A culinary view of the southern Border

By Michael Dax · Photos by Sullivan Peraino

Streetside café in Juárez.

The midterm election was less than a month away and the first reports of a large migrant caravan heading north from Honduras were making national news. For nearly three years, conditions along the US southern border had been a mainstay in the daily media cycle, but by October 2018, negative rhetoric about crime, drugs, and violence in the region had reached a feverish pitch.

Despite some of the more frenzied reports about a “border crisis,” communities in the region, including El Paso and Las Cruces, have insisted that the reality is much different. While I was ill-equipped to tackle some of the larger questions at hand, from my experiences traveling to places like Brazil, Nepal, and Japan, as well as many cities within the United States, I had come to know that so much about a place, its history, and its culture is reflected in its food.

So, it was with this principle in mind that my girlfriend, Sullivan Peraino, and I headed south for a weekend of eating and drinking between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, a city that for the past decade has made headlines due to the presence of drug cartels and violence. For many of our friends, the notion of “weekending” in Juárez seemed out of the ordinary, to say the least, and our excitement and anticipation was often met with side-eyed glances.

Undeterred and eager to let our taste buds do the talking, we left Santa Fe late Thursday evening, eschewing I-25 to cruise the plains of eastern New Mexico on US-285 and US-54, passing through Clines Corner just as the sun touched the horizon. Across the plains of Carrizozo, we imagined what the darkness hid as we breezed past White Sands National Monument, reaching El Paso late that night, tired but satisfied.

Day One: Juárez

After spending a restful evening at the Hotel Indigo and having a hefty and delicious serving of red chile drenched chilaquiles for breakfast at The Downtowner, we crossed into Mexico past US border agents waiting to process drivers on their daily commutes to jobs in El Paso.

Our first stop for the day was the Museo de la Revolución in the Old Customs House that served as the capital of Revolutionary Mexico during the 1910s. In 1909, the year before the revolution began, President William Howard Taft became the first sitting US president to visit Mexico.

Even then, America’s financial interests in Mexico were significant, and with revolution brewing, Taft hoped his presence would indicate support for President Diaz’s government as a way of protecting US investments. Following the revolutionaries’ victory at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez two years later, Diaz would be forced into exile, but in 1909, Taft’s visit was marked by displays of excess and abundance. This included a nine-course meal featuring a variety of French wines, the menu for which is now on display at the museum.

A couple blocks from the museum, on the pedestrian plaza of Calle 16 de Septiembre, is La Nueva Central, a large diner-styled café packed with dozens of small tables, nearly every one of them full. In case there was any question that immigration has long been a staple of life in Juárez, the restaurant was opened by Chinese immigrants in 1958 and originally served Chinese food. After struggling for a few years, the restaurant shifted to a more traditionally Mexican menu, and today its signature dish is the ojo de pancha, a sweet pastry with a flaky crust wrapped around a pound cake. But in honor of its Chinese roots, the restaurant still offers a small Chinese menu and has preserved the original mosaic tile mural featuring both Spanish and Chinese script.

By the time we finished our pastries and lattes—dunking is very much encouraged—it was nearly noon and time to head to one of Juárez’s most famous and controversial attractions. Located on El Paso-Juárez Street, in view of one of the many border crossings between the two cities, on a street lined with discount pharmacies, dentists, and nightclubs catering to Americans, the World Famous Kentucky Bar has stood since 1920. It once catered to celebrities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe to John Wayne and Al Capone. But its most famous claim to fame is being the birthplace of the margarita during the 1930s, and until recently, El Pasoans regularly crossed the border to grab a drink.

Naturally, some debate has persisted, with other Mexican border towns, such as Tijuana, claiming the margarita as their own. But the Kentucky Bar’s old-time atmosphere, buoyed by low light, a dark wooden bar, and stiff margaritas served in a classic champagne coupe, makes it tempting to imagine the stars of old Hollywood propagating what has become one of our most beloved cocktails.

