As the pilot announces our descent into El Paso, I stare at the Chihuahuan Desert below. Save for a few errant crop circles, all I see is crater-y dirt and rock formations that look like skateboard ramps. It’s not a stretch to imagine that I’m in NASA’s Curiosity rover and about to land on Mars. The sixth-largest city in Texas, El Paso is so far-flung from the state’s other metropolises that it can feel as if it’s in another orbit (it is in a different time zone). I’ve always used its distance as my excuse for why I’ve never visited, but the hour-and-a-half-long flight from Austin is less stress-inducing than my evening commute. I’m eager to see more of El Paso’s rugged beauty and find out just how intertwined the city is with Juárez, its larger (and, as you’ve heard, more volatile) Mexican neighbor.
As I’m firing up my rental car—the radio is tuned to a Juárez ranchera station—I get a text from my friend Nick, an El Paso native, who has surmised that I’m on the prowl for lunch. He suggests Star City Kitchen and Bar (2603 North Mesa, 915-307-4496), a diner near the University of Texas at El Paso known for its daily potato mash. Today’s peanut butter and sriracha combo is intriguing, but my stomach has already cast its vote for the sweet potato hash at Tom’s Folk Cafe (204 Boston Avenue, 915-500-5573), a ten-table spot also in the University–Kern Place area. (But maybe I should’ve gone for the fried-chicken sandwich that I see a local judge polishing off one table over.) Afterward, I walk a couple of blocks to J. Luxe Boutique (230 Cincinnati, 915-500-1198); I suspect that most of its statement party frocks and indie-label accessories end up on the fashion-minded women who patronize the Cincinnati Entertainment District down the street.
With plans to meet Nick for queso fundido and piña coladas at Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s (1310 Magruder, 915-778-3323), a local yellow-cheese institution, I head to the Camino Real Hotel (101 South El Paso, 855-534-3068) downtown to check in and freshen up. Designed by the brothers Trost and opened in 1912 as the Hotel Paso del Norte, the building is an architectural treasure—the stained-glass dome in the bar is jaw-dropping—but its shabby rooms are overdue for an overhaul (next time I’ll try the DoubleTree). On the way to dinner, I take Rim Road so I can stop at the lookout point at Tom Lea Park (900 Rim Road), from where I can see the southernmost end of the Rocky Mountains and most of El Paso. Soon the lights of Juárez begin to click on, and for the first time I can clearly see the dividing line between the two cities. It’s closer than I thought.
My plan is to explore on foot today, but first I drive back to Kern Place for breakfast at Crave Kitchen and Bar (300 Cincinnati, 915-351-3677), which is packed. It’s not hard to see why, with its Nutella waffles and chorizo pancakes and scrambles. Back downtown, I do a lap through the El Paso Museum of Art (One Arts Festival Plaza, 915-532-1707), taking time to pause at Margarita Cabrera’s sculptures in the foyer and Tom Lea’s oil paintings upstairs. From there, it’s a quick walk to the shopping district, a U-shaped area near two international bridges. The hundreds of storefronts are bursting with bargain bins of clothing, shoes, DVDs, household items—you name it—and the sidewalks are teeming with American and Mexican visitors. Despite spotting faux-suede booties for $9, I end up gravitating to a pricier purveyor a few blocks west: Rocketbuster Boots (115 South Anthony, 915-541-1300) specializes in custom kicks that start at $850 and have more in common with works of art than any shoe you’ll ever buy. Owner Nevena Christi lets me try on a tall black pair adorned with Day of the Dead skulls; I’d like to “forget” to take them off, but I’d better not. Instead I trudge glumly in my boring flats to Tabla (115 Durango, 915-533-8935), a tapas restaurant in the Union Plaza nightclub district. Turns out that bacon-wrapped dates drizzled with pecan syrup and duck breast medallions atop cheddar polenta have spirit-lifting properties.
Or maybe I’m giddy from the altitude? El Paso does sit at almost 3,800 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the Franklin Mountains. For a from-the-ground-up view of the peaks, I drive thirty minutes north to the Tom Mays Unit (1331 McKelligon Canyon Road, 915-566-6441), a hike-and-bike enthusiast’s playground that also happens to be in the largest urban state park in the U.S. But don’t let this designation fool you: it’s as remote out here as the far side of the moon. (More snakes and cacti though.)
I wake up still stuffed from last night’s dinner (Tasmanian salmon with honey-lavender glaze at the upscale Red Mountain Bistro (631 North Reslar Drive, 915-585-6940), so I just go in search of coffee. The J. Luxe proprietress tipped me off to Eloise (255 Shadow Mountain, 915-581-2441), a new cafe and bar on the West Side whose whimsical decor is inspired by Wes Anderson movies. Is it too early for El Fuerte Toro Bravo, a cup of the house blend spiked with Kahlua and tequila? Probably so, though my goal for the day is to get as high as possible: I plan to ride a Wyler Aerial Tramway (1700 McKinley, 915-566-6622) gondola up to Ranger Peak (elevation: 5,632 feet). But it’s not meant to be. After reaching the gates via the well-named Scenic Drive, I find the tramway unexpectedly closed for repairs. I use the time to sample some pollo en mole at the family-run L&J Cafe (3622 East Missouri Avenue, 915-566-8418) (two pulgares up) and then wander into the dusty 52-acre Concordia Cemetery (3700 East Yandell, 915-842-8200), home to more than 60,000 departed souls. Ironically, walking among the gravestones of buffalo soldiers, Mormon pioneers, Chinese railroad workers, and other early El Pasoans—as well as outlaw John Wesley Hardin—brings to life the city’s fascinating, if complicated, history. If only all these rocks could talk.