Elemi, in downtown El Paso, is a comforting spot. The rustically appointed contemporary Mexican restaurant is welcoming, not loud, and holds only eight tables; every staffer checks on you. Even the bartender will come out from behind his station to answer questions you might have about the tight, thoughtful selection of agave spirits and sotol. The latter is the herbaceously flavored distillate indigenous to Chihuahua, the Mexican state on the other side of the river and the wall that separate El Paso from its sister city, Cuidad Juárez. Families are often spread across the two cities, which, when combined, are often referred to as the borderplex.
Elemi embodies everything wonderful about the borderplex and everything I love about El Paso, specifically. My wife’s parents are from El Paso, and we have family and friends there. Just as there is a sense of home to El Paso, there is a sense of home to Elemi, as well. Husband-and-wife co-owners and native El Pasoans Kristal and Emiliano Marentes intended it that way. “We wanted a different kind of restaurant. We wanted to bring something to our hometown that no one else was doing, but with great service not volume.” That sense of home is one of familiarity and tradition, yes, but it’s one with a great deal of creativity. Just order chef Emiliano’s pato al pastor taco for one example.
The taco begins with a fresh, house-nixtamalized corn tortilla made from the Santa Rosalía Azul blend of heirloom chalqueño azul and conico azul sourced through purveyor Tamoa. It’s chewy and elastic and fragrant. Crumple the tortilla in your hand, and it will immediately spring back to place, flat and gorgeous with flecks of yellow and gray from the hull. Atop the tortilla is a serving of marinated and roasted duck (or pato). The meat is earthy, juicy, and ringed darkly. The chef doesn’t use a trompo, the vertical spit emblematic of al pastor; instead, he cooks with a mesquite-fired Japanese grill. There is no achiote paste, the ingredient that often gives al pastor a red hue. There is, however, plenty of fresh sour orange juice, ancho chiles, and fat. “I figured that the best way would be to be true to the recipes and use as much technique as possible, but also change up the proteins a little bit,” Marentes says of choosing duck over pork. “And that’s why I wanted to do the duck. It’s actually a long process to make it that way, to make it nice and tender, because we don’t have a trompo. You can’t really debone so many ducks and put them on a trompo. So, we had to figure out a process. And I just broke down all the processes of what makes a good taco al pastor.”
For Marentes, it’s a good marinade and a nice piece of meat with the right amount of fat, along with the preparation. In this case, sans trompo. “The best al pastor I’ve had were cooked on trompos fired with mesquite because they get all that flavor better than with gas,” he says. “I have a little Japanese grill. And I thought, that’s the way to grill our ducks. We marinate the ducks for a day, and then we grill them. But since we grill them only to get flavor—we don’t want to ever overcook them—we vacuum-seal and sous-vide them for a whole day.” The result is an intense flavor balanced by the roasted pineapple slices and ribbons of sweet onion. The foundation, the heirloom tortilla, packages the dish perfectly.
That’s the point. At Elemi, taco after taco and dish after dish provide one excellent bite after another—because of the corn and the mastery of the components. “My main focus is just to make an amazing tortilla out of really awesome corn,” Marentes says. “That’s what I love to do. That’s my passion.”
The restaurant allows the Marenteses to connect their hometown with their ancestral Mexican roots through corn. “The flour tortilla is king here,” the chef says. “We all eat burritos, and flour tortillas are great. But there’s more to El Paso and to our ancestors.” Kristal sees it in real time while running the dining room. “What I really like is that, in this day and age, we’re all so glued to all of our technology, our cellphones, our iPads, our everything. And it’s crazy because there are a lot of times that I’ll be in the front and people want to speak to us. They’ll ask to speak to me. They’ll ask to speak to Emiliano, and it just strikes up conversation,” she says. “They’re asking, ‘Oh, you guys really make your own tortillas?’ They ask where things come from and we’re able to strike up different conversations by saying things like ‘this is from Oaxaca.’ ‘We do this because we get it from the Chihuahuan Desert.’ It just makes our community. It’s a really beautiful thing.”