Year in Review: 2015

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the December 30, 2015 issue of What’s Up Weekly. You can also check out previous year in review posts: 20112012, 2013, 2014.

2015 was a year of hungry anticipation in El Paso, where weekly announcements of events, new restaurants and seasonal menus were the norm. Festivals and chef showdowns ruled the year with an Indian Food Festival, Mexican Food Cook-off, Food Truck Showdown, Sun City Bacon Festival and more. The Sun City Craft Beer Festival was missing this year, but there were plenty of other beer festivals scattered throughout the year. Like any year in the restaurant industry, some never made it to 2016, while others took so long to open, it made us hangry. Hangry, by the way, is now a legit adjective that was added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year. This was also the year that El Paso was made taco famous when Texas Monthly actually included 12 El Paso joints in their December issue, and Aaron Sanchez’s Taco Trip show on The Cooking Channel featured Tacoholics, Chicos Tacos and Lucy’s.

Just a handful of what 2015 brought in pics: El Paso True Food Buying Club launched, The Kitchen @ 150 Sunset was the brunch hot spot, New concessions @ the ballpark, The Angry Owl became the new Jaxon’s, Pho So downtown, Chuco Pan from Belle Sucre, Photastix, JD’s Burgers in Canutillo, & a brief intro to waffle sandwiches @ The Goat House Cafe at Red Door Vintage.

2015 Trends:

Fry Me an Avocado: Fried pickles made way for battered and deep-fried sliced avocados. A tempura batter and peanut aioli set The Curb food truck apart from other spots like Toro Burger Bar, Mesa Street Grill and El Asador. Love Buzz Bar had fried avocado tacos, and Crave’s You Burger Contest winner, The Mac Jammer had fried avocado in it.

Fit to Go: Convenience was huge this year with meal prep businesses who made it a requisite to include “fit” in their names with the exception of Nosh and El Paso Supper Club. Get your ready-made meals at Just Fit Foods, Phit Phuel, Sabor Fit Foods, Fit Food, Fit Fuel Grill, Fit Fire Foods and The Green Ingredient with their GI Fit meal plans. Even the porkalicious food truck Comfort Co. Tasty Eats got into it by launching Comfort Co. Clean Eats.

Some Like it Hot: Pretty much every taqueria in town serves toreados, but these blistered jalapenos soaked in soy sauce were in everything but tacos. The former Hello Day Cafe placed them in a falafel sandwich, while The Garden topped their burgers with them. Toro Burger Bar sliced them up and served them two ways: atop burgers and folded into mac and cheese. Ode Brewing’s crispy chicken sandwich came with toreado honey butter. Koi Japanese Fusion and Geske’s Fire Grill placed them in sushi, and Sabertooth served disco fries, poutine style with toreado gravy.

Something’s Fishy: Crawdaddy’s has served whole crawfish spicy boils for a while now, but other seafood boils could be had at Cabo Joe’s, Pier 86 and King Crab. Love Buzz held a seafood boil beer dinner in their patio.

Smoke it Up: BBQ is no new trend here, but 2015 saw a flurry of new BBQ joints open up, mostly by way of mobile units. We readily welcomed Rio Grande BBQ, Desert Oak, Ray Ray’s, Mr. Tip’s Food for the Soul, Brehane’s and Mijo Mac.

Howdy Partner: Keeping it local continues to be our mantra, and these partnerships are proof of our business community’s commitment to each other. Food City sold produce from Sol y Tierra Growers of Anthony and frozen pizzas from Ardovino’s. TradeCraft Coffee & Cocktails partnered with its neighbor, Pho Tre Bien Bistro to provide dinner service. Chef Rulis of Rulis’ International Kitchen lent his expertise to formulate the menu over at El Paso Barfly. DeadBeach brewed a coffee porter using Picacho coffee beans, while Ode used 2Ten’s beans for its oatmeal coffee porter. El Paso True Food Buying Club broke into the scene by offering weekly harvest boxes filled with local produce from farms in Anthony, Las Cruces, and Deming. The boxes could be picked up at local businesses Belle Sucre Bakery, Just Fit Foods, and Mom’s Fresh Juice.

