A shorter version of this article was first published in the December 31, 2014 issue of What’s Up Weekly.
A friend once asked me if there were enough new restaurants in El Paso to write about on a weekly basis. The answer to that question is a quizzical look followed by an emphatic YES. There are almost too many to keep track of. Every single week this past year, there has been at least one new business permit application filed, restaurant opening and food truck debut. It’s an exciting time to live in El Paso, and the 2014 restaurant scene is proof of El Paso’s renaissance.
Many of 2013’s trends spilled over into 2014, namely craft beer and food trucks. The Sun City Craft beer festival was bigger and better in its second year, and the Sun City on Tap festival is set for this month. There seemed to be fewer beer dinners and more pub crawls and tap takeovers. Restaurants and bars are realizing that a haphazard assortment of craft bottled and canned beers isn’t enough anymore; El Pasoans are looking for a well-curated selection of both draught and bottle. Tosca added draught beer to their menu, while Unruli’s Pizza & Pints gained more taps after owners consolidated Rulis’ International Kitchen with Unruli’s (Peking Garden Express took over Ruli’s IK). Craft and Social brought even more life to downtown with a bit of turn of the century whimsy and a thoughtful selection of beers (they even managed to add a sandwich menu midyear). The region’s brewery scene is also set for growth, as Sun City Brewing Co opened in Canutillo, Spotted Dog Brewery in Mesilla and Dead Beach Brewery in downtown still in construction.
The City of El Paso reported 384 vendor licenses this year, and they are thriving with the help of social media, local support and food truck parks. Gabe Padilla, owner of El Paso’s Wurst is at the helm of the weekly Food Truck Circus events, acting as coordinator and promoter. For a list of the food trucks of 2014, complete with links, visit What’s Up.
Pho [insert punny title here]
Pho Tre Bien and Saigon Taste are no longer your only sources for this cure-all soup. Pho So 1 opened two more locations – one on Gateway West near Hunter and most recently, downtown on Paisano. Another eastside provider is Mekong Thai, which specializes in sushi, Thai and Vietnamese food. Opening at the tail end of the year was Photastix, a fast casual Vietnamese restaurant, which replaced Mama Fu’s. Spork, a food truck making “urban drunk food for every palate,” created a fusion pho called Pho King Posole. Eloise’s current menu has a vegan version named Pho-geddaboudit. What the Pho has yet to open near UTEP.
Businesses haven’t needed a website for the last few years thanks to social media, and this year marked the rise of app-based social media site, Instagram. Local restaurants, bars, food trucks, caterers and grocery stores could all be found on Instagram sharing pics of new dishes, drinks and daily specials. This year also saw the increasing disappearance of the traditional register. In its place, a tablet or smartphone using Square or other app as a point of sale system. Spectrum Solutions designed two free apps available in both iOS and Android marketplaces. Soupfly helps you find nearby health inspection scores of any business that has a kitchen, including daycares. The Food Chasers (the name has been changed to Food Cravers) app is a live food truck directory offering menus, schedules, deals and more. The El Paso Beer Club released the El Paso/Ale Paso app. The craft beer guide helps you find your favorite places, pubs and events ($0.99 in the iOS and Android marketplaces).
Expansion: Sequels & Threequels
The sprawling city has led to the success and expansion of several local entrepreneurs. Many headed east and downtown, while Wing Daddy’s and The Hoppy Monk took their formula to San Antonio. Cafe Italia, Chubby’s Bronx Deli, Tippi Teas, The Pizza Joint, Zino’s, Corralito Steakhouse and Mac’s Place all added locations. The original Cabo Joe’s at Sioux moved to Fuddrucker’s’ former location on Gateway East, making room for the new country bar and BBQ joint, The Tumbleweed Saloon. It was a huge year for the Pan y Agua group, as they unveiled three eateries at their TI:ME at Montecillo shopping center: Hillside Coffee & Donut Co, Malolam Cantina and Stonewood Modern Grill. Their third Crave location at Resler is now open.
El Pasoans love chains and it appears investors have finally noticed. 2014 said hello to Blake’s Lotaburger, Which Wich, Einstein Bros Bagels, Firehouse Subs, La Madeleine, Kona Grill, Grimaldi’s, French Fry Heaven, Papa Murphy’s, Ojos Locos, Boston Market, TCBY & Mrs. Fields, Nothing Bundt Cakes and Raising Cane’s.
Hands down, the ballpark was 2014’s biggest local newsmaker, and the food was no exception. Huevos Rancheros burgers, buffalo chicken and waffle sandwiches, Memphis meets Mexico hotdogs, fried alligator and more could all be found at the concessions. And, who wouldn’t want to eat nachos out of a commemorative dog bowl? Vegetarian options were limited to cheese pizza and a pricey hummus platter. I’d really like to see a veggie dog or brat! Check out my food and pricing guide here>>.
2014 was also the year of businesses constructed out of freight shipping containers (TI:ME & The Coffee Box), veggie menudo, and the Cantina (Cantina Malolam, Mark’s Cantina, Blackbird Cantina Deluxe). Food was also plated on all kinds of unique dishware that included wooden carving boards, slate, galvanized tins, pizza pans, and dog bowls.
The restaurant industry is rough, and unfortunately every year, we have to say goodbye to both legends and newcomers that didn’t make it to 2015: Sushi Express, Pacifica, Good Coffee (N. Mesa), Haskins House, Opus World Bistro, Campus King, The Percolator, Red Mountain Bistro, Rancher’s Grill (west & UTEP locations), La Feria Grill, Star City Kitchen, Suzu, The Hamburger Stand and Kipp’s Cheesesteak. The Original Blimp had operated for 40 years and Moe’s Restaurant for 60 years.
Update: Found out from my friend John that these Cinci establishments also closed last month: Great American Land & Cattle (only the Cincinnati location), Japanese Kitchen, Yamato, Baba Ghanoush, The Social House Drinkery, and Everyday Gyro.
What can we expect in 2015?
Over-the-top hybrids like the Cronut and Ramen Burger seem to be curtailing, with more emphasis on simplicity and health. Juicing options are getting more plentiful in El Paso with the addition of Mom’s Fresh Juices. Perhaps we’ll see restaurants and bars incorporate juices into cocktails and entrees. In 2014, coffee from regional roasters, Picacho (Las Cruces) and Bldg 6 (El Paso), was served at almost every local restaurant, and The Coffee Box began construction in downtown. If 2014 was the year of coffee, maybe 2015 will be the year of tea, if Tippi Teas’ second location and the arrival of The Tea Spout are indicators.
Frozen yogurt shops are still popping up all over town, but we’re probably going to see more artisan ice cream. A gourmet ice cream food truck is definitely missing from the scene, but the summer did produce two fantastic new options- a paleta cart and an ice cream delivery service. Tasty Pants Paletas could be found at the Downtown Farmers Market and other events peddling balsamic strawberries with black pepper mascarpone cream. Ice Creamed Myself Delivery Service is churning Santa’s milk & cookies this season.