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Blog 2009

My Suggestions for Oklahomans Coming to El Paso for Sun Bowl 2009

Posted Dec. 27, 2009. El Paso is sometimes called the "Mexican food capital of the world," and not without reason. I would argue that Mexico City should really have this title, but El Paso is justifiably recognized for its Mexican food. In fact, on my web site I have classified "El Paso style Mexican food" as its own category of Mexican food, more similar to New Mexico style than Tex-Mex, but as much deserving of recognition as either of these other two American versions of Mexican food.

El Paso Mexican food really has its roots in Chihuahua and other northern Mexican states, but combined with locally grown chiles (I do not find much food in Mexico, even in the state of Chihuahua, to be as spicy as in El Paso). This is not the only type of Mexican food found in El Paso, but it is what most people think of as "El Paso" food.

Having grown up in Oklahoma, I have my own perspective about the food in El Paso. Oklahoma now has a number of authentic Mexican restaurants that did not exist earlier, but I think of Oklahoma Mexican food as the Tex-Mex variety characterized by El Charrito (which no longer exists), El Chico, and other smaller or family owned restaurants such as Serapio's, Cocina de Mino, Laredo's, etc.

I found El Paso style food to be similar to Tex-Mex, but a lot more flavorful. It is similar in that in both cases food is mainly served on a combination plate with several items, rice and beans are included, and meals come with chips and salsa. I do not eat this type of food all the time when I am in El Paso, but I certainly like much of it. One very good El Paso style restaurant is Forti's at 321 Chelsea St. in central El Paso (just south of IH-10 near Paisano St.). In fact, I think this may be the best place in town for El Paso style food.

Some other very good El Paso style restaurants include Casa Jurado at 4772 Doniphan Dr., Julio's Cafe Corona at 8050 Gateway East (on IH-10), Su Casa at 2030 E. Yandell (open only for lunch), and Dominguez Mexican Food at 1201 Airway (near the airport). All of these places are good, and I don't think people can go wrong at any of them. Please refer to my web site, though, for specific recommendations. Some restaurants are better at certain dishes. For me, generally the enchiladas are the most important item that earn these restaurants a high rating.

I have a special recommendation for those who like Ted's Escondido in Oklahoma (I like Ted's, but I become disappointed in it because I know there is food that is much better). Of course, I think coming to El Paso is a good chance to try something better. I think the best item at Ted's is the fajitas, and in El Paso I found excellent fajitas at Wyngs Restaurant at 122 S. Old Pueblo Road. This restaurant is run by the Tigua Indians, and is located next to the Ysleta Mission (take Zaragoza Rd. south from IH-10 on the east side of El Paso). For those who like combination plates I think Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey's at 1310 Magruder St. (near the airport) serves similar food. I would say it is better than Ted's, but I have had certain items at Carlos & Mickey's that I did not think were as good as at Ted's (although this is rare).

El Paso has one type of restaurant that I have not found in Oklahoma City (except with Guatemalan food), and this is home cooking style food served for lunch. These are small restaurants with a limited menu and the owners (usually with some help) cooking the food. To me the premier examples in El Paso are Jalisco Cafe at 1029 E. 7th Ave., El Jacalito at 2130 Myrtle Ave., and Anita's at 704 N. Piedras. The specialty at all these restaurants is caldo, or beef soup.

Of special note is Cafe Mayapan at 2000 Texas Avenue, which I think may have the best Mexican food in El Paso, although it is not traditional El Paso style. The cooks come from various states in Mexico, and serve food from those regions. This is much like Adobe Grill in OKC, although more authentic, more consistent, and much cheaper. If you like the moles at Adobe Grill, I think you will like Cafe Mayapan even better. This is only open for lunch.

I do not recommend traveling to Ciudad Juarez right now, but Barrigas in El Paso serves food that tastes just about the same as the upscale meals I used to eat on the other side of the border.

