Food in Las Cruces, NM (long)
I've been living in Las Cruces for about 4 years, and thought I should finally do a write up on what's good to eat here in case anyone is passing through. Unfortunately, it's a rather short list. Jim Leff's 5 year old summary is pretty much correct: "a veritable chow desert" where a "glimmer of competence is like salvation". (link below)
The upside is that Southern New Mexican cuisine is a distinctive local cuisine that you've probably never experienced unless you've been here before. It's based around chiles (fresh green and dried red), meat (mostly beef and pork), and starch (potatoes and flour tortillas). About the only green things you'll see (other than the ubiquitous chiles) are cilantro, lime, and iceburg lettuce.
The downside of the cuisine is that it's monotonous, and very rarely prepared with any particular love or care. There isn't a lot of subtlety: it burns, it burns! Almost every establishment has an identical menu, and probably purchases their ingredients from the same wholesale provider. Cheese is preshredded, tortillas are store bought, and outside of Lent your chances of finding tasty vegetarian fare are practically nil. And no matter what you order, you'll get the same question: red or green, meaning do you want this smothered in red sauce or green sauce.
This isn't to say that you won't enjoy eating out here on your way through, only that it's the type of food rather than the quality that will be the highlight. Pretty much anywhere you go, they'll have things you can't find anywhere else: stuffed sopa(pillas), gorditas (like sopas but from corn masa), red chile and potato burritos, flat (not rolled) enchiladas, with green chile or red chile sauce smothered on everything. And almost always for reasonable prices: $10 is a pricey entree around here.
The best thing to eat in town is the brisket burrito at Bosa Donuts (190 Avenida de Mesilla at S Main): beef brisket and coleslaw in a flour tortilla. The owner said he got the recipe from someone in Chihuahua, Mexico, so it's not really local but still great. Their donuts are OK, the rest of their burritos aren't as good.
The second best thing to eat in town are the burritos at Go Burger (1008 E Lohman at Espina). Today I had the "Chile Relleno Burrito" and the "Green (pork) and Potatoes Burrito". Their burgers are OK but nothing special, their other New Mexican fare is slightly above average for the town but not great. The combination plate is an accurate sample of the local cuisine. Outdoor seating only, closes early (6:00 I think).
The next best thing in town (and we are already starting to stretch a bit) is the posole at Andale (Avenida de Mesilla in Mesilla). A tasty stew with red chile, pork, and hominy, you doctor it up yourself with lime, onions, and cilantro. Better than the one Jim mentions at Mirador, in my opinion. Their other entrees are fine, but not outstanding. If you are here for the posole, order and enjoy them, but I wouldn't go just for them.
If you want the overall local experience, and are less concerned with the food quality, I'd suggest Roberto's (908 E Amador Ave near Espina). Plastic trays, disposable utensils, very inexpensive, and about as busy at lunchtime as Las Cruces gets. Order anything that catches your eye (say, one red potato sopa and one green meat burrito), or if it seems to complicated just choice one of the combination plates (for example a chile relleno, a flauta, and an enchilada with rice and beans).
If you are looking for a little more upscale (metal utensils and all) Nellies Cafe (1226 W Hadley Ave near Valley Ave) is as good a choice as any. It's a wonderfully friendly place, but I've never really enjoyed their food. But get a combination plate and enjoy the bilingual nature of the conversations around you. They are open for lunch only, and their food is hotter than most.
If you want more upscale, and if you don't mind touristy, La Posta (on the plaza in Mesilla, http://www.laposta-de-mesilla.com) is probably your best choice. Choose any enchilada plate. Their margaritas are pricy but better than most local things.
Oddly, for the best example of the local cuisine, you have to leave Las Cruces and go to the Little Diner in Canutillo, Texas (about 30 minutes south, very hard to find without direction, http://www.littlediner.com/). Same menu as everything in Las Cruces, authentically local and friendly, but the food is prepared with a little more care and attention than the local norm.