Other notable trends: Chicharrones (Malolam, Tacoholics, Angry Owl), tacos ahogados (Tacoholics, El Catrin, Ace in the Hole, Barfly), pizza fries (Pint & Peanut, Papa Pita), crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (Cabo Joe’s, Koi) and vegan beer dinners (Eloise, Tradecraft).

Blackbird Cantina Deluxe opened late in 2014, but I visited it in 2015. They also debuted Deadbeach’s Calabaza beer on Halloween, before the brewery opened its doors to the public on November 1, 2015. Ode Brewing made a huge impression on 2015’s craft beer and food scene. The German Pub closed down in Fort Bliss to resurface at Viscount; Kostritzer and Krombacher on tap are a must when you visit.

Brew Year

El Paso’s craft beer scene has become so saturated that it’s moved on to brewing. 2014 brought Sun Brewing Co. to Canutillo and Spotted Dog Brewery to Mesilla, and 2015 saw the opening of Ode Brewing and DeadBeach Brewery. Local spots are already carrying their beers on tap; Crave and Common Ground Beer & Wine Bar serve Ode, while Rulis’ International Kitchen and Mesa Street Bar Grill are serving DeadBeach.

Belle Sucre Bakery’s Banner Year

It was a stellar year for this team of skilled bakers who managed to consistently appear in this column. Head chef and owner, Jonathan Bowden made a trip to Tucson’s Barrio Bread to hone his artisan bread skills; the result was Chuco pan, a sultry chipotle cheddar loaf. By spring, Belle Sucre returned to its roots and began selling at the Downtown Artist & Farmers Market. Summertime brought a new hybrid creation of macaron ice cream sandwiches and an increase in their hours of operation. But the highlight of the year was the opening of their second location, much to the delight of the East Side.

Sushi Garden opened to rave Yelp reviews. Chef Norbert of Tabla created another winning formula at Ode. El Asador, a unique eatery in a gas station revamped their menu only to be forced to shutter later in the year due to building ownership issues. Downtown Deli debuted New York specialties, but then closed at the end of the year. Bogarts’s Steakhouse brought art deco elegance and a rich mac & cheese. Donuts, kolaches, & the Leche Monster could be found at Tasty Donut Cafe. Homemade tater tots w/curry ketchup at Darkhorse Tavern. Austin-based Chuy’s opened to the delight of many, while some locavores eschewed the quirky Tex-Mex chain. Chuco Burger got a lot of hype for their burgers, but they also had potato taco’s just like Ben’s.

Hello, Goodbye, Hello

2015 was filled with tearful goodbyes, but many rose from their ashes. Italian restaurants did not fare well. Italians closed at the very end of 2014, but owner Chef Keely used 2015 to ready new business Nosh. Cicalas Italian pizza experienced troubles before ultimately closing. After 52 years, Bella Napoli shuttered its doors, but has since rebirthed as Sixty Three by Bella Napoli at the Tennis West Sports and Racquet Club. View Restaurant closed, reopened and closed again; The Rooftop Skygarden replaced it late in the year.

El Luchador East closed down, followed by the downtown location. The Palomino Tavern closed down to reinvent itself as Dark Horse Tavern in the Union Plaza where the talents of Chef Lawrence Acosta (Tom’s Folk Cafe) are utilized. Speaking of Tom’s Folk Cafe, they announced their closure over Facebook on Dec. 17, but the post has since been deleted. After an 11-year break followed by five years of success, the historic Coney Island eatery closed once again. Cafe Italia’s downtown location shuttered to make way for 360° Cocina Urbana. Mangaringa’s closed down and Owners of Koi and Bogart’s snatched up the now defunct location of Mangaringa’s to construct their new venture, Brunch Club.