Also of special note is Santa Cecilia at 5500 El Paso Dr. (at the intersection of Paisano Drive) that is probably the best authentic taco restaurant in town. This is definitely downscale (the opposite of Cafe Central and restaurants such as Carlos & Mickey's that serve drinks). Here the emphasis is on food rather than atmosphere, although I would expect you can get a beer with the food (check with the restaurant to be sure).

L&J Cafe off next to Concordia Cemetery one block north of IH-10 (take the Copia exit) is the best place in town for a historical setting and for spicy food. This is not my number one recommendation for Mexican food in El Paso, although it would probably be somewhere between 4 and 6.

For people coming from anywhere besides Oklahoma I would probably recommend the steaks in El Paso, but I have recently tried several places in OKC (including Red Prime and Ranch Steakhouse) that I think are better than in El Paso.

There is a place in far west El Paso called Hello Pizza at 1071 Country Club Dr. that serves New York style pizza that I consider probably the best in the Southwest. I recently tried Papa Angelo's Pizza in Bethany, OK that is similar and maybe as good, but for me it is hard to beat Hello Pizza in El Paso. For wood fired Italian style pizza, try Cafe Italia at 6705 N. Mesa St.

El Paso has surprisingly good Chinese food, although probably not any better than in OKC. One notable exception is Moon Day at 6600 N. Mesa that serves northern, Beijing style Chinese food (although it does not serve Peking duck).

For what most people consider to be "regular" Chinese food Sam's is good (along with its affilliated restaurants including Red Lantern and Mayflower). I also like Shan Dong at 3125 N. Lee Trevino for good food and tremendous egg rolls (I have not found anything similar to these egg rolls in OKC).

One notable upscale restaurant is Cafe Central in downtown El Paso that serves American dishes, but also steak and other items with a Mexican twist. I do think there are some items here that would not be quite as good in OKC.

I think Matsuharu Japanese Restaurant in northeast El Paso is better than Tokyo in OKC. For sushi, though, I think better quality and variety can be found at Tokyo and other restaurants in Oklahoma City.

Gunther's Edelweiss at IH-10 and Lomaland has good German food, but I keep hearing that it is closed but then I hear it is not closed. The latest good information I have received is that it is still open, Friday through Sunday only. It is probably comparable to many of the German restaurants in Oklahoma.

There are many restaurants in El Paso reputed to be good that I have not tried, but I will not recommend a place that I have not personally visited (except for Red Lantern Chinese, where I know the chef). Please check other sources, though, for reviews of other restaurants. I am not trying to provide an exhaustive list, but only some selections for those who will be in El Paso for a limited time and want to try things that are not available at home. At least this is how I like to do things when I visit other cities.

El Paso Update

Posted Jul. 31, 2009. I recently spent some time in El Paso, and I got to try a few new places as well as several old ones. I am far behind in posting updates to the reviews, but perhaps this summary will help bring things up to date.

Many of the small restaurant owners were saying they were experiencing a drop in business, but at the same time I saw nearly-full parking lots at many of the chain restaurants (especially the all-you-can-eat buffets). I would again add my two cents that I encourage supporting local restaurants as much as possible, especially in a down economy. Most people are looking for bargains, but I consistently find that many of the best bargains are at the small restaurants where I can talk to the owners and find out dishes they recommend that come at affordable prices.

I will have to say that it was truly a delight to experience El Paso Mexican food again after being away for an extended period of time. It is hard to recommend a favorite place because just about every restaurant is good. I find that restaurants vary, though, by specializing a certain dishes or styles of food. I like the south of the border styles best, but the "El Paso style" restaurants are good for nostalga (I have tried to explain the differences in styles in the "Mexican Food" section of the web site, so I will not go into a discussion here). Almost any restaurant is good, though, as long as the food is fresh and it uses high quality ingredients. Some of my visits included the following:

Carnitas Queretaro:  This is a local mini-chain that specializes in Chihuahua style food (despite the name "Queretaro"). This is one of the best places in town to try "Lent Specials" (food served on Fridays during Lent). Some of the other food I tried did not excite me as much as in the past, even some of my favorite dishes such as mole and pozole. For a place that is open every day and that serves as many customers as it does, I am not surprised that CQ would have its ups and downs. It is generally consistently good, but this time I did not think it was the best. I went to the one on Mesa Street in Coronado, but some readers have said the one on Mesa near UTEP is the best location. I will try to make it there next time.