People rave about Chopes (Hwy 28 in La Mesa, about 20 min S of Mesilla), but I think that their enjoyment is more due to the pitchers of cheap (in quality and price) margaritas than the quality of the food. It's not that the rellenos are outright bad, it's just that they could be so much better if they used a decent cheese to fill them, fried them at a proper temperature so they weren't as greasy, served them hot, etc. Don't let this discourage you too much: go there and enjoy it, but if you've already eaten a lot of rellenos elsewhere don't expect an epiphany. Regarding an earlier post, I agree it's a dump but I wouldn't be any more hygenically worried about eating there than anywhere else in town.
Pretty much all the other places I've seen mentioned here (Si Senor, Nopalitos, My Brother's Place, El Comedor, etc) are all OK, and while they vary in decor and atmosphere they have pretty much the same food. All decent, none great. Go there and have good time, but don't expect culinary wonders.
There are a couple decent Mexican (instead of New Mexican) places in town. The tacos at Chihuahua's (1750 N Solano Dr near N Main) are particularly good, and they are one of the only places that makes fresh tortillas. They are about the same quality as the Taco Tote chain in El Paso that Jim refers to. Taco Mexicano #2 (1602 S Solano Dr near Missouri) serves good tortas and tacos. Taco Mexicano #1 (1355 N Main St near Picacho) serves about the only seafood in town: their ceviche and cocteles de camarones are quite good.
For other cuisines, there's not much. International Delights has passable Middle Eastern if you don't mind half-cooked falafel. In a pinch, Lorenzo's has edible Italian. Lemon Grass Thai won't hurt you if you stick to the commonly ordered dishes; if you stray from red or green curry your food will likely be prepared by a local high school student who will burn the food to a crisp because he has no idea what the dish is supposed to taste like. All American BBQ (S Valley, next to Walmart) has good smoked brisket and sausage, but unfortunately lousy sauce.
Updates to Jim's article:
Contrary to Jim's guess, the Double Eagle in Mesilla isn't very good, although it isn't clear if this is because they don't know or don't care.
In Deming (1 hr W of Las Cruce) Mirador is better than most options, but isn't great either. The Italian restaurant in Deming is surprisingly good but with awful service. One of the Mexican places downtown isn't bad. And if you are in Deming or passing through, the downtown Deming-Luna Museum (which doesn't serve food) is amazing, and worth a visit if you if you possibly can. Whether you are going for the kitsch (the doll room, the Hispanic Culture room) or the history (the iron lung, the great collection of Mimbres pottery) it will exceed your expectations 10-fold.
In Silver City (1 hr N of Deming) Big Bo y Burritos was indeed fabulous, but has now changed hands several times and when I last checked was no longer in business. As best as I can tell, the rest of the food in Silver City is no real treat.
In El Paso (1 hr S of Las Cruces), Taco Tote, a Juarez based chain, does indeed serve good tacos. Their cheesecake is also quite good, and likely to be different than any other cheesecake you've had: less sweet, fuller textured. There are a few other decent places in El Paso, but this may be mostly in comparison with the lack of places in the rest of the area. I particularly like Pachanga (222 Texas Ave, little or no English spoken). Get the fruit salad with yogurt, honey, and granola and/or a ham, cheese, and pineapple torta.
Thanks for this very good report. My SO interviewed for a job in Las Cruces last year and one of the reasons declined was lack of vegetarian options as she is a fish eating vegetarian. We are frequent visitors to northern New Mexico and she has no trouble eating there but we couldn't say the same for the south. Although the area is rich in the things you mention, there aren't too many options.
We stayed in Las Cruces a few years back while attending the Hatch Chile Festival. The place that blew us away was called El Comedor, the little place in Mesilla that you mention briefly. I'm a bit of a chile-head and this place was AMAZING.