The Kern Place area experienced the roughest year with the demise of Great American Land & Cattle, Everyday Gyro, Japanese Kitchen, Yamato, The Social House Drinkery, Corner Tavern and The Cincinnati Bar & Grill. The east location of The Cincinnati Bar & Grill remains open. At the Mission Hills area, Pita has replaced Baba Ghanoush. Cabo Joe’s West location was sold to a new owner who quickly turned it into Brass Monkey Casual Craft Bar. Hello Day Cafe and El Asador also closed late in the year.

2015

I apologize if I missed anyone!

Food Trucks of 2015

The food truck scene is still so strong in El Paso that a best food truck category was added to What’s Up’s Best of the Best awards. Craze is known for their yogurt shops, but their food truck ended up winning the new category. An unexpected treat was that the Asian Pacific Food Co. food truck took home the best Asian restaurant category. Tacoholics won the “Best in the Southwest” category and grand prize at the Gateway to Texas Food Truck Throwdown in Anthony and Jonbalaya won the Texas Tattoo Showdown. The eastside welcomed two food truck parks: The Revolution Urban Eatery and Montana Avenue Food Court. The Street Kitchen, Papa Oso and Jonbalaya were busy opening brick and mortar locations while operating their food trucks.

Popups:

The Legendary Tipsy Tiger bar hosted food truck eats from Papa Oso and most recently, El Catrin Food Truck. Steve-O’s Burger Bar revisited its roots when their truck popped up at Common Ground Craft Beer & Wine Bar, and on Mondays, you’ll find Honeywood in the kitchen. When Chef Robyn of the Red, White & Chew food truck fell ill, fellow food trucks rallied together to raise funds for her treatment. After she recovered, she could be found in the kitchen of Handlebars Bar & Grill. BarMen Kitchen & Patio Bar had an interesting concept with their Barmen Express food truck camped outside the bar serving up food. DeadBeach Brewery hosted several food trucks in their parking lot on weekends.

I’ll end with my top 10 favorite eats of 2015 in the order of the pics above, left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Ice Cream from Ice Creamed Myself. Creamy decadence in fun flavors worth the cost.
  2. Vegan sushi from Mirai Grill above Teddy’s. Finally another place with more than just avocado and cucumber rolls as veg options.
  3. I didn’t want to include chains on my list, but the butternut squash dumplings in umami butter sauce from P.F. Chang’s were quite memorable. That sauce!
  4. Eloise kept changing its menu, which both delighted and upset us when we lost our favorites, like the High Five Bowl which was also a happy hour favorite.
  5. Ode had only been open for a short time, and Chef Norbert couldn’t help but keep tweaking the menu. He made EVERYONE a fan of beets when he offered thinly sliced and fried beet chips as the side to some dishes. Then, he added a vegetarian option of a fancy grilled cheese packed with gruyere, triple cream, asadero, and manchego. Adding to the umami punch were mushrooms from local grower, Myer’s Mushrooms.
  6. At Tacoholics, Chef Jesse added some exciting new items to the menu like flautas ahogado with your choice of meat, including tofu. It’s his tribute to Chico’s, with a savory green sauce that’s off the charts.
  7. C’mon, you know I had to brag here about my Mac Jammer burger creation winning Crave’s You Burger Contest. Chef Rudy and his gang did a bang-up job of bringing this dream burger to life. That dill pickle slaw!
  8. Have you ever heard of Japanese Cotton Cheesecake? Me neither, but thank’s to Asian Pacific Food Co. food truck, I now know all about this delicacy. Cheesecake meets Angel food cake for an airy, dreamy, rich dessert you won’t find anywhere else in town.
  9. I first had Hoppy Monk’s brunch last year, but it was so much better when I revisited this year, that it made this list. Sweet, salty, spicy, and everything in between from their signature Veg Monk patty makes this the ultimate veg brunch complete with tofu scramble.
  10. Chuco Pan from Belle Sucre Bakery. This beautiful, truly artisan bread even had its name stenciled on it. Chipotle and huge chunks of cheddar dotted this sultry bread that reminded me of a smoked porter beer. Only problem is that I haven’t seen it offered in the bakery lately. Bring it back Chef Jonathan!

