Taft+Diaz's roasted heirloom corn and fried chicken.
From field to fork, here's what to eat and drink in the borderlands.
By Carolyn Graham
The regional foods grown and produced in the borderlands of Southern New Mexico and West Texas thrive on desert living — just like the area's residents. Take the chile peppers, which soak up the arid climate and more than 290 days a year of sunshine. Visitors are frequently surprised that verdant farms and ranchlands hide in the desert landscape. The Rio Grande feeds fertile valleys producing a bounty of everything from onions and lettuce to melons and alfalfa (good for the ranching here, too). The river connects the chile fields of Hatch, New Mexico, to farm and ranch country deep in the heart of West Texas.
The crops and cattle heavily influence the local cuisine, making it a flavorful region to explore via your taste buds. Grapes, nuts, beef, and, of course, the popular green chile, a spicy pepper that's famous throughout the United States, have roots here, and you don't have to go too far afield to find the fruits of these harvests.
Turning to Tex-Mex
El Paso is known for its Tex-Mex, a fusion of Mexican, Spanish, and American cuisine that is wildly popular throughout the region. Because cattle ranching is prominent in Texas and throughout the Southwest, beef is a fundamental ingredient of Tex-Mex dishes, from nachos and enchiladas to burritos and machaca, a dish made with chopped beef and topped with an egg, green chile sauce, and cheese. Locals swear by the version served at Kiki's Mexican Restaurant in El Paso, which also makes it with brisket. In this region, flavors have flowed and blended for centuries like the waters of the Rio Grande that bind the borderlands of New Mexico, West Texas, and Ciudad Juárez.
Chef Oscar Herrera owns Taft+Diaz restaurant at the boutique Stanton House hotel in downtown El Paso and also operates two acclaimed restaurants in Juárez. He grew up in Juárez and says Tex-Mex dishes are the ultimate representation of the melding of cultures. "It was born by the intention of immigrants to re-create what was their home cooking. They had to adapt to the available products they had," he says. "It created a new type of food, and I think that's beautiful." However, the regional food influences go beyond even Latin and North America. As a result, the menus at his restaurants "represent my vision of the different types of cuisine we have in the border area," he says, which include Korean, Lebanese, and other influences.
Big Jim peppers from New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.
A Peppered Past
Before Texas and New Mexico became part of the United States, and after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexico territory stretched across large swaths of modern-day Texas, New Mexico, and California. Mexican settlers — and the Spanish explorers who also came to this region — brought their recipes and inwentygredients with them.
The chile pepper was one such import, but those living north of the Rio Grande often deemed it too spicy for consumption. In the late 1800s, Mexican-born horticulturist Fabian Garcia studied the pepper at New Mexico State University (then the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts) in Las Cruces, 30 minutes north of El Paso just over the New Mexico state line, to refine and standardize the pods for cultivation. His research led to the development of several varieties, from mild to extra-extra hot and from small pods to the area's famous and meaty Big Jim, which made the pepper more widely palatable, according to Miranda Cisneros, program coordinator for the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, an international research organization specializing in capsicum.
"We started to demand it more, so farmers had to start growing more," Cisneros says. "We love our chile peppers." In 2018, New Mexico harvested more than 71,000 tons of green chile, according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture; the Land of Enchantment is the No. 1 producer of chile in the United States. Some locals even classify their love for green chile as an addiction.
Restaurants in the greater El Paso region feed those cravings by incorporating the pepper into dishes ranging from ice cream and chocolate to pizza and even locally crafted beer and wine. Traditional pepper-centric Southwest dishes — enchiladas, chile con carne, chiles rellenos, tamales — typically incorporate either the fresh green pepper, or the ripened, red version, which is dried in the sun (hence the red chile ristras, or strings of chiles, that hang in front of homes and restaurants). The green chile is either chopped and served atop burgers or other dishes or stewed into a sauce with garlic and onions and poured over everything from burritos to beef. The red pods are usually boiled down and processed into a red sauce that is smoky and rich.
