By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
In West Texas and New Mexico, chiles are a way of life. Long green ones soak up the sun in the summer and ripen in the fall, and fiery food is on the menu in homes and restaurants year round. The road that leads from El Paso into the Mesilla Valley in the south of New Mexico abounds with unique regional restaurants where prices are low, service is blunt, and the chile-sparked food is spectacular.
(Locals like to spell chile with an e at the end rather than an i because it differentiates chili the meat stew from chile the vegetable—chile-with-an-e referring to the pod or a purée of the pods.)
Our itinerary in the land of fire and spice begins with breakfast at the H & H COFFEE SHOP, a short-order café in El Paso adjacent to—and under the same ownership as—a car wash. Three tables, topped with blue boomerang-pattern Formica, provide a fine view of vehicles being soaped, scrubbed, and toweled; but despite the undeniable interest of the automotive scene, we recommend counter seats. Here you have a glimpse of the pint-sized prep area: the grill, the wash sink, and the half-dozen women who cook and assemble plates of food. They are busy peeling chiles and tomatoes, brewing sauce, stirring refried beans, and conversing among themselves and with customers in a language that is approximately two-thirds Spanish, one-third English.
When we order, they give us the onceover, confer about the heat level of the huevos rancheros, then inquire if we want ours “muy caliente.”
“Si,” say we, and, as the eggs fry, a waitress brings out a plastic cup filled with salsa, along with a couple of warm-from-the-griddle flour tortillas, each folded into quarters. The salsa is olive green, chopped fine. It is made of jalapeno peppers—muy caliente, indeed!—and has a smoky zest that plays reveille on the tongue.
Amused by the tears of hot-pepper joy in our eyes, the waitress turns to a cabinet and fetches a plastic bottle. She carries it toward the counter as cautiously as a pyrotechnician toting pure nitroglycerin. She sets the bottle, filled with house-made pink salsa, before us and whispers with conspiratorial glee, “Was caliente!”
We squeeze some onto a tortilla and taste. “Calientissimol” we exclaim, emboldened by our pepper-induced rapture to speak our own brand of pidgin Spanish. It is blazing hot, but totally different from the jalapeno salsa or the peppers on the eggs: more inferno and less intrigue. When we ask what kind of chiles are used to make it, one of the explosives experts behind the counter explains, but her Spanish is lost on us. A coffee hound a few stools down translates: “Chiles from trees—chiles de arbol.”
Not everything posted on the wall menu is four-alarm. You can eat ordinary eggs for breakfast or a hamburger for lunch (H & H closes at 3 P.M.); but the house specialties tend to have a kick. Burritos are available seven ways: stuffed with chiles rellenos, egg and chorizo sausage, picadillo, red chile, green chile, carne picada, or beans. Specials include chicken mole, red and green enchiladas, and—always on Saturday—menudo, the tripe and hominy stew renowned for its reputed power to cure a hangover.
Hospitality at this well-worn cook shop is enchanting. If you speak Spanish, so much the better: You will understand the nuances of the chatter. But if, like us, you are limited to English, you will still be part of the action. We were wearing ten-gallon hats, so we soon became known to one and all as the cowboys. “Vaqueros,” called the waitress as we headed out the door, “vaya con Dios.” With the car radio tuned to the rollicking Mexican polka rhythms of Te-jano music, we highballed north along the river.
Just beyond El Paso, far from the interstate and several blocks off the main road that runs through the village of Canutillo, 1S the LITTLE DINER. Despite its remote location in a neighborhood of empty lots and prefab houses, this café, which shares a building with a coin-op Laundromat, is easy to locate. Ask anyone in town. They are accustomed to pilgrims getting lost on a quest for the flautas and gorditas that may be the best in West Texas.
Flautas, which means flutes, are tightly rolled fried tortillas packed with either seasoned chicken or beef. The chicken is moist and savory; the beef is brisket, cooked until falling-apart tender, and then hand-shredded. Either of these fillings is an ideal complement to its crisp tortilla envelope. About the size of a hefty asparagus stalk, this is finger food: Pick it up and crunch away; the juices will dribble down your chin.
Gorditas are sandwich pockets made of cornmeal that is deep-fried, then stuffed. They have an earthy corn taste and moist insides with just a hint of flaky crust outside. Many cafés in this region serve them, but the Little Diner’s are no-table for their refined texture and gay orange hue. Within is ground beef, melted cheese, lettuce, and tomato. To spice up the gordita, the restaurant offers a chunky red sauce—a subtle balance of ingredients with a Tex-Mex wallop.
Also known as the Canutillo Tortilla Factory, the Little Diner makes flour tortillas every day and corn tortillas (thin and thick) every other day and sells them by the dozen. Actually, the place is more tortilla factory than restaurant. The dining room is small: a dozen laminate tables with hard molded bench seats. Despite the plastic furniture, though, the Little Diner is a personable place. Decor includes the Canutillo High School foot-ball team schedule, autographed pictures of prizefighters Louie Burke and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and the 1980 Golden Tortilla Award, presented by the Gadsden Future Farmers of America to former proprietors Ray and Irene Gallegos. The Gallegos’ daughter, Lourdes Pearson, grew up in the business and now runs the place.