Mi Tierra:  This is a little restaurant at Belvidere and Westwind that I think serves some of the best breakfasts in town. I tried several items, but the one I like best is still the one I recommend on my web page (Huevos estilo de Mi Tierra).

H & H Car Wash:  I went there for the first time in a number of years. I had quit going because I thought it was too greasy, but this time I was pleasantly surprised by the breakfast. This is good, solid El Paso style food with a good kick to the chiles.

Barrigas:  If Barrigas has a dish I think is particularly good, it is probably the "enchiladas suizas" (green chicken enchiladas with sour cream). It is also one of my "go to" places for mole. Barrigas is a good upscale restaurant that I think is good for first time visitors to El Paso.

El Taconazo:  It is easy to overlook this place since it is tucked back in a shopping center behind some other buildings on Mesa, but this is a great place for tacos al carbon and other meat items. It closes early on some nights, and I have the best luck going on Fridays.

Los Jarrones:  This is a great home cooking style restaurant in the Upper Valley with a bakery attached (although I do not care as much for the bakery as the ones downtown). The food is fresh, good tasting, and cheap. The major flaw is that it does not serve aguas frescas.

El Rincon de Cortez:  I had not been to this restaurant on Sun Bowl Drive for some time. I tried the tampiquena steak, and thought it was as good as I had remembered. The red enchilada that came with it was surprisingly good (in the past I had thought only the steaks were good here, and I did not care for the other things served).

Red Peppers (Redd Rd. & Westwind):  I had received letters warning me that Red Peppers was not as good as previously, but I found it to be about the same. I find Mi Tierra better for breakfast, though, located a little farther south at Belvidere & Westwind.

Delicias Cafe (Resler & Redd Rd.):  Of the Mexican restaurants available for breakfast in the Franklin High School area, this is my least favorite, and I think Mi Tierra and Red Peppers are better choices. The lunch and dinner menus have a few things I like, and I have recently begun to think they have one of the best moles in town.

The big news with Chinese Restaurants is the opening of a new restaurant on the east side by the "Sam's Restaurant" group. Red Lantern at 1841 N. Zaragoza Road joins Sam's (near downtown), Moon Star on the west side, China Star on Dyer, and Mayflower (farther north on Dyer) as the restaurants operated by the original partners at Sam's Restaurant or other family members. I have not yet been to the new restaurant, but Mike, the former chef at Moon Star and then China Star, has now become the chef at Red Lantern. Because of this, I can be fairly confident it is one of the best of the Sam's Restaurants, even without sampling the food. I separate Chinese restaurants into two categories: those that serve authentic Chinese food and those that serve it American style. Several restaurants serve a few authentic dishes, and Moon Day serves what I believe to be authentic northern style Chinese food. Wherever Mike has cooked, though, has been one of the best sources for Hong Kong and Cantonese style (southern China) food that was either available on the menu or that could be prepared on request. I have always found his food to be very good quality, and comparable to Chinese food served on the west coast.

China Star:  When I went to China Star I did not find the same authentic Chinese dishes to be available as when Mike was there. I am not a good judge of American style dishes, so it is hard to say whether this is a good place to go for them. I talked to the new chef, and he said he could prepare some authentic Chinese dishes if I requested them. The problem, though, is in requesting them. I asked both the host and the waitress about ordering traditional (not American style food), and neither could offer any suggestions other than what was on the menu, and I was not able to talk to the chef until I had finished my dinner and I saw him eating a meal in the dining area. Even if the authentic Chinese food turns out to be good, I would say most people would have difficulty ordering it, so I would not really recommend China Star as a place to try to order it. (I would, however, suggest going to Mayflower up the street on Dyer). The review I wrote about China Star, though, probably now applies to Red Lantern rather than China Star.

