So says Michael Wagener, ACEQ’s savvy owner, who as you can see from these images, walks his talk.
Michael wears so many hats (and pink bandanas), it’s difficult to know where to start, so I’ll begin with the wine, which is where he began, on his way to becoming one of the most inspiring entrepreneurial restaurateurs in Taos.
A Wisconsin native, Wagener graduated from the University of Minnesota in Duluth (he still keeps a Duluth phone number), and moved to Taos a decade ago, when he was hired by the El Monte Sagrado Resort as the Food and Beverage Manager.
He left the El Monte when it changed hands to run the Wine Shop (and become the in-house Sommelier), at the Old Blinking Light Restaurant, which is where I met him, as my daughter Angelica worked there at the time also. Both of them had been brought into the company (the now defunct, Taos Restaurant Group), by Joseph Wrede of the late, great Joseph’s Table here in Taos.
After the TRG shut down, Michael went to El Meze and started working with Chef Fred Muller, who had also done a stint with Joe Wrede before opening his (second) acclaimed restaurant in Taos.
A great and classic Maitre D as well as an excellent waiter (he has no problem switching roles, and does just that throughout the night at ACEQ), when he talks about wine however, it’s clearly his area of expertise. Wagener is a Sommelier with the American Court of Master Sommeliers.
“When you take a perfectly flavored and seasoned dish and complement it with a great wine – it’s like alchemy or magic,” he says.
“We have wines from all over the world, as well as locally, ” he tells me. “We also have craft beers, and several of them are local too.”
And then there is the food ACEQ has become known for. After a series of very good Chefs passing through and leaving their stamp on the restaurant’s menu (Johnny Ortiz’ Bison Taco’s remain a mainstay), because as Michael wisely notes, “why fix what’s not broken?”
The Cheese Curds are a constant as well because “I’m from Wisconsin,” he laughs. “Gotta have cheese curds.” Especially if your grandfather owned a dairy farm, which his paternal father did.
Michael found ACEQ first, when it was still a one room operation serving comfort food with a spin.
“I worked for the young couple who started ACEQ as a waiter and also ordered the beer and wine, but after more than a year of working here, I was ready to take over the restaurant and it worked out perfectly because other responsibilities didn’t allow them to continue running it.” He explains.
Michael wound up buying the restaurant and has made significant changes to both the (ever-changing) menu and the space itself.
He began remodeling the space in the spring of 2015, adding lots of square footage while keeping room for an outdoor seating area. Doug Patterson was the architect (and Patterson Farms provides tons of fresh produce to ACEQ during the growing season), Michael and his father did a lot of the work. The table tops are made from recycled wood from his grandfather’s Wisconsin Granary, and a Mid-Century Modern booth which curves around one corner of the new addition, was also found in his home State, years before it was installed at ACEQ.
“I’ve always had a strong vision about keeping the food very simple but having fun with traditional fare – I want the food to speak for itself,” he says. “Where the sauces don’t drown out the flavour of the ingredients themselves – less is more.”
These days Andrew Mabley Horton (who initially worked at Common Fire), is the Chef at ACEQ, but clearly it’s Michael’s vision that keeps an edge on the so-called comfort food coming out of the open kitchen. That said, changing the menu as often as possible is another Michael Wagener signature, with seasonal and nightly changes a given.
Last week Kiki Siebenaler and I drove up to Arroyo Seco to have an early dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, so I could talk to Michael in between his whirlwind rounds of his establishment. As I noted earlier, he wears a lot of hats and is a total whiz at making them all look effortless. One minute he’s greeting and seating customers, the next he’s carrying plates of food to another table, before opening a couple of bottles of wine and pouring us each a glass. Rose’ for Kiki, and a lovely sustainably grown, High Altitude Cabernet (I’m a red wine drinker), from California.
We ordered a burger and salad to share, but before it arrived, Michael sent another plate to the bar where we sat. Two rounds of sourdough baguette topped with slices of Manchego and sweet, deep purple heirloom tomatoes grown by Isaac Gonzalez (who has also cooked at ACEQ in the past.)
“I don’t usually like tomatoes,” Kiki tells me, “but these are delicious – they taste like plums!”
The burger and frites (Heaven forbid you call them French Fries in front of Kiki), were fabulous. Perfectly cooked. but served only with American ketchup which also is a no-no with half Belgian Kiki, who asked for mayo immediately. Fine by me having grown up in South Africa where the variation of Dutch spoken (Afrikaans), is as close to Flemish as it gets! We eat frites with mayo too!
The salad was simple, fresh and lightly dressed.
Every so often, Michael would land in front of us, and fill our glasses, which is when Kiki was able to take these pics on her phone. Thankfully, she did, because I’m not as fast as either of them! I ask him to tell me about the unicorns and the owls he’s so fond of.
“The owl was here when I first came so I’ve simply expanded on the theme,” he says, “but the unicorns are my thing.”
“I believe in magic and they are reminders that magic happens all the time, if you let it.” He smiles and pours another glass of the pink stuff.
When we left the restaurant, the light was fast fading, but Kiki had already taken the photographs you see here, shortly after we arrived, when everything from the trees to the fallen leaves wore a rosy glow. Including Michael!
Later this month, when the snow starts to fall, Michael who is a crack skier, will add yet another hat to his collection, and God only knows how he’s able to juggle all this, skiing and yet another project he has stewing on the back burner! More about that soon, meanwhile to discover more about ACEQ and what they serve, please visit their site linked below. If you plan on visiting Taos to ski this winter, ACEQ is just minutes from Taos Ski Valley, so do make a point of eating there. This is farm to table dining at its very best!