As a teenager, Emiliano Marentes worked in the tortillerias of his native El Paso, delivering tortillas to restaurants. But the corn tortillas he ate at home were made in Cuidad Juárez, on the other side of the Rio Grande. “It was just a way better tortilla,” recalls Marentes. Relatives from Mexico—especially his uncle—would regularly bring fresh tortillas to Marentes’s mother, and sometimes he and his mom would cross the border to pick up their own. His early introduction to restaurant kitchens inspired him to pursue a career as a chef in San Antonio, but memories of those tortillas drew Marentes back to El Paso two years ago to open Elemi, a modern Mexican restaurant built on the country’s culinary traditions.
“We really wanted to … offer something that was not available here,” Marentes says about the decision he and his wife, Kristal, made to move back to their hometown. In the River City, Marentes was heading up the kitchen of the Hoppy Monk, a craft beer pub that originated in El Paso in 2010 and later expanded to San Antonio. But the couple committed to their vision and in late 2018, they opened Elemi downtown. Like the Juárez tortillerias, Elemi uses the centuries-old practice of nixtamalization, in which corn is cooked, soaked, and ground into masa. The resulting corn tortillas are the foundation of the taco-focused restaurant, which has only eight tables inside, creating an irresistible intimacy. “That was done on purpose,” says Marentes. It was Kristal’s idea to call it Elemi—“El Emi” is her nickname for Emiliano.
The suadero taco, starring brisket sourced from local ranchers, is a standout on the menu (“It’s beef, and El Pasoans love beef,” Marentes says). But vegetables aren’t relegated to side dishes. Another popular taco is the campesino, a mix of confit portabella mushrooms, grilled eggplant, avocado, black beans, and milky quesillo cheese. It’s food inspired by ancient, artisanal techniques and plated with contemporary simplicity. Imagine a quesadilla of nixtamalized blue corn across a brown, unglazed earthenware plate. A bantam ramekin is the dish’s only flourish. But it’s all that’s needed.
In the new Hulu series Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi declared the campesino at Elemi reason enough to visit El Paso. The show’s premiere, three months into the pandemic, gave Elemi a much-needed influx of new customers.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Year of the Taco.” Subscribe today.