Southwestern Vacation Recap: El Paso and New Mexico

Eatnowrunlater is back from our summer vacation and we want to tell you all about it! This summer, we headed to El Paso, Texas and Tucson, Arizona, with a stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico along the way. We learned a lot about the food in these similar yet district regions, just as we learned a lot about the desert. This post will be a mix of the food we ate and the scenery we experienced.

Paul and Marnay at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

El Paso is in Texas, the furthest west you can possibly go and still be in the state. However, it’s in a different time zone than the rest of Texas and it’s 800 miles from Houston and 600 miles from Austin. It’s also sandwiched between Juarez, Mexico and New Mexico. Because of its location on the Mexican border, El Paso has developed its own “border cuisine.” It’s similar to Tex-Mex cuisine, but in its most authentic form.

Mural at the border of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas

What we ate

At all of the restaurants we went to, the format for the meal is the same. When you sit down, you are greeted with tortilla chips and homemade salsa. They aren’t messing around with the salsa – this is spicy stuff. Once you order your meal, you are invariably asked “corn or flour tortillas?” Breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It doesn’t matter what you order, every meal has the chance of being hand-held.

The most “Tex-Mex” style restaurant we went to was L&J Café, “The Old Place by the Graveyard.” L&J was very crowded, especially considering we arrived at around 4:30pm, immediately after we landed in El Paso. It had a family-friendly atmosphere that chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s can only dream of emulating. The salsa at L&J was top notch. I had a great burrito (very common in El Paso) and Marnay had steak fajitas. To be honest, the chips and salsa were so good we filled up on them first.

Dinner at L and J Cafe in El Paso, Texas

La Rosita Cafe is on the Interstate 10 access road and looks a little run down, but inside the staff couldn’t be more warm and inviting. It’s the real deal, too – the menu is written on a white board and is entirely in Spanish. Another commonality among the restaurants in this region is that your plate consists of your main entrée, rice, and then beans with a little bit of mild cheese on top. In a basket on the side are your tortillas. Here, I ordered the lomo (pork loin) in a pipian, a cousin to mole. Meanwhile, Marnay got Chile Verde, beef in a green chile sauce.

Lunch at La Rosita Cafe in El Paso, Texas

We learned about H&H Car Wash from Eater’s Bill Addison, when he named it his favorite restaurant in Texas. It was opened in 1958 as a car wash with a small lunch counter attached and it does not look like it has changed much since then. This was our favorite meal in El Paso. Marnay had the best eggs of her life, along with beans with cheese and rice, while I had a ruddy Chile Colorado, which is basically beef in a red chile sauce.

Breakfast at H and H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas

H and H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas

What we did

Franklin Mountain State Park, which preserves the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, is the largest urban park in the country. Ranger Peak, over a mile above sea level, can be reached by the Wyler Aerial Tramway. The four minute park ranger guided ride gives incomparable views of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.

Wyler Aerial Tramway at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

The following day, we returned to the mountain and went on a sunset hike with Don, a local guide. Don took us up the western side of the mountain, where we had views of New Mexico and downtown El Paso. He taught us a lot about the different plants that live in the desert, such as Sotol, Barrel cacti and Ocotillo.

Hiking with Don at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

We thought we were the only ones in the park that night, but it turns out there was one other hiker, and we caught him just as he was about to paraglide off the mountain! It was amazing to watch him run and jump off the mountain and then immediately go hundreds of feet in the air. On our way down, we saw one of the most magical sunsets we have ever seen. We stopped to hang out in the parking lot to take it all in, as bats whizzed by us in the night sky.

Paraglider at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

Las Cruces

Early one afternoon, we headed to New Mexico and the incredible White Sands National Monument. About halfway between White Sands and El Paso is the small city of Las Cruces. If you know anything about food in New Mexico, you know that it is famous for its tremendous variety of chiles. In fact, the state has a beautiful new license plate that reads “Chile Capital of the World.”

Los Mariachis is another family-friendly establishment that showcased the best of New Mexico cuisine. It was Sunday brunch when we went, so I ordered the “Huevos Mariachi” – huevos rancheros with a red potent red chile sauce. Marnay stayed traditional and went with Chile Verde. The chips and salsa at Los Mariachis were HOT HOT HOT. To get the full New Mexico experience, we also ordered a side of green chile sauce.

Lunch at Los Mariachis in Las Cruces, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is the largest gypsum sand dune in the world. It truly is like nothing you have ever seen. The dunes of pure white sand seem to go on forever and it really looks like something from another planet. It’s located in the Tularosa Basin, between the Sierra Blancas and the Organ Mountains.

Paul and Marnay at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

In the evening, we did a sunset hike led by husband and wife park rangers. There are a surprising amount of plants that live in the dunes, and we learned that there is water about 30 feet under the sand. These plants have to touch the water to be able to survive – if they don’t, they will die. The most amazing part of the hike was getting to see TWO sunsets, because of the reflection of the mountains.

Sunset at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

We loved El Paso and New Mexico but it was time to continue our journey. Click here for our Tucson recap.

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