Heed these words, traveler: eating four meals of red cheese enchiladas over a weekend is for those with a stout constitution, an adventurous spirit, and written permission from one’s cardiologist. It’s thankless duty, but oh, the glory to be had.
Our destination was El Paso, home to approximately one zillion Mexican joints, a graced land where enchiladas don’t, as a rule, involve ground beef or orange cheese. El Paso not only has lots of Mexican food, it has lots of good Mexican food, to an extent unrivaled in Texas.
So my husband, our twelve-year-old son, and I roared into the city one Friday night, girded for a tour of enchiladas. Our intentions were not to find the best enchilada plate but rather to revel in enchiladas with abandon, for no purpose other than our unguarded pleasure. As we entered L&J Cafe, the horseshoe-shaped bar was packed with people grateful for a cold Corona. As the bar crowd yipped gritos to the jukebox, the waiter set down our first plate of the tour. Three enchiladas, rolled, with a smoky, deeply flavorful red sauce, neither runny nor thick. Nearly overcome, we ate without speaking.
What makes red enchiladas so good?
An excellent enchilada plate is arguably the foundation of any worthwhile Mexican food joint, the standard to which the rest of the menu may be presumed to hew. This is humble, intensely satisfying food with few ingredients—corn tortillas, white cheese, red chiles, spices. There should be a toothsomeness to the tortilla that separates it from the goo-melt of the cheese. Overly spicy enchiladas are undesirable, but a very slight heat is appropriate. Say yes to the onions. At L&J’s, consistency in the kitchen is key. “We’ve had the same cooks for twenty years,” said our waiter.
At H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop the next morning, no one blinked at a request for enchiladas at 9 a.m. All of God’s children come to the H&H: city workers, tony West Siders, down-on-their-luck types, neighborhood folks. Outside, the car wash bustled. Inside, we slid into the last three open seats at the cafe’s worn turquoise counter. These enchiladas were flatter, with a nearly maroon sauce reminiscent of mole, contrasted by the cheerful crunch of onions on top. Perfect. “It’s all in the chiles,” the cashier explained. “The chiles matter.”
Feeling a little stoned, we wandered the El Paso Museum of Archaeology, where nearly life-size dioramas tell the story of the area’s ancestral people. They grew corn and brewed beer; no indication, though, of when the city became an enchilada haven. We then climbed, scrambled, and slid our way through a tour of astonishing rock art at Hueco Tanks State Park. Wondrous images of jaguars, deer, and shamans temporarily diverted us from our prime directive. Back on task, we tried the enchiladas, with abundant Tex-Mex cheesiness, at Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s, a busy El Paso institution with bright decor. Theirs was the spiciest sauce, with a pleasing red color, nice with a bracing margarita.
A dip in the hotel pool, a rest, and then we rallied. It was late when we got to the Tap, a dark, downtown dive bar with a dazzling exterior sign. Though chiefly a watering hole, the Tap serves enchiladas most like those made by my husband’s grandmother Nacha: restrained with the cheese and served with a rustic, uncomplicated sauce, tasty with a whiff of pleasant bitterness. A lone man danced woozily to Led Zeppelin. The waitress cooed at our son in Spanish and stroked his cheek. A party of girls in stiletto heels and short skirts squealed greetings to one another at the bar. My husband sighed in contentment, our mission complete. Enchiladas led us here.