Other notables: Avocado fries and brussels sprouts at The Curb food truck, chile relleno at Chuy’s (hello! It’s breaded with Lay’s potato chips!), the donut biscuit at Crave, spicy arabiatta pasta at Sparrow’s, loaded veggie dog from Hot Joe’s food truck, veggie tacos at Taco Tote, mushroom breakfast sammy from Hillside (I ordered it w/o egg), and the vegan Diablo tacos at The Grooovy Smoothie.

Review: El Asador

I hate that I am posting this posthumously. My review of El Asador originally appeared in the October 7, 2015 issue of What’s Up Weekly, and I also posted a quick review on Yelp, but I hadn’t gotten around to posting here. I usually try to visit a restaurant a couple of times before posting to this blog, especially if they have more than one vegetarian option.

El Asador’s last night of service was December 18, 2015. In tribute to this unique eatery who offered a good variety of vegetarian options, I have decided to post this anyway. It’s archival information and a good reminder to visit that local spot you’ve been meaning to check out.

But perhaps this goodbye isn’t forever, because I just read a Yelp review that said that they had to close due to the building owner losing the property. They just found this out the previous week and hadn’t looked into relocating. Here’s hoping the new owners of the building let them reopen.

Seriously, how is this inside a gas station?!

Enchiladas stuffed with couscous, roasted vegetables, and black beans smothered in poblano cream sauce atop cilantro lime rice.

 

El Asador Restaurant

“A hidden gem” has to be the most trite restaurant descriptor ever to be used, but that’s exactly how you’d describe El Asador. Way out East, past El Dorado High School is the Good Time gas station, and within the convenient store is a cozy sit-down eatery. Once inside, you’ll forget about slushies as you’re transported to a nice restaurant and patio complete with wine and draught beer offerings.

It’s going to be hard not to fill up on their complimentary chips and salsa of thick, freshly fried tostadas and salsa fuego (roasted jalapenos and tomatillos), which can also be purchased at the gas station. Save room for appetizer selections of queso fundido, jumbo lump crab cakes, hummus, avocado fries with sriracha lime sauce and ultimate nachos that are piled high, and thankfully, can be ordered as a half portion.

Open for about five years, they’ve recently revamped their menu of mostly Spanish and Mexican dishes that includes sandwiches, salads, burgers and pastas. Paella Valenciana, their specialty, can be ordered for one or up to six people. The dish will take up to 25 minutes to make and comes with mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, scallops, linguisa (sausage) and roasted chicken atop saffron rice. Here, you can opt for traditional Mexican plates or try something different like the enchiladas stuffed with couscous, roasted vegetables and black beans smothered in poblano cream sauce atop a bed of cilantro lime rice. Other favorites include steak tacos with caramelized onions and asadero, applewood bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with manchego cheese and serrano peppers, drizzled with a smoky garlic mojo sauce and creamy lemon pesto bowtie pasta with the option of adding grilled chicken.

El Asador is the perfect balance of casual and fine dining in an unusual location. Don’t miss out on gourmet burger Tuesdays and street taco Wednesdays where items are specially priced.

12900 Edgemere

Find them on Facebook for updates.

 

Green Your Stuffing

Traditional stuffing is another reason I can’t stand Thanksgiving foods. The onion and celery are just too overpowering for me, and it’s basically soggy, stale bread with nasty innards. Ironically, this classic side has grown on me ever since I became a vegetarian and started experimenting with stuffings/dressings like soyrizo cornbread dressing, which I need to revisit soon.

