Steve's Gastronomic Home Page

Ay Caramba!

8001 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX
(915) 581-5565

Ay Caramba on Mesa at the Crossroads

When Ay Caramba! Restaurant in the small town of Canutillo branched out into El Paso, taking over the old Leo's site at the "Crossroads" in west El Paso, it did not seem to replicate the quality of the restaurant's original location. Gradually, though, I think the west El Paso location is getting better, to the point that it is now offering some of the more authentic and delicious Mexican food served in the city, and may be better than the original restaurant on Doniphan.

Ay Caramba! has been on an expansion program, taking over the old La Cuesta restaurant on Montana Avenue. A family member opened a branch in Albuquerque with the same family style food served in El Paso. I can only vouch for the two locations I have tried, but they seem to have stayed true to the original restaurant's home style cooking, and have avoided the trap of bland, pre-processed "chain" food.

The cuisine here is El Paso style, but many of the dishes served seem to have their roots in Ciudad Juarez where the emphasis is on color, variety, and fresh ingredients. If I had to say what was best here I would probably say the beef. Some combinations of foods are very interesting, though, such as the chicken tampiqueña (chicken with tomato sauce and enchilada on the side) or chicken and guacamole.

Diabla fish filet
Diabla filet of tilapia, served with paked potato, salad, rice, and bread

One of my early disappointments at the Mesa Street location of Ay Caramba was with the Fish Fillet. The fish was too crispy, the baked potato was not cooked as well as at the Canutillo restaurant, and the salsa was not as good. The fish was still good, and I loved the sauce (ranchero sauce), but the Canutillo restaurant seemed to do it better.

A more recent experience with the Diabla Filet, though, had a much better result. This was a tilapia fillet with a fiery hot diabla sauce (although it was not as spicy as some I have had at other restaurants). I thought the quality of the fish was quite good, and I enjoyed the side dishes. Ay Caramba! has raised the price of the fish dinners quite a bit, but the quality has reached the point that I prefer it to most other El Paso restaurants.

Chicken tampiquena
Chicken tampiquena with red enchilada

Chicken Tampiqueña is one of the better dishes in the way it showcases the border flavors. The chicken breast meat is juicy and comes in a substantial portion. I would not call this the best chicken that is available, but it is enjoyable. The toppings of tomato sauce and a mixture of white and yellow cheese make it a classic tampiqueña style dish. This is not an extremely spicy dish, but is more along the lines of typical Southwest style food. Several side dishes are served including an enchilada, rice, beans, and guacamole. Like most of my favorite El Paso style Mexican food, the sum is greater than the parts: while the individual components are not really outstanding, the overall dish is quite enjoyable.

Red Enchiladas are very good as an order or as a side dish such as on the tampiqueña plate. These are mildly spicy with a deep red chile that makes them better than average for the borderland.

Many of the best dishes at Ay Caramba seem to involve chicken and guacamole. In an effort to stay under the $$ price category I ordered a Chicken Fajita Torta that consisted of grilled chicken, guacamole, and toasted bun. This was big enough for a meal if a person were not terribly hungry, and was very good. I was not sure why, but the chicken fajita meat seemed to be better than other chicken dishes such as the tampiqueña plate, if the main concern is the flavor of the meat. The fajitas here are not the best in the city but they seem to be better than most.

The Chicken Fajita Burrito was even better, with an excellent preparation. On my request they added some green chiles, making it even more memorable.

The Green Chicken Enchiladas I tried were very good, but they were rather bland until I ordered sour cream to add on top. Otherwise it is the typical puréed green chile that is not as spicy or flavorful as most New Mexico versions. The sour cream turns green chicken enchiladas into enchiladas suizas that are popular in Ciudad Juarez, a good use for the milder green chile typical served there.

The Chicken Flautas also use the white fajita meat, and have large amounts of guacamole and sour cream in which to dip the flute-shaped toasted tortillas with the meat inside. Like the other chicken fajita dishes, the meat is good quality, and the choice comes with the different ways it can be served.

'Taco Tuesday' tacos
Selection of tacos with carnitas, shredded chicken, and shredded beef (with charro beans on the side)

With the restaurant's specialty being "Tacos y Carnitas," it is worthwhile trying the taco specials on "Taco Tuesday" (priced at 99 cents each the last time I ordered them). Of course the tacos are good any time, but I tend to make a meal of them when they are on special.

The Shredded Beef Taco I tried was really more memorable than the chicken taco, and was particularly good served on a soft tortilla. The cilantro and other spices gave it a Mexican flavor that is all too often missing in restaurant versions of what is usually a food cooked at home.

The Chicken Taco had a juicy, flavorful meat, with yellow and white cheeses used as the main flavor enhancer. The seasoning was very good.

The Carnitas Taco was more moist and flavorful than most on the inside, but dry on the outside. Overall I thought it was a good example of carnitas meat.

Avocado Tacos are also available as a special order (and I suspect other special tacos can be prepared as well). While the avocado and the lettuce and tomato that came with it did not have as vibrant a flavor as the beef or chicken, this was a perfectly good way to get some vegetarian Mexican food.

Small bowl of caldo
Caldo is served free with meals

Caldo (beef soup) is served with meals and is the traditional border area way to eat vegetables, along with a small garden salad that is also usually included on each plate. I can think of more outstanding examples of caldo than the one served here, but it is enjoyable.

Rice and beans are good, with the testimony of this fact being that I usually eat all that is served me provided I am not too stuffed from the other food. For beans, though, I prefer the Charro Beans with whole beans served in a small bowl.

Chips and salsa are tempting enough to cause me to consume a larger portion than is advisable if I want to save room for dinner. One of the best features of the salsa is that more than one variety is available, giving the type of variety that is usually found south of the border. The "main" salsa had a jalapeño and vinegar flavor.

Guacamole is somewhat flavorless by itself, but is fresh, and is good with the flautas and other dishes. I much prefer this version to the liquified ones served in many places that otherwise seem to have very authentic Mexican food.

Queso Fundido is definitely one of the better items served, with a thick liquid cheese and just the right amount of chile. An order is rather expensive, but gives a good representation of the traditional Mexican style dish rather than the thin queso dips that are usually served free in Tex-Mex style restaurants.

The Aguas Frescas including the Melón (canteloupe) drinks are made from a mix, and were disappointing. This is quite surprising from a restaurant that otherwise seems to specialize in recreating the food and atmosphere of the typical south of the border restaurant.

Ay Caramba! is not a restaurant in which I find anything that is the most outstanding example in El Paso. It is a place, though, to which I can bring almost anyone and they will be happy with the meal. One of its biggest strengths is the variety of items that are served. I can see why the restaurant is becoming popular enough so that they are opening new locations.



Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Additional Locations: 1926 Montana Ave., 6874 Doniphan Dr.
Cooking Oil: Vegetable
Smoking: No Smoking
Alcohol: Beer
Special Features: Serves Breakfast

Chile Index:

Most Recent Visit
Apr. 14, 2009

Number of Visits: 10+

Best Items
Chicken Fajitas, Chicken Tampiqueña, Flautas, Shredded Beef Tacos, Red Enchiladas, Queso Fundido

Special Ratings
Chicken Fajitas:
Chicken Tampiqueña:
Chile Relleno:
Red Enchiladas:
Beef Tacos: shredded
Chicken Tacos:
Filete Ranchero: Tilapia
Diabla Filet: Tilapia
Green Enchiladas:
Baked Potato:
Refried Beans:
Charro Beans:
Queso Fundido:
Melón Drink: