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El Paso to Silver City: A Make-Do Romp Through a Desert of Chow
Those who've never driven it may grow giddy with expectation of great chile and barbecue, but Route 10 west of El Paso and into New Mexico brings you through a veritable chow desert. And it only gets worse as you veer north toward Silver City, NM. But I've found a few good things, and, finally (after many trips), some treasure in El Paso.
Into the Vacuum
As you head west from El Paso, the first worthy bites are in Mesilla, NM, a charming-to-a-fault western settlement right off the highway. There's no Sharper Image yet, but this is pretty much the only upscale enclave in this part of the state. Think "Cleavon Little Gucci western" as opposed to "Cowboy Bob pork-n-beans western". There are a few super-expensive places in town (in southern NM, that means $25-30 for dinner). The one I've tried is set up like Chicago's Frontera Grill/Topolobampo: one kitchen serves two dining rooms, each with its own name, menu, and price tag. Pepper's ("On the Plaza in Historic Old Mesilla"; 505-523-6700) is a Santa Fe-style cafe serving slightly cheaper/lighter Southwestern fare than its more ambitious twin, the Double Eagle, which I've not yet tried. Nothing's to-die-for, but it's sophisticated food prepared by people who know what they're doing, and that glimmer of competence is like salvation out here.
Further east (about 100 miles west of El Paso) is Deming. Extending east from the two block "downtown" is a scrubby motel row with some dismal looking restaurants, one of which is far less dismal than it looks. It's called Mirador.
Mirador's cooking is the antithesis of sophistication, but that's its charm. Most cooks hereabouts are too rootless to cook traditional, and too clueless to cook savvy, so you've got to hunt for extremes, and Mirador (510 East Pine; 505-544-7340) represents the opposite extreme of Pepper's. They make all the usual Tex-Mex fare, and do it uncommonly well. But here's the wrinkle: they have a certain earthy touch; everything tastes super-elemental and unprocessed (as opposed to the usual Tex-Mex chow in this part of NM, which tastes like it's all out of a can). The corn chips taste like they're baked on a hot stone in the sun, the salsa like it contained rich brown clay (I mean this in the most complimentary way possible) with none of the tangy aromatics of Hispanic salsa. It's a grounded expression of deep simplicity that can only be conjured up by Native Americans.
My suspicions were confirmed a few visits ago by a glance at the owners, whose features are unmistakably Indian. They aren't by any means overt about their heritage -- they're fully Hispanic-identified (and accepted as such by their clientele) -- but the food tells the whole delicious story.
Mirador's posole (a porcine hominy corn stew) is fantastic, and that's saying a lot because I vastly prefer green posole to this red kind. It's so wholesome and reverantly Good-tasting, utterly soothing. On this last trip I also ordered some flautas, which were merely good. This surprised me, because although I'd assumed the frying would be done slowly and gently in a little cast iron skillet, these things tasted hasty. But I had perfectly-balanced lemonade, as always
In general, the best food in the Southwest is made by Indians...they're the only ones cooking (and living) from long, strong tradition. Many local Hispanic-Americans find themselves suspended between two cultures, neither of which feels totally comfortable (it's been a turbulent, literally unsettling 200 years), and their cooking manifests this confusion. Hispanic-American cooking tastes best when gringo influences are either entirely purged or else fully embraced (e.g. some the best Texas-style barbecue pit masters are Hispanic...in fact, so is the talented pit boss at NYC's Pearson's Barbecue).
The Tamales That Got Away
To jump ahead, I think I might have found other treasure in Deming on my way back to El Paso. About 1/4 mile east of Mirador, I passed an industrial-looking plant looking more like a factory than any conceivable sort of retail operation. A small chalkboard sign out front read, in tiny, barely legible letters, "Gourmet Tamales". Screech went my tires, cut went the wheel.
Everything about this place screamed "not open to the public!", but I circled to the side entrance, where I found a loading dock with a heavy locked door and a buzzer with tons of instructions. Inside were Hispanic guys dressed in what looked like nuclear clean-up gear. I buzzed the buzzer, and they seemed so taken aback to see me that I was positive I'd gone to the wrong door. I shouted through the window, in Spanish, "Listen, do you have any tamales??" Heads nodded, but they pointed at the buzzer instructions, which indicated that they'd closed half an hour ago. The workers shrugged to convey their inability to provide me with after-hours tamales. "Come back tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.!" they shouted. "I'll be in New York tomorrow morning!" I shouted back. More resigned awkward shrugging. Finally, I asked the big question: "Are they GOOD?" The climate changed as they all nodded somberly, with deep, unmistakable conviction. These tamales kill, I'm sure of it. I will make sure to pass through town earlier next time.