This year, I wanted to incorporate local ingredients from our farmers markets and harvest box programs, like El Paso True Food Buying Club. I found what I was for looking on the Epicurious site from the November 2009 Bon Appetit issue. The original recipe is Rustic Bread Stuffing with Red Mustard Greens, Currants, and Pine Nuts, but I’ve adapted it to make it easier, regional, and veg-friendly.

The following recipe utilizes mustard greens from La Semilla community farm over in Anthony and bread from local bakery, Belle Sucre who just opened a second location on the eastside. If you weren’t able to make it out to the farmers market this weekend or can’t find mustard greens at the store, any green like kale or collards will do. Stuffing recipes typically call for chicken or turkey stock, but if you use mushroom or vegetable broth, your vegetarian friends will be ever so grateful.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Mustard greens from Sol y Tierra farms

Mustard greens from La Semilla community farm in Anthony, Texas

Mustard greens 2

Not the prettiest

Not the prettiest, but hey it’s yummy! No wonder BA called it “rustic”

Stuffing with Mustard Greens and Pecans

Makes 6-8 servings

1 1-pound loaf rustic country-style bread, ie. anything from Belle Sucre Bakery (about 6 cups of cubed bread)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
1/3 cup pecans
1 large shallot, minced
1 bunch, coarsely chopped stemmed mustard greens
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (I sprinkled a little bit of dried thyme, but dried equivalent would be 1 teaspoon)
1½ cups your choice of broth (I used half a not-beef bouillon cube)
1/3 cup dried currants or cranberries (optional)
freshly ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut bread into ¾-inch cubes or desired size (I would’ve opted for smaller); place in a large bowl and toss with olive oil to coat. Spread bread cubes in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until slightly golden and crunchy, stirring occasionally every 5-10 minutes (about 15 minutes for total cooking time). Set aside to cool.

You can either generously butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish or if you use a dutch oven to saute everything else, you can pop that straight into the oven; only problem is that you may have some stickage at the bottom since it won’t be greased.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy-bottomed large pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Saute shallots for a few minutes, add garlic and pecans; stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add mustard greens and thyme; sauté until greens are wilted and tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the stock bring to a simmer if the stock isn’t already hot. Stir in bread cubes and berries (if using). Sprinkle a bit of freshly ground nutmeg if desired, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer directly to oven or transfer stuffing to the prepared baking dish.

DO AHEAD: Can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover; chill.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake stuffing uncovered until heated through and starting to brown on top, 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes and serve.

EP Veg News, November 2015

Thinking that it’s hard to be a vegetarian in El Paso is so ten years ago! Yet, I still get people asking me this same question. It’s a great time to be vegetarian/vegan in El Paso and Las Cruces! For some reason November has brought a flurry of vegetarian activity. Don’t miss out!

Best Vegetarian Food of El Paso Awards

Vote for your favorite vegetarian food and restaurants in town by this Sunday, November 8 (we extended the deadline!). This is the third year that the Vegetarian Society of El Paso and I are running these awards, and this will give you an idea of all the great local options there are in town. We have not included any chains or franchises, but you are free to include them if you feel they are the better veg option. So, go vote at fluidsurveys.com/s/2015BestVegetarian/ 

BV 2015 corrected

VSEP Annual Compassionate Thanksgiving Dinner: Saturday, November 14

Every year the Vegetarian Society of El Paso hosts a vegan dinner with a special guest speaker. This year’s menu sounds really good, and the speaker is Lisa Levinson, director of the Sustainable Activist Campaign for the national organization In Defense of Animals and founder of Vegan Spirituality. Here are the details:

