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Apr 25, 2003 02:10 PM

el paso vacation report -- i can't wait to return!

  • m

just back, excellent time in and around el paso. we stayed first at the fancy el camino real, the cliff, the travelodge hacienda twice and finally the airport hilton, from fancy to kitschy 50'-60's all were fun.

we enjoyed the general 1950's vibe of the place and the utter lack of any starbucks, the gaps, etc.--instead there are multiple local fast food mex chains everywhere like EL TACO TOTE, juarez's CARNITAS QUERETERO, DEL RIO, old school CHICOS, my fav TACO CABANA and many more--any and all would rule new york.

we also loved the mountains, the warm afternoon winds (despite el pasoans complaints), the mission trail, western shops downtown, the old juarez food etc. markets, the borderwalk streets like santa fe, el paso, stanton, mesa--to me they were just like a tex-mex version of canal street in new york. i had a barbacoa torta sandwich there that about reduced me to tears it was so good. i mean when the lady slices open a big crusty bun, grabs an avocado cuts the seed out and starts carving it out for you just to start it off you know you are in for a treat($2).

SMITTY'S BAR-B-Q: a real cool throwback, the 'cue was smoky but just ok overall. actually, the fries, beans, links and ham were great, but the beef was disappointing by texas standards. nice vinegary sauce and a spicy sauce as well, but if you need sauce on your texas 'que, well...?!? fyi--BOB's is still remodeling and we missed JOHNNY'S PIT by an hour (sigh). however, HARLON'S BBQ in the houston airport wasn't bad as a last bbq meal on our return.

RIB HUT: we made it there on wed which is $1.25/per flintstones-sized rib night. tangy sauce on those things. what a steal--do it the wait is worth it.

LUCY'S/KING's X: fantastic breakfast tamale plate, great sauces. my spouse had an egg dish that came in a bowl with spicy red chile sauce. all brought me to tears...of joy. lots of love in the making of the food there, mom is in the kitchen--for real. very cool place and bar next door.

H&H CARWASH: first place we ran to off the plane. i had a bowl of caldillo stew. real chiles in there, ummm. another cool, funky place. small diner, food is made caringly right there in your face. it's on yandell, a street in what we thought of as an ohio-esque light industrial style.

LEO'S: old school place on montana. last meal before hitting the airport. may i rec the excellent carnita's plate lunch special? excellent thick tortillas, expertly fried-charred meat, creamy refritos, and suprize a soothing chunky fresh guacamole. awesome.

LA NORTENA Y CAFE DELUXE: big city cool right next to the bus station? you got it. salpicon and tortilla soup were excellent on my first visit. best i've ever had. on a second visit after a border run i had a burrito deshebrado ($2-???wow). it's shredded beef, green chiles and egg inside--and that 'burrito' was a thick tortilla barely and loosely rolled once (take notes northern californiaians). also, had a smooth anjeo herradura($5--take that new yorkers!).

great pubs: you have to drink a lot of beer in the dusty windy dry spring weather out west. THE TAP, felt like i was in a time warp, groovy yet typical old downtown old man bar but loved by all. full of funny harmless locals. ACEITUNA'S BEER GARDEN on doniphan, very nice collegiate indoor/outdoor place to have your shiner bocks. my spouse recs an antique mall nearby. the pub at the TRAVELODGE HACIENDA on montana, supposed usa home of the margarita. very quirky, cool 50's style motor motel. THE DOME BAR in the old camino real hotel, beautiful, great service, nice little roof pool in the hotel too. EL KENTUCKY CLUB in juarez, supposedly the margarita was born here. they make a good one, great looking old bar. we hit the juarez easter day bullfight too, that was muy macho. the bar outside the monumental arena in the parking lot is fine, but ladies wait until you go inside the arena to use the bathroom, my wife walked in/out of the bar facilities stunned, dont ask! the arena bathrooms are fine.

sorry to have missed: CASA JURADO, THE LITTLE DINER, CHOPES, LOS BANDITOS DE CARLOS Y MICKEY'S, and all the many other hole's in the wall of which there are hundreds but we'll be back.

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  1. Tacos Cabana? I wonder if it might be related to the regional chain I visited in San Antonio years back. Their specialty was taco al carbon, grilled beef usually served on a fluffy flour tortilla. There were like 4 or 5 locations in SA and were doing noisy reverb late night tv ads. I saw the ads first and was surprised when my local friends told that the place was good. When I was leaving I went by and got 6 for the drive back to New Orleans.

