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!
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?
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!
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…
La Posta (Mesilla, New Mexico)
A short hop from El Paso, Mesilla hosts a historic plaza in an area of New Mexico that only officially became part of the United States six years after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. People will find the oldest brick building in the state, a beautiful adobe church, and a Billy the Kid gift shop that once was the town’s jail where he’d been thrown in. Flanked by two long, beautiful ristras de chile rojo, they’ll also find the entrance to the old school eatery known as La Posta, one of the oldest remaining Mexican restaurants in the United States (since the 1930s). I have many memories of eating here with my abuela over the years. My abuelo, was from La Union, New Mexico and an Enchantment State man at heart. She served enchiladas the New Mexico way, stacked pancake style like La Posta serves them. People can opt for a scoop of sour cream or a fried egg on top. La Posta also offers a dessert menu including sopaipillas, a pillow pocket of fry bread drizzled with honey. Anita’s in Fullerton is long gone, but one can hope for the return of a good New Mexican-style restaurant in OC.
Move over JJ’s Mexican Restaurant, there’s a new gordita queen in town! Little Diner is nestled in Canutillo, a sparsely populated place in El Paso County rich with restaurants. Gorditas in Texas are the short and chubby variety not found around these parts. Ground beef is stuffed into golden, crisp pockets that don’t get your hands all greasy while devouring them. Cheddar cheese, lettuce and diced tomatoes fill the rest of the pockets until they’re nearly bursting at the seams. Not resting on word of mouth, Little Diner has great marketing swag as well with bumper stickers reading “Gorditas Need Love Too!” Don’t they ever! Bring ’em to OC, please!
Speedy Gonzalez Mexican Food
Pull up to the gravel parking lot of Speedy Gonzalez Mexican Food for a breakfast of champions, but do so early. On Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant in Canutillo gets busy with people placing orders for its amazing menudo. Depending on your appetite, diners order up small or large bowls. Either way, prepare to be amazed. Some people don’t like pancitas, the tripe that floats among the hominy. But at Speedy’s, they are buttery to the last bite! Every spoonful carries enough spicy heat for waking up to a new day. Dip some buttery toasted bolillo sliced in half to soak in everything. According to my tios, the original owner passed away just weeks ago, but his legacy lives on. I looked around and saw a fair share of Stetson wearing Texicans blowing their noses with chile-induced snot.
Who doesn’t love a restaurant that boasts a pig face on its neon signage? A Texas-sized appetite is a must for dining at Carnitas Queretaro. When my abuela was around, she’d order the asado ballezano. On my recent trip back, that’s exactly what I wanted. The tender chunks of pork meat stewed in red chile sauce is enough to stuff four big tacos. The skillet platter also comes with fluffy rice and beans. With the very first bite into the asado ballezano, I knew I had come back to my home away from home just as soon as I knew I’d miss it the second I left it. I wouldn’t have to feel that way if just one Carnitas Queretaro spot popped up in OC to hold me down!
Too much to ask for?