Silver City, The Town That Chow Forgot
May you never find yourself hungry in Silver City, NM. I've previously cataloged, on this site, my frustration with trying to eat even modestly well in this little high desert town. The best I've managed is a mysterious Hispanic tamale lady working, unlicensed, out of her house somewhere, but, as she won't serve Anglos, I've never met her. You've got to know somebody to get the goods. I once knew somebody, and adored the two dozen tamales that had been scored for me, but I lost my connection. So I find myself eating a lot of cereal when I'm in town. This is the only locale in the world that I've ever given up on, chow-wise. Nothing to eat. Nothing at all.
But things brightened on this trip. I was in Silver City to visit my dad, who'd retired here several years ago along with a bunch of other Long Island Republican hippy artists. I'd never considered him a particularly serious chowhound (he used to refer to me as "Charlie Gourmet" when I was growing up, in reference to my picky eating habits), but he gets credit for Mirador, and has sealed his chowhound cred with the discovery of Big B oy Burritos. I've inserted that space between "B" and "oy" because these guys are definitely NOT affiliated with the ubiquitous chain, and I don't want corporate lawyers stumbling upon this mention and suing the pants off the only good restaurant within 40 miles of Silver City.
Big B oy is a drive-through window/shack about the size of four port-o-lavs. They make smallish burritos, wrapped in wheat tortillas that taste very fresh. Ingredients are honest, and they're not afraid to make use of potatoes (particularly good with ground beef, cheese, and green chile). The burritos sing, while all other local chow is tone deaf.
Of course they're doing very little business; nobody in town trusts the hygienics of this little shack which gleams with fresh paint and is staffed by friendly, bright-eyed guys. Locals prefer to stick with Long John Silver, Blake's Lota Burger, and the various sit-down Mexican places with more established reputations (reputations, that is, for tough meat tasting of burnt metal, smothering sauces made from soup mix, and cheese that's one notch above spray can).
Back to El Paso
I beat it out of town and back to El Paso, which is Paris compared to Silver City but nonetheless a tough chow nut to crack. I've tried H&H Coffee Shop (701 E. Yandell; 915-533-1144), the Mexican lunch counter in a car wash that's much touted by splashy mags (Julia Child, they say, ate there once). Good, not great. I've tried La Nortena y Cafe Deluxe (212 West Overland Avenue; 915) 533-0533), a cool bricky college kid hangout in the historic Chihuahua district. Fun vibe, very nice carne desmachada tacos and interesting (though disappointingly undelicious) shark and potato tacos. Also, it's one of very few late choices downtown. But it was far from the chow of my dreams.
The best solution I'd found was to cross into Juarez (via a pedestrian bridge). Walking over that bridge into Mexico is a Wizard of Oz experience: the dreary black and white of southwest Texas magically transforms into colorful fantasy. You walk a few blocks down the bustling, funky main drag, then hang a right (few gringos leave the beaten path) onto Colon. To your left is an unnamed hole-in-wall which makes perfect Norteño al pastor, which means, to my taste, perfect al pastor...period (al pastor is the Mexican version of gyro/shwarma/donar: a spinning log of shaggy meat, probably brought here by Lebanese immigrants). I'm not a fan of the way they add adobo to the meat further south in Mexico; for my taste, the dish works better as a pure meat thang, and heavy adobo spicing chokes all that. It's not unintentional, either. The north is beef country, and southerners, not always assured a fresh supply before modern refrigeration and transport, devised this as a method to cloak iffy meat. It's a fairly delicious cloaking device, for sure, but for my taste you can't beat the unadulteratedly meaty northern version as exemplified by the little nameless joint. A few tacos there and a shot of tequila around the corner at the ancient wild wild western Kentucky Bar and I'm a happy man.
But Juarez wasn't an option this time. I'd stayed over out near the airport, with nowhere to stash my bags for a quick trip to Juarez. So I stuck to the eastern 'burbs, and, to my delight, made out very well.
First stop was a satellite branch of Pepe's Tamales. The main location (a full-service restaurant) is at the intersection of N. Zaragoza and (I kid you not) a street called "Saul Kleinfeld". Saul, my man, is quite a ways out of town, so I settled for this takeout place (at 1228 McRae Blvd; 915-591-7949) where I ordered one of each of four kinds.