  • The Summit Ballroom & Conference Center, 120 N. Festival
  • 6 pm meet and greet, eat at 6:30 pm
  • Cost: $22 members; $15 students w/ID; $25 nonmembers; $10 children under 12 years of age.
  • Paid reservations are due Tuesday, November 10.
  • Reserve your space & pay online with a credit card or PayPal www.vsep.org
  • OR email vsep.reserve@gmail.com OR text/call 915-877-3030. Then, make check or money orders payable to VSEP & mail to: VSEP, 6757 Gato Rd., El Paso, TX 79932
  • Menu:
  • Fall Harvest Salad
    Seitan en Croute
    Garlic Mashed Potatoes w/ Maderia Sauce
    Green Bean Casserole
    Candied Yams
    Pumpkin Pie
    Rosemary Foccacia Bread

7th Annual Chili Cook Off @ Hope & Anchor: Sunday, November 15

This is a really fun event where proceeds benefit the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. They even have a vegetarian category! I haven’t been to this event in a couple of years because of conflicting events, and once again, I will have to forego defending my title. I’m attending an event in the evening, so hopefully I’ll get to attend early on to taste your chili creations. I really hope that you’ll either be competing or attending this annual chili cook off.

Chili_Cookoff_1200x630_Facebook_Oct15

Vegan Beer Dinner @ Eloise, featuring Real Ale Brewing Co.: Tuesday, November 17

This is the second vegan beer dinner that Eloise hosts! Hurry and get your tickets, because the last one sold out. I didn’t get to attend, but I heard from both vegans and meateaters that the food was excellent. The cost is a little steep at $50, but you do get 5 courses with 5 beers. Check out the details, menu, and pairings here.

Also, Eloise has a new fall menu and a happy hour menu. As always, they’ve got plenty of vegan options!

The High Five Bowl at Eloise available on both the regular and happy hour menu!

The High Five Bowl at Eloise available on both the regular and happy hour menu! basmati rice, black rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, long green chile, artichoke hearts and assorted root vegetables

Ramen Popup Beer Dinner @ TradeCraft: November 18

Last month, after tickets sold out quickly for TradeCraft’s first popup beer dinner, a second one for November was immediately promised. Well, the date was released tonight folks, so snag your tickets now. Chef Enrique Lozano will make both the ramen noodles and broth from scratch. Once again, there’ll be a vegan option! Three courses and three beers for $30!ramen

Other Vegetarian Food News:

  • Le Green Gourmet is new food truck that’s serving up a couple of veg options, including a housemade black bean burger. Find them on social media to find out their next location and latest menu offerings.
  • Ode Brewing added a decadent grilled cheese to their menu that comes with beet chips. The Grilled Queso has manchego, gruyere, triple cream, asadero, and chanterelle mushrooms. It’s really yummy & the balsamic reduction drizzle really ties it together.

    Grilled Queso @ Ode Brewing with La Gringa Blonde Ale

    Grilled Queso @ Ode Brewing with La Gringa Blonde Ale

  • Tacoholics inside Funkmeyer’s Rec Room has added new menu items! Three different chicharrones including flour ones are perfect for snacking. Best of all, they’ve paid tribute to Chico’s Tacos with tacos ahogados in a delicious green chile sauce. You get to choose the filling, including tofu!

    Tofu tacos ahogados at Tacoholics

    Tofu tacos ahogados at Tacoholics

Thai Restaurant Roundup

Once again, I have fallen way behind in updating this blog, which is a huge shame because I’ve been cooking up a storm and eating at a bunch of delicious new (and old) spots in El Paso that I need to tell y’all about! So, to make up for it I’ve rounded up some Thai curry spots around town into one post! Please tell me about your favorite places, as well as your experiences at Thai joints.

Thai curry is one of my absolute favorite dishes because it is so flavorful and complex. I love and hate that you get options; I can never choose between red, green, or yellow and I never know whether to go hot or Thai hot, but I always choose tofu as my protein! It’s also one of those dishes that is hard to replicate at home due to the laundry list of ingredients that are at times hard to find.