We also went to La Posta and it was good but touristy. The best part of our visit was just driving with the windows down and smelling the chiles being roasted in backyards throughout the city. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I didn't see a lot of diversity there, but if you like New Mexican style cuisine, Las Cruces is brilliant.
Your post stirred up some nostalgia for the frisbee-sized gingerbread pancakes at the Old Mesilla Pastry Cafe. A plate of those with a side of home fries smothered in red chile and cheese was maybe the best breakfast I've ever had. I remember the lunches being not too shabby, either; I had a smoked trout sandwich there that was divine.
I put my Google-Fu to good use and I see the place is now called 'The Shed.' What?! Is it at all the same, or are my fond memories all I have left of those pancakes? *cries*
I found the Old Mesilla Pastry Cafe tasty for breakfast as well. I usually went with the Eggs Benedict (under some fanciful name) and consistently found them a little overpriced but enjoyable. In the spot where it was is another interchangeable New Mexican food place.
I haven't been to The Shed yet. Some friends who did left disappointed, but I don't recall why. I'm not sure if they have the same menu or not. I'll try to go eat there sometime soon and report back.
Thanks very much for the report. I think Southern New Mexico food is one of the great regional cuisines that should be experienced by any chowhounds who can come to the area and do not have a problem with the hot chile. I do not find the food to be burning hot, but if someone has a question they can go to La Posta, where the chile is quite mild (I do not think La Posta has great New Mexican food, though, and I would recommend that people try the "hot stuff").
You are completely right about the monotony of the food. I like it, but it is the lack of other options, especially the lack of other ethnic options, that is really hard to deal with. Lemongrass would at best be considered mediocre in any big city, and I think Mix is even worse. It's too bad that Tatsu closed because it had some pretty good Japanese food, but that is pretty much the story of this area--any ethnic food besides Mexican or New Mexican is either not very good or doesn't last. The only bright spot I see in Las Cruces is the Joy Luck Chinese Restaurant. The tofu with plum sauce is very good as is the chow fun. Joy Luck has the only really good vegetarian food I have found in LC.
A very good Chinese restaurant just opened this year in El Paso called Sam's. I also like Moon Day, especially for the noodle soup and citrus chicken.
Your choices for New Mexican food seem to be meat-centered. I think Andele has some excellent tacos al carbon (better than I've found in El Paso), but their other food is about the same as many other places in the area. I have different choices than you for favorite places, but mine are based around enchiladas and stuffed sopaipillas. Like you I am looking for food prepared with love and care, and very rarely find it.
I have found some places, though, that are above average. Las Trancas is my favorite in Las Cruces--it starts out with warm chips and fresh salsa, and the main items taste freshly prepared. Kiva Patio Cafe also has freshly prepared food, although it is more Mexican (south of the border) style, and not as good an example of Southern NM cuisine. Both of these places have kitchens open to view and seem very clean. Los Mariachis in Mesilla is also very good.
Chope's is my favorite for New Mexico style food, and I think they have the best chiles rellenos in the area hands-down. No one else makes a batter as good, and some places (such as La Posta) use chiles that seem inferior to me. I haven't noticed the cheese at Chope's being either particularly good or bad. I just don't understand, though, why the salsa is not very good--it's better just about anyplace in Las Cruces.
One good thing about El Paso is that it has a greater variety of Mexican food, particularly with seafood and different varieties of tacos and meat dishes such as milanesa. For enchiladas, though, I think just about any restaurant in Las Cruces beats the average restaurant in El Paso. Stuffed sopaipillas cannot be found in El Paso except at a couple of places. I think L&J has the best overall Mexican food in El Paso, but it is very close to the food served in Las Cruces (spicy, with the green chile served in chunks instead of pureed). Little Diner is another "New Mexico style" restaurnt, and I like it also (the green chile tamales are great).
I hope you'll report any new discoveries.
Thanks for the great report and update, Nate!
Hey, did you manage to find and try that gourmet tamale factory place in Deming? That's definitely high on my list of regretful "Chow Not Eaten"