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Just shy of another border

Written by Chaz on 28 July 2012

I spent a weekend in early June with my uncle Eric, who lives outside Albuquerque, and his family. I last saw him over Christmas, when we explored local culture and did risky things in the snow. I’ve still been traveling to Texas to work, so I was once again able to tie a visit to a business trip. In fact, I met Eric on a business trip of his own. He had been in Las Cruces, N.M., so I flew into El Paso, Tex., not far away, and he picked me up there. We had planned quite a weekend: a bit of tourism in El Paso, a day in Las Cruces, a night camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument, and the rest of the weekend with Eric’s family at his vacation house in Ruidoso, N.M.

We started the weekend immediately upon my Thursday evening arrival with a visit to El Paso’s L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” because it is across the street from the enormous Concordia Cemetery and vaunted by our favorite source as one of the best places in El Paso for Mexican food. (Though I had pressed Eric to take me across the border into Old Mexico, the violence in Juarez now makes this a terrible idea. Not so long ago, I crossed into Juarez with Eric and his family with no concern, but now that would be unthinkable.) Despite being in what looked like a bit of a seedy area of town (after all, next to an enormous graveyard), the streets around L & J were packed with parked cars, as was the restaurant itself.

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My uncle and I started by ordering a pair of margaritas, which my uncle immediately — and I do mean immediately — followed up with a beer order. Inspired by his boldness, I ordered a Mexican beer. The waitress skeptically asked whether we wanted all our drinks together. We said we could tolerate a slight delay on the beer, and put in an order for chile con queso. I was envisioning a beef (like chili) and melted cheese situation, but this was literally just chile con queso: fantastic green chiles in delicious melted cheese. Eric said it was the best he’d had, and I agreed.

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Our main courses were equally fantastic. This wasn’t the Tex-Mex that I’m used to in Dallas, but the real thing. Eric ordered chicken enchiladas with green chile, while I took the Times’ recommendation and went with the caldillo, a Mexican stew of potato and beef with green chile. Simple flavors, simple composition and an ethnic food experience totally new to me.

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Eric insisted that we follow up our main courses with a sopapilla, a puff pastry smothered in sugar and honey. Light and delicious.

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After dinner, we walked across the street and into the cemetery to find the grave of John Wesley Hardin, a Civil War-era cowboy and outlaw eventually shot to death in a saloon in El Paso. The cemetery fit perfectly into the desert landscape: cactuses between graves surrounded by orange dirt. Hardin’s grave was surrounded by a cage to protect him from people like us.

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From the cemetery, we drove across town to the University of Texas at El Paso, where there is a desert garden that was one of the very few tourist sights I could find in El Paso. The Centennial Desert Gardens were actually very nice, with a variety of plants that I don’t see everyday, and Eric rolled his eyes as I walked around taking pictures of things I found interesting and beautiful.

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From the garden, we headed onto the interstate to drive back to Eric’s hotel in Las Cruces, stopping only briefly for a view back toward El Paso through mountains.

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Before long, we had crossed the border into New Mexico, and were soon heading to bed.

The next morning, Eric headed off to work while I opened my computer and made a virtual commute from his hotel. Thanks to the time difference, I was able to start early and finish early, so I was nearly ready for the weekend by the time Eric and I headed to a late lunch at Nellie’s Cafe, a well-known Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces. Even though the restaurant was just barely a storefront, when Eric texted a picture to a friend of his, the friend replied that they must have made improvements. But the little hole-in-the-wall was still sporting pretty legitimate credentials.

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We were seated by Nellie’s exuberant son Danny and began our meal with tortilla chips and salsa. These weren’t your mother’s tortilla chips, though — they were still hot, and more flavorful than any I can recall. Inspired by their quality, we ordered another round accompanied by more chile con queso. For my main course, I ordered the tostadas compuestas, which featured three hard tacos of different compositions: one with red chile, one with green chile and one with avocado. The dichotomy between red and green chiles is a recurring one in the cuisine of New Mexico. As I learned, either color can be hotter in a given restaurant, and either can be tastier. You have to ask at each restaurant and balance your preferences. Eric went with the combo platter, which was roundly recommended. It was immediately apparent from our plates that we were beginning to transition from the Mexican food we had had in El Paso to the unique culinary blend that is New Mexican cuisine.

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Though not quite as flavorful and exciting as L & J Cafe, Nellie’s was much more of a scene. Las Cruces is, of course, a much smaller town that El Paso, and I’m sure that contributed to the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else. It was a fun dining experience, which you can’t always say.

From Nellie’s, Eric and I drove slightly west, to old Mesilla, a small town near Las Cruces known for its historic square and old-timey feeling. Having not so long ago been to both old Albuquerque and old Santa Fe, I had to comment to Eric that I was starting to get the feeling “seen one old square, seen ’em all.” There was a pretty Catholic church and a nice square whose architecture wouldn’t feel out of place in old Mexico, but that was about it.

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Mesilla, of course, receives a lot less traffic than its historic neighbors to the north, which did give it a bit of a more homely feel. I was able to take one photograph that may be the closest we ever come to the caption: “The checkpoint visits Havana.”

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Having scoped out the scene in Mesilla, Eric and I high-tailed it east out of town and through the mountains toward our next destination.