I was first introduced to green curry in Denver at Tommy’s Thai Restaurant over on Colfax. My cousin has an adventurous palate and she takes me to all the good spots when I visit. Unfortunately, no other Thai place has lived up to Tommy’s for me, but we do have some pretty good options in El Paso now. As you’ll notice in the following pics, I’ve since moved onto red curries. One thing I’ve noticed about El Paso Thai restaurants is that they are expensive and servings can be small. They also don’t seem to be very stringent with vegetarian options; either I’m paranoid or they are not omitting the fish sauce/ingredients.

5 Local Thai Restaurants:

  1. Tara Thai (UTEP area)
  2. Thai Chef Cafe (northeast)
  3. Mekong Thai (eastside)
  4. Thai Delight (Mesilla, NM)
  5. Renoo’s Thai Restaurant (Las Cruces & the only one I haven’t tried)
Honestly can't remember if this is red or green curry. Looks like green, but I could've sworn I ordered red.

Red Curry tofu at Thai Chef Cafe. Looks like green curry.

Thai Chef Cafe

This review was originally published in What’s Up Weekly on June 11, 2014, and can be found here.

What used to be the Siam Chit Chat Club on Lower Dyer is now Thai Chef Cafe. Fans of Tara Thai will rejoice in the similarity between the two restaurants, most likely due to familial owners. You’ll find the same popular green, yellow and red curries, but in a casual setting with slightly lower prices.

Meals at Thai Chef begin with a small, complimentary lettuce salad dressed in a sesame-ginger dressing. You can also start your meal with cream cheese and crab wontons, peanut chicken satay, wings and fried chicken gizzards with sweet chili sauce. Most will have a hard time deciding between the curry menu and the noodle bar menu. Further indecision is driven by four enticing soups, three fresh salads and over ten dishes, including classics like larb (ground pork or chicken served on romaine) and Prik Khing (similar to red curry, but dry). Customer favorites include Thai Beef Salad and Panang Curry.

Curries are made from spice and herb pastes mixed with coconut milk, simmered with vegetables, your choice of chicken, beef or pork and steamed jasmine rice. Not noted on the menu is the vegan option for most dishes, where tofu is subbed for meat and fish sauce omitted. The curries pack a huge amount of flavor with a perfect balance of sweet and savory and your choice of heat – mild, medium or Thai spicy.

The noodle bar menu contains both soups and entrees that contain rice, egg or glass (bean thread) noodles. The quintessential Pad Thai is available, but other favorites are chicken and shrimp noodle soup and Pad Kee Mow (rice noodles, protein, chili, mint leaves, onion and tomatoes over romaine lettuce).

Besides fountain drinks, the restaurant serves Singha beer and Thai iced tea, as well as a mango sticky rice dessert. Although portion sizes tend to be small, this two-year-old spot has its customers touting it as the best Thai in town.

Additional Veg Snob Notes: I tried the Red Curry and liked it better than Tara Thai, which I swear always has a fishy taste even though I specify veg and no fish sauce. My only complaint is that the portion size of the curries are ridiculously small for the price they’re charging; although, the noodle soup bowls that I saw other customers ordering looked very large.

Thai Chef Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
4800 Dyer St. • 915-566-8050 Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m Saturday 12-9 p.m. Closed Sundays facebook.com/thaichefcafe $5.95-8.95 • Vegan friendly

Red Curry Tofu at Mekong Thai

Red Curry Tofu at Mekong Thai

Mekong Thai

This review was originally published in What’s Up Weekly on December 10, 2014, and can be found here.

The eastside has the answer to anyone who has ever had a craving for sushi, Thai curries and pho all at the same time. Mekong Thai is a tiny 12-table restaurant in the busy Zaragosa area near Saul Kleinfeld. What’s not tiny is their spiral-bound booklet of a menu as well as the serving sizes.