The Mesilla Valley, where chiles grow, is just over the border in New Mexico. Here, among verdant fields of pepper plants and vast orchards of precisely spaced pecan trees, is a small bar and restaurant that has maintained a sterling reputation among chileheads since it opened in 1940. Founded by Longina Benavidez and now owned by her daughter-in-law Lupe, it is today what it has always been: a boisterous gathering place for planters, horticulturalists, and aficionados of the pod. At CHOPE’S TOWN CAFE, every table is equipped with a large pitcher of water and a stack of cups so that thirst can be slaked immediately during the meal.
All the specialties at Chope’s star chile, but the dish that may best exemplify the kitchen’s esteem for it is chiles rellenos—whole stuffed Sandia chiles, stems still attached. They come as a trio on a plate, filled with balmy Cheddar cheese, breaded and fried crisp. In the winter, they won’t likely be too hot; this time of year, when they’re fresh, the capsicum levels can be hair-raising. Either way, though, the remarkable thing is not the heat—rather, it’s the profound flavor of the long green pod. If you’ve only thought of chile as a spice or flavor agent, these rellenos will convert you. They are a celebration of chile for its own mighty goodness.
Another eye-opening ode to the pepper’s personality is the red chile sauce at Chope’s, which you can get atop enchiladas; in a bowl with beans, cheese, or meat; or in a bowl all by itself for dipping tortillas. The sauce is puréed absolutely smooth—no thicker than cream—and is so intensely red that it seems that anything it touches would be indelibly dyed. What this concoction is, simply, is liquefied ripened peppers with a little seasoning to underscore their flavor. To taste it is to taste Southwestern sun transformed into something edible.
Many restaurants’ gorditas can be picked up like not-so-Sloppy Joe sandwiches, but Chope’s version requires utensils. Their stuffing spills out, and the nutty-rich cornmeal pockets are so tender that, as the interior moisture seeps into the yellow meal, they disintegrate. They are undeniably fresh. From our seats in the dining room, we could look into the kitchen, which has a sign above the door saying LUPE’S COMEDOR. Here Lupe Benavidez was preparing the corn dough by patting it into four-inch-diameter circles.
Lupe wasn’t the only person busy in the kitchen. As she and her colleagues sat at a table working, waitresses scurried in and out with plates of food and visitors popped in. The small area behind the dining room was a bustle of activity: sopaipillas frying in skillets of hot oil, tortillas baking, chiles simmering. The homey kitchen cabinets along the wall and several generations of women gabbing happily as they fashioned aromatic food reminded us of Grandma’s at Thanksgiving: mouth-watering chaos, just like home.
Homey is not a term you would likely apply to NELLIE’S or its offspring, LITTLE NELLIE’S CHILE FACTORY, both in the city of Las Cruces. They are rough-around-the-edges urban chile parlors, and, although the staff at both is polite, the ambiance is cheeky. At the original Nellie’s, the tone is set by a humming Dr. Pepper cooler and the faint buzz of overhead fluorescent lighting tubes. The newer, cuter Little Nellie’s is a stucco bunker operated by Nellie’s son-in-law, Terry. Here the wall in the vestibule above the pay phone features a typewritten poem, framed under glass. We are too polite to give you the ribald details of the verse, but please be advised: These restaurants are not for the faint of heart. Little Nellie’s motto is “Chile with an Attitude.”
Curiously, the younger restaurant’s signature dishes are presented with high style. Tacos al Pastor is an elegant plate of food: corn tortillas arrayed with neat little hills of shredded beef and chicken and cheese, festively garnished with chopped tomatoes, radish slices, avocado wedges, bits of fresh jalapeno pepper, a scallion, and sprigs of cilantro. The beef and chicken in this colorful arrangement are delicious—moist and deftly seasoned, a pleasure to savor.
The sopaipilla compuesta, available at both establishments, is an eye-popper, too: plate-size fried bread laden with beans, beef, chile (red or green), and all the trimmings. Even Little Nellie’s giant chile cheeseburger is a thing of beauty. Instead of being topped with a mishmash of chopped peppers—as is popular in New Mexico—Little Nellie’s green CB’s (the menu warns, “Very few have finished this burger”) arrive with whole cooked and peeled pods—an exhilarating complement to meat, cheese, and bun.
The original Nellie’s has long been famous in Las Cruces for the heat of its chile-based menu: Feverish red salsa comes with chips at the beginning of a meal; enchiladas are crowned with a hot red or hotter green elixir of the pods, as are burritos (known as banados). However, the secret weapon of Nellie’s kitchen has no chile in it whatsoever. It is the refried beans that accompany nearly everything: silk-smooth but with just enough unmashed legumes to make the texture interesting.
Scrumptious beans such as these are a fundamental companion to meals here-abouts, every bit as essential as the more flamboyant chile. If you doubt that fact, consider that when some New Mexican legislators tried to name chile the state vegetable in 1965, they could not do it. Lobbyists for other crops argued their case based on such microeconomic issues as the revenue and employment generated by their candidate. Finally, the legislature in its wisdom elected state co-vegetables: the chile and the pinto bean. We like to think of that decision as less a matter of agronomics than of gustatory logic. In this part of the world, chile and beans are as right a combination as ham and eggs or meat and potatoes are elsewhere.
Chope’s Town Cafe
Little Nellie’s Chile Factory (permanently closed)
939 North Main
Las Cruces, New Mexico