Ravenously hungry, I tore through the first one out of the bag: a sweetened dessert tamale studded with raisins. The corn was properly mealy, the raisins as soft -- and as livened by surrounding saltiness -- as a good pilaf. The sweetness didn't cloy, and they hadn't dyed the things the usual Hostess Cupcake green or pink.
Next was a red tamale with beef. It was immediately identifiable; emerging from the end of the tamale was a tangled scraw of teased beefy split ends. I felt my mouth drying at the mere site of this fibrous mass, but it was awesomely moist and tender. Ah, so THAT is what other tamale makers are trying to achieve! The red sauce was just hot enough, the whole thing consummately juicy. Oh, man.
A similar clot of chicken fibers was sloppily stuffed into a green tamale, and it was just as good. At this point, professionalism evaporated and I scarfed the final tamale entirely on the spiritual plane, failing to take note of appearance, ingredients, specific flavors. Pure catharsis, pure bliss. I burned my fist on the hot dashboard as I pounded in grimacing delight (I was sitting in a parking lot under shimmering sun).
Next to me in the boiling car, oozing cream, was a lovely piece of Mexican cake which I'd impulse-bought from Five Star Mexcian Bakery (1226 McRae Blvd; 915-593-5808), right next to Pepe's. The place had a good vibe (maybe it was the iron bars attached to the glass door) and the Five Star delivery truck touted their famous Pasteles de Tres Leches, which is a fave of mine, so I got a slice. It was impressive: firm and formal yet moist eggy cake with whipped cream frosting and thickened condensed milk between layers. I caught it just before it collapsed from the sunlight, and enjoyed it immensely. I tried a bite each of a couple of humbler little pastries I'd picked up there, and found them just as worthy. But I was getting dangerously close to full chow capacity.
I'm typing this in a Barnes and Noble Starbucks Café where I'm sipping iced coffee and trying valiantly to build up an iota of hunger with which to attack El Taco Tote. Wish me luck.
Tick tock... tick tock... tick tock... tick tock... tick tock...
Jim Hits the "Hyperspace" Button and Finds Himself Up a Mountain
Ok, it's an hour and a half later, and there's been a rather extreme scene change. I've gone from an air-conditioned suburban Starbucks (followed by quick stops for tacos and barbecue, to which we'll flashback in just a sec) to a perch high up in the mountains, with El Paso barely visible in the haze. I spotted these hills from down in the sprawl and just drove, in catatonic glaze from overconsumption, till I got here ("here" being McKellison Canyon, above Fort Bliss). These mountains are almost embarrassingly naked, like a gigantic pack of newly shorn dogs. A few yucca plants and some scrub is all that coat their rocky sides. But a nice cool wind is blowing through, at stark contrast with the city, which is unbearably hot and close even in mid-April. Other than the whistling wind, it's silent up here.
I'm very very full, though a greasy bag of barbecue lurks next to me on the picnic table on which I'm typing. I'm trying hard not to think about it or look at it.
Flashback: The Tacos That Wiped Him Out (coming, as they did, after four tamales, two pastries, an iced coffee and an enormous slice of creamy cake)
I did make it to El Taco Tote, which is scarily suburban--they're a chain, and the place looks like it. You order at the counter and grill guys call your number. The tacos are strictly ala carte; you're served nothing but meat on a freshly homemade corn tortilla. The trick is to leave it that way, in spite of the fully-stocked add-ons bar. This is a steak house more than anything; the sirloin tacos (pricey at $2.19 each) contain eyebrow-raisingly good quality meat, well-done (of course) and charry but very tender and flavorful. The beef adobada adds the pasty spice blend, but their hearts are clearly not in such adulteration. Barbacoa is almost unbearably rich melt-in-your mouth clumps of deeply browned goat. A bite is a meal, and a damned good one at that. I dutifully spooned on onions, coriander, hot sauce (one flat-tasting and mild, the other flat-tasting and branding-iron hot), pico de gallo, and lime, but unlike taco technique in central and southern Mexico (where such traditional add-ons are magical catalysts), these things adulterate and distract from the Meat Thing.
