El Paso has the Most Underrated Mexican Food Scene in the U.S., and Here's Why

The original Chico's!
The original Chico's!
Photo by Gabriel San Roman

When I tell people my family's from El Paso, Texas, I get the same ol' tired response. "I've driven past there before," folks dismissively say. But if only they'd make a stop to grab something to eat, or even visit the city, how quickly they'd changed their tune! I just got back from Chuco myself for the first time in years and my stomach already feels empty; emotionally more than physically. There's so many heavy hitting Mexican restaurants to choose from in town that El Paso's waist size will match the growth of its population, too!

My working theory is a simple one for the border town: Drawing from New Mexico chile harvests and Chihuahua's cattle industry, El Paso is well-positioned geographically to make culinary magic. During my recent stay, I hit as many spots as I could from Chico's Tacos to Carnitas Queretaro. I didn't even come close to eating at ALL my favorite places like El Taco Tote or ones I've never been to before that everybody in town raves about like Chopes in neighboring New Mexico's Mesilla Valley. Oh well, there's always next trip!

In the meantime, all the Tex-Mex and Mexi meals had me wondering why none of these restaurants have branched out to Orange County. How much closer to paradise OC would be if that ever came to pass? While I work off all the weight gained during my grubcation, here's a list of seven El Paso eateries I grubbed at that would make great additions to OC's food scene! And may the parade of yellow cheese offend the "authentic" Mexi food snobs to no end!

The double order heard 'round the world
The double order heard 'round the world
Photo by Gabriel San Roman

Chico's Tacos 

Let's start this list with an El Paso tradition since 1953: Chico's Tacos. The restaurant has the biggest national profile of all with spots on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, our Mexican-in-Chief's Taco USA, and in Gabriel Iglesias' jokes on his I'm Not Fat... I'm Fluffy comedy special years back. So what's the fuss about? My return to the original Chico's Taco spot on Alameda Avenue showed that the lunchtime rush remained in full effect while I awaited my double order. The six rolled tacos bobbed in a sea of soupy tomato salsa topped with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese. It'd had been so long since I last downed a double order that I forgot how to eat the darn thing with foolish plastic fork stabs failing my flautas! My tio and primo later reminded me of the correct method: lift the rolled taco with the fork from behind and after finishing all six of them, bring the carton to your mouth and drink the gooey cheese and salsa remains. If The Halal Guys can come our way, why not Chico's? 

There's a lot of shredded beef underneath that mound of cheese and lettuce!EXPAND
There's a lot of shredded beef underneath that mound of cheese and lettuce!
Photo by Gabriel San Roman

Andale Mexican Restaurant & Cantina 

The first meal of my trip to El Paso came courtesy of a relative newcomer to the scene. Andale Mexican Restaurant & Cantina offered a festive ambiance and great live music. Usually the kitchen takes a back seat to those in other joints, but not here. I looked at my menu and immediately zeroed in on salpicón, a Tex-Mex dish I never find in Southern California save for Salvadoran spots that offer up their version. The waiter brought back a dish of lettuce mixed shredded beef soaked in vinegar. Cheese, small onions and avocado slices completed the plate. It's not exactly how my late abuela used to make it, but every bite served as a sweet reminder of my favorite meal that came from her kitchen magician ways. Let's not leave this dish to the Salvis in OC!

Buena comida, buena causa
Buena comida, buena causa
mujerobrera.org/cafe-mayapan

Cafe Mayapan 

Not only do I owe my family heritage to El Paso, but my political ideals, too! My older brother, who influenced me big time, started up his activism there twenty years ago as a college student with groups in solidarity with the Zapatistas against NAFTA. He volunteered with the good people of La Mujer Obrera. The group eventually opened up Cafe Mayapan under the banner of "Buena Comida, Buena Causa" (Good Food, Good Cause). While eating in El Paso can definitely pack on the pounds, Cafe Mayapan offers healthy dishes cooked in traditional ways using fresh produce from their farmer's market. Try the roasted nopal with chipotle and mushrooms. Better yet, doing so supports economic empowerment for mujeres in South El Paso's Segundo Barrio (where my dad grew up) without gentrifying the neighborhood. Where in OC does the menu serve social justice on a such a platter? Paging SanTana...



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