    Anyway, anybody know, is the El Paso place part of the same group? For that matter, anyone in San Antonio can tell if they are still doing it there?



    ps: mrnyc, I have not south texas tex mex food anywhere in nyc yet, nothing close in smell or flavor.

    12 Replies
    1. re: wrayb

      The Taco Cabana chain was still active in San Antonio the last time I was there. The Taco Cabana in El Paso is part of the same outfit. I have also eaten at TCs in Austin, Waco and Houston.

      There was a TC out here in San Diego, but this town doesn't know how to appreciate Tex-Mex cuisine. The restaurant closed several years ago and became a Boston Market (I think--or something equally bland).

      1. re: junior

        There are Taco Cabana locations in Dallas on Greenville near Ross and on Lemmon near Oak Lawn. Used to be one on Northwest Hwy near Bachman Lake but I don't get out that way much. I enjoyed it a lot when I was in college ca 1988 but now I prefer the smaller neighborhood taquerias.

        1. re: john clark

          Alright. I must intervene and give my opinion that the food at Taco Cabana, while slightly better than Taco Bell, is crap. The chain is also the most poorly managed of any I've encountered. You are likely to find Taco Cabana on the dirty restaurant reports in Houston and Austin. Try Taqueria Arandas or Taqueria Arandina for a decent Mexican fast food chain in Texas. And, do you as&*ole a favor and avoid Taco Crapana (as my friends and I call it) at all costs. No self-respecting person should find themselves in that place sober or before 2 am.

          1. re: Bob

            aaahhh my friend you do not understand our plight outside of texas. the TACO CABANA chain would rule nyc and the metro area if it were here. i hear you but we are in dire straits for this kind of thing in many parts of the usa.

            btw, i dig the mom and pop places myself, but the reason we went to TC was because it was easter sunday and ev-er-y-thing else in el paso was closed after the brunch hour. also, you can sit outside on a palm tree cooled patio, they have beer, and they have that great condiment cart where you can basically 'make it your way.'

            i have been to the TC's in austin and seen them around in san antonio as of last year. i did not notice the ARANDINA or ARANDAS chains you mentioned in the el paso area, but wow there were so many others....

            1. re: mrnyc

              Taco Cabana is alive and well around this area believe me.There's one in Schertz here up on IH-35 ,and in Universal City on Pat Booker road. They are elsewhere and have a website.
              We have in San Antonio,Dona Tota's Gorditas and Pollo Campero
              both chains from south of the border. The Schertz TC is clean, and the one on Pat Booker is clean. Yeah, some might not be so clean, depending who the manager is.There's on off of Loop 1604 and nacogdoches road right by Walmart that's clean.
              Even though we have tex mex and mexican places here, I still like to go there to TC once in awhile. And as you mention, I like to watch the traffic go by and enjoy the fresh air when it's nice.

            2. re: Bob

              There is hardly ANY Tex-Mex food served in San Diego, so Taco Cabana was filling a void as long as it lasted.

              Actually, I thought El Taco Tote in El Paso was greatly superior to Taco Cabana, but I don't think they have any stores outside EP.

              The last Taco Cabanas I visited were in Round Rock (2002), Austin (2001) and Waco (2000). None would have been my first choice for Mexican Food, but I ate at these places after long drives, without wanting to take a long time looking through unfamiliar territory for other options. (I was also trying to maintain a budget for meals).

              All those restaurants were o.k. as far as cleanliness. However, I know what you mean about the slack hygiene in some stores. I saw one in San Antonio several years ago that was appalling.

              I have heard good things about Taqueria Arandas, but have never managed to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy a meal at one. However, based on your recommendation I will try to eat at one of their restaurants the next time I'm in the area. Thanks very much for the tip.

              1. re: Bob

                OK, i guess a reality check was needed. One thing is that even "back in the day" the only thing (to me) that rocked was their taco al carbon. But now that they are part of a national restaurant conglomerate all the woes of corporate mass produced food prepared by minimum wage workers are a possibility.



                1. re: Bob

                  This is an old thread, but I must chime in with agreement that Taco Cabana is crap. We arrived in El Paso late on a Friday night with hungry kids, and there was a Taco Cabana near our hotel. The frozen margaritas were sweet and weak and the place was filthy, food all over the floor. The meal was preferable to Taco Bell, at least, but all in all we were very disappointed. Next time we pass through El Paso I am going to have a game plan.

            3. re: wrayb

              When I lived in San Antonio in the late seventies I enjoyed the original Taco Cabana, which opened around 1978 or so in a former Dairy Queen at Hildebrand and San Pedro, if I remember correctly. The tacos were delicious, and my friends and I went there fairly often. I still go to TC sometimes and think that for a mass-market chain the food has held up very well. Of course little local taquerias are more fun, but in those days that's what TC was. Does anyone know if that first location is still there, and if so,is there anything special about it now?

