days during the fall and winter seasons. “You try their cheeses once and you can’t stop anymore," she said.
As for Ridgefield itself: “It’s been very good to me to keep me here for 25 years, that’s for sure. It’s a wonderful town,” she said.