Typically, Cisneros says, the green sauce pairs well with chicken (as well as cheese) and is popular as green chile chicken enchiladas, served in restaurants throughout Las Cruces and El Paso. The red chile tends to pair well with pork, so cooks often use it in posoles (a soup made with pork and hominy), or tamales, a popular dish made from masa (ground corn dough) wrapped around red chile–infused shredded pork. Newbies who want to experience the full flavor of chile can start with the ubiquitous chile relleno, a fresh green pepper that is roasted, peeled, stuffed with cheese, dipped in batter, and fried. Locals hit up Chope's Bar and Cafe in La Mesa, located on scenic Highway 28 between El Paso and Las Cruces, for its famous chiles rellenos.
For more pepper knowledge, visitors can tour the Chile Pepper Institute's teaching garden — open from July through October — and explore the gift shop stocked with everything from hot sauces and bags of frozen chile to T-shirts and chile-scented air fresheners.
Not all that grows here is spicy. The cuisine also gets nutty, thanks to the thousands of pecan acres that occupy the valleys along the Rio Grande. The hot summers and mild winters create the ideal climate for pecans, says Sally Stahmann-Solis, CEO of Stahmann Farms in La Mesa, New Mexico, between El Paso and Las Cruces, one of the largest producers of the nuts in the United States. Her grandfather arrived here with his father from nearby Fabens, Texas, to grow cotton but, by chance, purchased some young pecan trees to plant instead.
"He got people excited about pecans," she says. "Pecans are native to the South and in Mexico. Here we have a mix of sunshine, but not too much. It's the perfect recipe for good pecans."
More than 80 years later, those orchards and others throughout the valley are still thriving, yielding a versatile crop that pops up on local menus. Look for pecan-crusted green chile strips served as an appetizer; it's a local favorite. Pecans are also the key ingredient in the popular Pecan Amber Ale at the Pecan Grill and Brewery in Las Cruces. On the historic Old Mesilla Plaza, five miles southwest of Las Cruces, nut lovers can stock up on raw pecans, pecan syrup, candied pecans, and other treats at Legacy Pecans, a nut-centric boutique that is run by the Salopek family, another longtime pecan grower in the area.
In El Paso, one of the best ways to get your nut fix is in the form of the pecan pie served at Cattleman's Steakhouse, which is primarily known for its Texas-sized, flame-grilled steaks and Old West atmosphere. In town, local brewer Blazing Tree Brewery makes a Pecan Porter, or you can pick up raw or candied nuts at So El Paso, a gift shop specializing in local products.
A selection of wines from La Viña, the area's the oldest continuously operating winery.
Grapes have been growing in New Mexico since 1629, when Spanish missionaries planted vines for sacramental wines. (California's first vineyards weren't planted until 1769.) The fertile corridor along Highway 28 connecting El Paso and Las Cruces, and roughly paralleling the Rio Grande, is also verdant grape country. Several vineyards and wineries dot the landscape through this bucolic stretch, including the Rio Grande Vineyard and Winery, Sombra Antigua, and Zin Valle Vineyards, where you can sip merlot as you enjoy views to the east of the Franklin Mountains.
The oldest continuously operating winery in the area is La Viña, which opened in 1977 in tiny La Union, about 20 miles north of El Paso just on the New Mexico side of the border. This scenic winery offers tastings, tours, and live music and produces a number of varieties, including merlot, syrah, cabernet, and sauvignon blanc.
While wine is the sophisticated grand dame of the local libations scene, its spirited cousin tequila has also been around since the 1600s. This naturally led to the invention of the margarita, which locals claim took place in the El Paso region. Don't leave without toasting bartender Lorenzo "Lencho" Hernandez's version. He claims to have made the first lime-tequila-triple sec concoction in the 1930s for a woman named Margarita at the Kentucky Club Bar & Grill in Juárez.
While the origin stories of Mexico's most famous cocktail are often debated, there's no question that the margarita is an honored tradition here. You can pay your respects at the L&J Café, a local eatery and watering hole dating back to the 1920s that is located near an old cemetery butting up to Interstate 10 in the heart of El Paso. Here you can pair one of the café's perfect icy margaritas with a plate of picadillo (meat and potato) tacos, then sit back, enjoy the atmosphere, and soak up the flavors of El Paso and the borderlands.