Oriental Cafe:  Oriental Cafe across the street from Franklin High School is a neighborhood Chinese restaurant that is gaining a reputation among El Paso's Chinese community as a place to go for food that tastes like it does "at home." By this I mean simple food (not necessarily elaborate banquet food) that is prepared the traditional Chinese way (the owners are from the Guangzhou area of southern China). It has an American style menu, but even this has been changed to have a more Chinese taste by using sauces that are more flavorful and not as salty. In addition, there are special items listed on the wall (with pictures), and there is usually something available from the kitchen that is not on the menu. This is my "go to" place for everyday Chinese food that is healthy, inexpensive, and tastes like "real Chinese food" (no, I have not been to China, but the food here tastes like the food you can get in the Chinatown areas of the west coast).

Moon Day:  Moon Day is unique in several respects. It serves authentic tasting northern Chinese food from family recipes, and in fact I have not found any food quite like it anywhere in the country (including "Mandarin" style Chinese restaurants). It is also unique because the menu does not offer americanized style dishes, although there are quite a few items most people would recognize. I would say that everything served, though, is very much like I would expect to find it in northern China (in the Beijing region). Although several restaurants in El Paso offer spicy Chinese food, Moon Day is the only one that I consider as succeeding in serving it in an authentic Chinese style (although not all dishes at Moon Day are spicy). Along with Oriental Cafe, I think Moon Day serves genuine top quality Chinese food, although in a competely different style. Moon Day would probably be my first suggestion for a special occasion meal, although there are lunch specials and other dishes available that make it more affordable on a more frequent basis.

Golden Buddha:  The UTEP restaurant closed, and now the only restaurant operating is at the crossroads on Mesa (between Doniphan and IH-10). The lunch specials are cheap, but variable in quality. More authentic food is available, but the prices are higher. This is not my favorite Chinese restaurant, but it offers better choices than many restaurants in the city.

Sam's:  I ate at Sam's Restaurant while I was in town, and even though many of the chefs have left to operate the "satellite" restaurants, authentic Chinese food can still be ordered here. It no longer has some of the specials that used to be listed on the wall, but if you want something simple (such as noodle soup), the chef will be able to prepare it.

With as few options for Thai food as El Paso has, it was big news when a new Thai restaurant opened near UTEP. The new place, called Tara Thai, took over the space in which Golden Buddha used to operate, so it is not necessarily a good thing when one Asian restaurant has to close in order for another to open. In this case, though, I was pleased by Tara Thai's food, and there is still a Golden Buddha open at the Crossroads location, so this was not a bad tradeoff.

Tara Thai:  As mentioned, this is El Paso's newest Thai restaurant. It is definitely upscale, with what I consider to be high prices for Thai food. I did not eat there for dinner, but the dinner menu was considerably more expensive than the lunch menu, perhaps even surpassing Lemongrass in Las Cruces. I liked the food, but I regularly get food of equal or greater quality in Oklahoma City Thai restaurants. I will have to go back to Tara Thai to find out what they do that I really consider the standout dishes. They were not afraid to make the food "Thai spicy," so I would suggest taking this into account when ordering (it is probably better to get the food too mild than too spicy).

True Thai:  True Thai, on Fred Wilson just off of U.S. 54, seems to be on about its fourth owner with as many or more cooks over the years. In my opinion it was best when it had the first owner, but I also think the food is pretty good now. The biggest weakness of True Thai has seemed to be the use of cheaper meats and vegetables than the other Thai restaurants, but I have always liked the curry here the best of any restaurant in El Paso. When I ordered seafood soup on my most recent visit it indicated that the ingredients served may have improved in quality, so I think it is possible the food may now (again, as it was when True Thai first opened) be comparable to more upscale restaurants such as Tara Thai.

Singapore:  Singapore has many dishes I like a lot and many that have a totally non-Thai taste to me. The problem is figuring out which dishes are which. From my most recent visits, it seems that the food is much the same as when I last updated my review.

For a number of years El Paso has had one Indian restaurant (first Delhi Palace on the east side, and then India Palace on Mesa Street). Now there is a second restaurant, located only a few blocks from India Palace, called Chut-ney (and the owners of each restaurant also operate an Indian and Middle Eastern food store). The main difference between the two restaurants is that India Palace serves northern Indian food while Chut-ney serves food from South India. I like both, but my preference is clearly toward south Indian food.

India Palace:  I have tried just about everything on the menu, so there is not much to discover on new visits other than to determine if the quality of food is about the same as before. I found it to be the same, although at higher prices than a year ago.

Chut-ney:  Chut-ney began with the concept that it would mainly serve dosas and other south Indian food, but quickly expanded the menu to meet customers' expectations for the type of dishes served at India Palace and other northern Indian restaurants. I found the south Indian food (particularly the dosas) to be wonderful, and clearly my favorite Indian food in El Paso. For north Indian food, though, I would recommend going to India Palace, since I like their version better. When going to Chut-ney, I found the waiter to be very helpful in recommending the dishes the chef does quite well.

There are two Vietnamese restaurants in town, and I keep changing my mind about which one is best. Saigon Taste is the one I visit most frequently, and when I first went back this year it seemed to be off from when I was there in 2008. Later, though, it seemed to improve quite a bit, and I now think it is better than Pho Tre Bien. The number of customers I saw at Saigon Taste also seemed to pick up, and perhaps others thought, as I did, that the food seemed to be quite good. I can say, though, that Pho Tre Bien seems to be quite consistent, and I have always liked it over the years.

Saigon Taste:  On my latest visits the lemongrass tofu and the pho seemed better than ever, while the "Saigon pancake" was not as good (but still good). One dish that always seems better at Saigon Taste than Pho Tre Bien is the tofu hot pot.

Pho Tre Bien:  On my latest visit I tried lemongrass tofu that was excellent (perhaps better than at Saigon Taste), and I also like the pho. There are probably as many dishes here that I think are better than at Saigon Taste as the reverse. Probably the boba drinks are better here.

Many people thought Gunther's Edelweiss closed last summer, but they actually stayed open until a few months ago, serving on weekends only. If you did not get a chance to go I think you missed out on some very good traditional German food. A new German restaurant has opened in northeast El Paso that I have not yet tried. Tony's Deli, though, in Sunrise Center in northeast El Paso, is the reincarnation of Smit's Delicatessan (a long time German sandwich shop), and is somewhat under the radar even though it is El Paso's oldest continuously operating German restaurant.

Tony's Deli:  Since this is the only German restaurant I have tried this year, this is the only one I can review. I used to go to Smit's in Sunrise Center on Saturdays for bratwurst grilled outside on the sidewalk, and I have yet to find any bratwurst that compare (or even come close). The exception to this is the bratwurst served by Tony's Deli, which are no longer made in Alamogordo as the original ones were, but they are made by the same family and as far as I can tell have the same flavor and quality. Tony's has a number of other sandwiches, but I would say if you like bratwurst you really need to try the one here.

Since Oklahoma City has such good Italian food I did not make it a big priority for El Paso. I was very pleased, though, with the places I visited.

Il Posto:  This is no longer one of El Paso's newest Italian restaurants, but I think it is one of the best. From its humble beginnings on Doniphan Drive it has developed into a "special occasion" restaurant with popular wine tasting dinners and daily specials in addition to the high quality menu that is offered. Prices for both the special dinners and the daily specials are usually a little higher than the regular menu, but the nightly special I ordered turned out to be one of the best Italian meals I have had, and I think is one thing that sets Il Posto apart from the other restaurants.

Cafe Italia:  It is hard to decide whether Cafe Italia or Hello Pizza have the best pizza in town, since they are two completely different styles of pizza. Hello Pizza is New York style, but I would guess that the brick oven cooked pizzas at Cafe Italia are some of the most authentic that can be found in the Southwest. I certainly think they are some of the best.