From there, it was onto Parador Tomochi, a traditional Chihuahuan restaurant run by chef and owner, Victoria Holguin. For New Mexicans, much of the fare will appear similar to our classic New Mexican food, but with some slight regional twists.

Top left, clockwise: Ojo de pancha from La Nueva Central; trio of gorditas from Parador Tomochi; rib eye steak from Frarsa;
shaved scallops with marinated sliced peaches, chia seeds, and black sea salt from Frarsa.

Our meal began with a pinolada—a traditional milk-based drink made from corn flour, cinnamon, and brown sugar—served in a small handcrafted mug. A thicker, richer version of an horchata, pinoladas are often used as an energy drink, but can be mixed with vodka as well. For our main course, we shared a trio of gorditas filled with a red chile pork stew with guajillo and colorado chiles, cumin, and Abuelita Mexican chocolate; a blend of green chile, butter, and cream; and beef marinated in chile pasado, a concoction that begins with dehydrated green chiles that are rehydrated and cooked with onions and other spices.

Up until this point, we had been in some of Juárez’s more historic neighborhoods, characterized by twisting, narrow streets, old cathedrals, and decaying stucco houses. Our next stop, Frarsa, a restaurant specializing in modern Italian cuisine, is located in a recently constructed strip mall adjacent to a natural foods store, gym, and office supply shop. It was a far cry from anything I had expected to find in Juárez, but my skepticism was quickly quashed.

The first of our six courses that afternoon featured shaved scallops topped with thinly sliced, marinated peaches and Hawaiian black sea salt. Over the next couple hours, subsequent dishes included grilled octopus with black chile and prosciutto, ravioli with corn elote and huitlacoche in smoked onion sauce, and ribeye with asparagus and a cauliflower cream.

To our surprise, Juárez hosts more fine-dining establishments than El Paso. In 2008, competing cartels went to war in Juárez and over the following years, violence escalated, but since 2012, a relative peace has returned, prompting upscale restaurants like Frarsa to open, creating an opportunity for people to return and reinvest in the community. Due to the fact that everything is far cheaper on the Mexican side, many El Pasoans have grown accustomed to making the short trip across the border when they’re in the mood for a nice meal.

That night, we stayed in Juárez, but many tourists opt instead to come over for the day to enjoy some good food at greatly discounted prices, then return to El Paso. There are even tour operators who will pick up groups on the Mexican side of the border and tour them around to different restaurants and other attractions so visitors can avoid having to drive.

Margaritas being served at the World Famous Kentucky Bar in Juárez.

Day 2: El Paso

The next morning, we were picked up at our hotel and dropped off at one of the many border crossings so that we could walk across to El Paso. Because security had gotten much more restrictive over the previous weeks, traffic accumulated quickly, and it was often quicker to walk than drive.

After paying a small toll, we began our walk—nearly a quarter mile on the bridge over the Rio Grande separating the US from Mexico—past a sign reading “Feliz Viaje” or happy journey. For me, the crossing was a novelty. Feeling like the tourist that I was, I couldn’t help but watch the people singing for tips on the covered walkway or selling trinkets to passersby. I stopped to stare at the no-man’s-land beneath us that had been fenced off as a buffer.

A little more than halfway across, we found ourselves in a long line leading to the customs checkpoint. As we waited, full of uncertainty and surreal apprehension, other people pushed past us to the front of the line. Where I was filled with wide-eyed wonder, they had a look of urgency and haste—comparable, I’m sure, to the look I have when battling Santa Fe morning traffic. For many of these people, this was a daily routine, politics be damned.

When we finally reached the front of the line, the agent appeared incredulous that as a food writer, I had been visiting Juárez on an assignment. He let me through anyway, but not without first having to pay the excise tax on the bottle of sotol—Chihuahua’s take on tequila—I had acquired the previous night.

