109 N. Oregon at 1 Texas Court, 915-545-2233.
This chic upscale spot is more a continental than a Mexican restaurant, but the Mexican dishes it does have are original and excellent, including wonderfully crisp bacon-wrapped prawns in a chipotle marinade, lovely puntas de filete (sliced tenderloin) in jalapeño jus, and a devastatingly good tres leches cake made with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream. Prices are high. Guacamole, chips, and salsa by special request only.
6516 N. Mesa, 915-584-9906, and one other location. The menu boasts of having the best carnitas in town, and they’re definitely way up there. At this bustling little place in a recycled fast-food restaurant on North Mesa, you can have the tender, succulent shredded pork any number of ways, including plain or in a burrito, taco, torta (sandwich), or sope (an unfortunately tough fried masa tart). The tacos, prepared from homemade corn tortillas, are unbeatable. Don’t miss the asado ballezano, marvelously tender pork stewed with red-chile sauce.
Guacamole: 3.5 (chunkier than most local examples). Chips: 2.5. Red chile de árbol salsa: 5.
EL TACO TOTE
7101 N. Mesa, 915-584-3244, and two other locations.
If you hate cilantro, you won’t be happy here, because it’s used by the ton. This hybrid eat-in, take-out mini-chain offers generally excellent food in a fast-food setting. The newest outpost, on North Mesa, is wild, with fake Tiffany lamps hanging from the ceiling and Boy George on the sound system. The salsa bar may be the best in town, but watch out: Several of the sauces are incendiary. The pork adobado (prepared with a red-chile rub) is as tender as it gets, and the beef fajitas are tasty even if they are a strange, dark color from their marinade. Ditto the salty chiles atropellados (roasted marinated jalapeños) with onions. Plain quesadillas (on homemade corn tortillas) are good too.
Guacamole: 2. Chips: 4. Red chile de árbol salsa: 5.
FORTI’S MEXICAN ELDER
321 Chelsea, 915-772-0066.
Named for the elder tree, Forti’s gets the best-local-atmosphere award for its volcanic-rock fountain and pleasant faux courtyard. The dish to have here is the chicken salpicón, a chilled salad of shredded chicken and avocado in oil and vinegar, accented with slices of orange and lemon. Simple and delicious, it’s an original creation of owner Consuelo Forti. Other benchmarks: steamy homemade tortillas (both flour and corn) and classic Mexican margaritas that make so-called top-shelf margaritas look like an exercise in wretched excess.
Guacamole: 2. Chips: 3. Salsa: 4.
H&H CAR WASH AND COFFEE SHOP
701 E. Yandel, 915-533-1144.
Every day, folks waiting for their cars to be washed pack this tiny El Paso institution, chowing down on carne picada (stir-fried beef tips with chopped tomato, onion, and jalapeño) and stacked enchiladas in red-chile sauce with a fried egg on top. The grub’s good, but the people-watching is better. Visiting celebrities like Julia Child are invariably dragged here, and one day last July former Texas con man extraordinaire Billy Sol Estes showed up for breakfast.
Guacamole: 1. Chips: 2. Salsas: 2.5 (green, or red chile de árbol).
3622 E. Missouri, 915-566-8418.
Listen up, all you people who think (as I once did) that chile con queso is melted Velveeta and Ro-Tel tomatoes: L&J’s version sets the standard. This simmering bowl comes brimming with peppers (roasted New Mexico green chiles) and oozing with queso (melted Wisconsin Muenster, a mild white cheese popular in El Paso). A splash of sour cream adds richness. The chicken enchiladas are big and sloppy and great.
Guacamole: 1. Chips: 5 (homemade). Green salsa: 3. Red chile de árbol salsa: 2.5.
212 W. Overland, 915-533-0533.
This hip bar and grill, which rocks on weekend nights, has some of the best nuevo Mexican food in El Paso—respectful of tradition but not afraid to tinker with it. Take, for example, the chilorio: a yummy chilled dish of shredded pork cooked with chipotle chiles and citrus juices, finished with white wine, and dressed with a touch of balsamic vinegar. All kinds of snacks are available too, like tortillas (you get two for 21 cents) and chiles atropellados for 79 cents each; the name translates loosely as “stomped-on,” which is how your tongue feels after you’ve eaten one of these babies.
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 5. Salsa: 4.
7209 Seventh Street, Canutillo; 915-877-2176.
Last Christmas Eve, the Canutillo Tortilla Factory and Little Diner sold an incredible two tons of masa for making tamales. The factory also produced an uncounted number of ready-made tamales—such is the appetite of the good people of El Paso for this delicacy. If you show up on Monday or Thursday any time of the year, you too can get fine, fresh tamales (the chicken-and-cheese are primo) at this homey, concrete-floored spot outside the city limits. The gorditas, masa cakes made with stone-ground corn milled at the factory, are good too, especially those with beans.
Guacamole: 3 (plain mashed avocado). Chips: 5 (homemade). Salsa: 2.5.
TACOS SANTA CECILIA
5500 El Paso Drive at Paisano, 915-772-3435.
A Mexican radio station is blasting away in a big, unfancy concrete building filled with pre-fab vinyl booths, but the food is so good, you won’t care. In this sunny, open room, alternate layers of beef and pork are roasting away on a vertical rotating spit called a trompo, or “top”; coarse, Juárez-made tortillas are being heated; and fresh avocados are being peeled—all to make the best tacos in the city. Despite the plastic plates and utensils, each order comes prettily garnished with radishes and an avocado half. This is the essence of down-to-earth haute cuisine.
Guacamole: 4. Chips: 3.5. Salsas: 5 (green sauce of jalapeño and tomatillo, red sauce of chile de árbol, chile pequín, and tomatillo).