In general, with Tex-Mex the trick is to keep it simple. The more they sauce and batter and fry stuff, the more rice and refrieds and cheese and stuff they lob on your plate, the worse off you'll be every time. If the kitchen's using good meat, this cuisine knows how to prepare it. If not, the spicy smothers, condiments and sides won't improve things. Think like a cowboy and stick with your fajitas (note: these sweeping generalizations apply only to the fairly narrow territory of southern New Mexico and extreme west Texas; the Sonoran cuisine of Tucson and the Indian and "Southwestern Cuisine" stylings of Northern NM are different stories).
Having found myself in an ultra-carnivorous Cro-Magnon mindset, I couldn't resist a stop at Sol's (KLEINFIELD?) BBQ (9707 Montana at McRae; 594-9707) where I picked up The Bag That Shall Not Be Opened.
Meanwhile, Back on the Mountain
Ahhh, I wish I could do all my writing here on this picnic table high in the shorn-poodle mountains. I'm kind of surprised there aren't thirty other writers pecking away on laptops all around me (it's only six miles from town!). By the way, the last restaurant before you leave civilization and enter this park is an intriguing-looking German called Kleines (eek...Saul again??) Edelweiss Restaurant (5019 Alabama; 915-564-4619)
Barbecue: Where Tex Meets Mex
Back to Sol's. The exterior is amazing; there's a canopied car port enclosing a copiously landscaped Shangri-la of a garden, complete with well-trimmed bushes, pine trees, and chirping birds. I'd been looking for shade all morning, but one cannot escape the glare in East El Paso without going indoors...except at Sol's. It was hard to imagine that a barbecue dude named Sol had provided such a feminine oasis, and sure enough, the place is run by Sol's wife. She's Hispanic, but speaks unaccented English, and the place (like the city in general) can't make its mind up as to whether it's Quickdraw McGraw or Pancho Villa. You can have your 'cue (beef, ham, or hash) on a hamburger bun...or in a burrito. You're offered pickled hot peppers, but they look just as Tex as Mex.
Ok, the fresh mountain air is working and my appetite's starting to resurrect. I've opened the carryout bag, and will take for-science bites of each of the two sandwiches. "Hash" is chopped beef with bits of potato and ham, and it's rich and oily and thoroughly delicious (I caught myself sneaking a second bite in spite of my delicate condition). I'll never talk these folks into serving it with poached eggs, I'm afraid.
Beef is totally Texas style: cooked sans sauce or rub; no nonsense simple brisket with a smokey twinge (could use more smoke) towing the line between melt-in-mouth and chewy. Mmm...just hit a particularly crunchy nub of beef. Real good.
Both sandwiches, unfortunately, also sported squirts of ketchup and mustard, scatters of pickles, and rings of onion -- the Big Mac model. This is so typical of El Paso, where everything has a junk/fast-food edge to it. As with the taco restaurant, the trick is to avoid the gunk. Ask for stuff plain. Servers everywhere look at you wide-eyed when you refuse the tons of semi-obligatory lard-ons, but its essential to scrape away the dross if you hope to drill down to edibility. Local gringos and Hispanics are both capable of deliciousness, but persist in borrowing all the worst aspects of each others' food cultures.
Before wrapping up, I should note that the eastern 'burbs also contain Smitty's Pit BBQ, a Jane and Michael Stern favorite that I haven't checked in years. I'm curious to see how it stacks up to Sol's. Also, State Line Barbecue (1222 Sunland Park Dr., West El Paso, 581-3371) is on my to-eat list; they're a branch of the semi-respected County Line chain. And I'd be remiss if I failed to note that horchata and other Mexican drinks are served in the same Texas-sized 1/2 liter Styrofoam cups that the rest of the state uses for iced tea and soda.
Jim Wearies of the Chowhound Treadmill (don't worry, he always says this at the end of a trip)
Truth be told, I'm getting a bit tired of this extreme chowhounding I inevitably find myself doing on trips. In NYC, I can control the meta-menu; a bite of this in one place, a bite of that across town; I'm in control and can plan it so I won't get stuffed. But when you're trying to cover a laundry list of unknown chow outside one's natural habitat, portion control goes out the window and eating--even eating really well--can become a drag. I'd love to settle in somewhere and have a Meal, but I feel a chowhound obligation to scope out as much as I can, to build knowledge. Short term dyspepsia withstood in the interest of future savvy. The problem is, I'm fooling myself. Next trip there will be a zillion more items on the must-try list, plus myriad serendipitous discoveries. I think George Jetson said it best: "Jane, stop this crazy thing!"
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© Jim Leff, 2000.