Once we were across the border, it was back to eating. Our next stop was Block Table & Tap, opened by the owners of Toro Burger, an El Paso favorite. Featuring southern comfort food with a hipster flair, a full bar, and diverse selection of draft beer, I could have easily never left. Dishes included a short rib hash, pumpkin waffle, and crab benedict, but what stole my heart was their chicken fried bacon. It may have taken a year or two off my life, but I have no regrets.

Finally, after thirty-six hours of delightful gluttony, it was time for a bit of exercise, if only to provide a slight break before our next voracious endeavor. Over the past several years, El Paso has made a concerted effort to invest in its downtown area. In addition to Southwest University Park, home of the AAA El Paso Chihuahuas that play in the same league as our Albuquerque Isotopes, downtown El Paso boasts a number of other features that appeal to locals and tourists alike. Six refurbished streetcars that ran between El Paso and Juárez during the 1950s now follow routes through El Paso. San Jacinto Plaza, which at one point contained a display of live alligators but has since replaced them with a commemorative statue, contains a large pavilion and plenty of shade trees to provide a break from the hot sun.

Top left, clockwise: Tap line at Block Tap & Table; chicken fried bacon at Toro Burger; view of El Paso from the balcony of the Hotel Indigo’s bar; fig and goat cheese panna cotta with hazelnut praline at the One Region, One Table dinner.

Throughout the downtown area, the city has also commissioned more than thirty-five public art projects that range from murals of endangered plants and animals to abstract sculptures to a WiFi-enabled touchscreen slideshow. The city also hosts events like Chalk the Block, an October arts festival where people are encouraged to draw on sidewalks throughout the city.

Like any major city, El Paso is home to its fair share of craft breweries as well. Established in 2013, DeadBeach Brewery has quickly emerged as a local favorite with beers like Abuela Stout, a high-alcohol brew made with Abuelita Mexican chocolate. DeadBeach also features a variety of saisons and farmhouse ales as well as a “golden” stout. And like many craft breweries, DeadBeach has taken steps to enmesh itself in the local community by collaborating with neighboring breweries like Border Brewing Company, based in Juárez, to highlight the comradery and goodwill that exists, not just within the brewing community,  on both sides of the border.

Saturday night was the main event that had drawn us to El Paso and Juárez that weekend. The second annual One Region, One Table is an annual dinner designed to bring together restaurants and chefs from both sides of the border to put on a meal and highlight the region’s unified identity. Five courses, five chefs—two from Juárez, two from El Paso, and one from Las Cruces. “No one really understands the essence of the bicultural ground here,” noted Leonardo Diaz, executive chef at Maria Chuchena in Juárez. “We have the best of both worlds.” Norbert Portillo from Tabla in El Paso, added, “The media knows us because of violence, it’s up to us to change that.” Luke Roberts from the Double Eagle in Las Cruces agreed. “What better way to express diversity than through food.”

That night, in a packed room, the chefs served to a delighted crowd, putting modern twists on traditional dishes, like Roberts’ deconstructed posole featuring cured pork belly, or the slow-cooked beef tongue with sweet ancho chile sauce from Chef Jorge Muñiz Saenz from Flor de Nogal in Juárez. For dessert, Chef Jesús Martínez from Entrecote & Co. in El Paso presented a fig and goat cheese panna cotta with a hazelnut praline that provided the perfect cap on the meal.

Although few minds were likely changed that night and most people already shared this vision of an economically and culturally unified region, it was an undeniable reminder that when it comes to food, similarities across these cities and countries far outweigh the differences.

In many ways, our trip to El Paso and Juárez was an exercise in tunnel vision. We were there to eat and drink and experience as much as the region had to offer with little focus on other aspects. But this is likely not all too different from a trip to Chicago or St. Louis, where a few days might be spent touring museums, taking in a baseball game, eating sausage, or drinking a few beers. Experiences like these leave visitors with an essence of the city, and as we made the long drive back to Santa Fe—this time along I-25—the lasting impression was one of a cohesive region fighting to remain united.

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