              1. re: Zorra

                Yes! I went there in '78 or '79.

                1. re: Zorra

                  yeah, it's been awhile since I have been over in that neighborhood, but I believe they are still in the original location.It's across from the Crystal Pistol.The place had a neon sign in the shape of a gun and I guess was a night club at one time, or was it the Silver Pistol? Anyhow TC is I think still there.Don't know if there is anything special about it now.
                  We used to drive around there years ago, but we never ate there.
                  We really didn't eat much mexican food out. For us thinking back it was maybe more seafood ,if we could find decent seafood, and oriental food like chinese or japanese. We made at home tacos and chalupas, even enchiladas sometimes. Out side of tacos,etc,I don't think my parents ate much mexican food. Momma was from Buffalo and Daddy Milwaukee,Buffalo,NY is where they met.Back then in the 50s, i really don't even think either place had much mexican food of any kind.
                  Daddy was in the AirForce and fought in the"Big Show" as he called it, so he had exposure to other kinds of food, like in North Africa. German food was a no brainer since that's what he was. Momma ate american stuff, plus polish and hungarian. Mexican was not a choice for a nice dinner out.
                  We used to stop at Captin Jim's on I think S.W.Military or Zazamora and eat at the drive-inn most Sundays after church.

                2. re: wrayb

                  Yes, Taco Cabana is a chain, but...! All Taco Cabanas are not created equal. I love TC in El Paso. All of them! Chilles rellenos, great chicken, sunny patios and on weekends live mariachis! There is a Taco Cabana here in Plano that makes me ashamed. No rellenos, the first time I went there they served me enchiladas in flour tortillas and flour tortillas with my tortilla soup. They have since discovered the error of their ways, but the bottom line is that Taco Cabanas are not all alike. Test them, and if you're not happy, try another.

                  To mrnyc, you really missed out by not making it to Casa Jurado, The Little Diner,, and Chopes! But you CAN order gorditas from The Little Diner on the web. And next time you're in the area, make a trip to Old Mesilla, New Mexico, and have a meal at La Posta. It's located in the actual building that was a layover for The Butterfield Stagecoach Line, and Billy the Kid (and Pancho Villa, iirc) stopped by a time or three in the day. Good food!

                3. The original comment has been removed
                  1. A few additions to the list.
                    East Side - Try L & J's near the cemetery. Chico's Tacos
                    West Side - Ardevenino's in Sundland Park. Little Diner in Canuntillo.
                    Avila's on Mesa.
                    Try Pelican's seafood just off of Mesa.
                    Carnitas Queretero is great food for a great price. Hard to beat
                    For BBQ skip the rib hut and go to the State Line.

                    1. re: lovelel

                      Chico's tacos a drunk food staple. Mmmmm rolled tacos in a thin sauce with fake cheese. Delicious at 3am.

                      Taco Cabana same, but in all fairness, not close to a Taco bell. They make their own tortillas and their grilled chicken and fajitas are really delicious. They make a nice soup and rice. All else is a major fail, buit light years above a taco bell which is pure dog food.

                      1. re: lovelel

                        For great steak, you can't beat the Great American Land & Cattle Co on Alabama. The 2-lb T-bone with 1 lb baked potato and pineapple cole slaw is my favorite.

                        1. re: starvingwolf

                          Great steak? I have ordered steak twice at this place and both times wished I had stuck to a burger. Curious as to why it deserves a "great" rating?

                          1. re: carfreeinla

                            Were you at the Alabama location? There are several GAL&C locations around El Paso, and they are NOT all created equal! But the Alabama location is the "flagship," and now very pricey. You can get a great steak at a better price at Cattleman's in Fabens. Lots of atmosphere, and when Food Network of TLC or Bravo (whoever) did their show on the best steaks in the U.S., Cattleman's was among the tops. But I do prefer the coleslaw at GAL*C. However, my son will only eat their steaks and nothing else, NO sides. Why? He used to work there. Take it for what it's worth.

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              oh man,, casa juardo in el paso. when i lived in sa i used to get out to elpaso every 6 wks or so and casa juardo was a regular stop. i used to bring back chips, their salsa,, anything that i could carry.. the chicken mole was/is the standard for all others (tho Hugo's in Houston is right there). and wow,, the crystal pistol in sa,, now that brings back memories... I lived in a small apt near sac and the crystal pistol was a saloon i frequented often.