Besides egg rolls and spring rolls, you’ll find papaya salad, Thai beef jerky, deep-fried pork ribs in a spicy paste and more on their appetizer menu. The usual Thai standards are served here, like Pad Thai, larb (a spicy ground beef salad), as well as red, green and panang coconut milk-based curries. Pad Kea Mao is a popular dish that has wide rice noodles stir-fried with bell peppers, onions, carrots, basil leaves and your choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu.

Over forty sushi rolls are on the menu, as well as nigiri, sashimi and the ability to order combinations of the three. Customers recommend the chef tempura roll, which combines smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado into a tempura-battered and fried roll. Diners also love the July 4 roll with its combination of crab meat, cucumber and avocado topped with shrimp tempura and spicy crab roe.

The Vietnamese menu is the smallest of the offerings, but still has plenty to choose from including various rice noodle dishes and a Banh Mi sandwich with liver sausage. Pho soup with beef and meatballs can be ordered as a small or large serving. The most popular dish is the BBQ pork, which comes with veggies, rice noodles and an egg roll.

Mango sticky rice, fried banana ice cream and Asian sweet corn are just a few of the many desserts served here. They also serve red or green cream soda with basil seeds and boba pearls.

Prices might seem a bit steep for a tiny casual spot, but servings are enough for two or saved as tomorrow’s leftovers. Note that the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.

Additional Veg Snob Notes: Same issue with fishy taste. I also wasn’t a fan of their tofu preparation and texture. Good serving size though.

Mekong Thai Vietnamese and Sushi Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
1816 N. Zaragoza, Suite 106; 915-856-0299; Monday, Wednesday & Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Closed Tuesdays; $3.99-19.99; Vegan friendly

Salad served before your meal with choice of dressing. Carrot ginger or ranch is the way to go.

Salad served before your meal at Thai Delight with choice of dressing. Carrot ginger or ranch is the way to go.

Red Curry at Thai Delight.

Red Curry at Thai Delight.

Thai Delight

My last visits to Las Cruces have been for the sole purposes of visiting Mountain View Market Co-op, Spotted Dog Brewery and/or Bosque Tap Room. Spotted Dog is located in Mesilla, and Thai Delight is probably only a couple of blocks up the street from Spotted Dog. I had been wanting to check it out, because the Yelp and Zomato (formerly Urbanspoon) reviews were good. Thai Delight has by far the quirkiest menu I’ve ever seen at a Thai place, and apparently Renoo’s is very similar. Besides the Thai standards, they offer American-style sandwiches (like Clubs and patty melts) and German stuff like yeager schnitzel. Weird right? Well, even weirder is that their onion rings are pretty delicious. So, you might not want to snub the other non-Thai options.

All of the Thai dishes are $10.29, served with miso soup or salad (try their house ginger carrot dressing), a good-sized portion, and can be ordered with chicken, beef, pork or tofu (shrimp costs extra). I tried the red curry with tofu my first time here, and thought it was pretty good, but I could taste a hint of fishiness even though I specified vegetarian, no fish sauce. The second time, I ordered the green curry and it was much better although it looked red (I asked for it hot, so I guess the chile made it red). My partner had the panang curry both times and highly recommends it. This place is a must when in Las Cruces, and they’ve got great hours, as most most restaurants in Mesilla close early.

Bonus: You can bring your picky children here; they have a kid’s menu. Try not to steal all of your child’s onion rings.

Thai Delight de Mesilla Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
2148 Avenida de Mesilla, Mesilla, NM; 575-525-1900; Daily, 11 am-9 pm; $4.05-15.29; vegan friendly

Season’s Eatings! Green Chile Time!

August through September is the most wonderful time of the year! It means that summer reading club at the library is over, kids go back to school, it starts cooling down, Oktoberfest beers roll out, and GREEN CHILE time.

My intent every year is to post a bunch of green chile recipes. This never happens because I don’t do anything with green chile but roast it and add it to everything. I’ve been making a simple, go-to salsa verde recipe that’s perfect for enchiladas and stews. I’ve tested it a few times and it’s now blogworthy.

salsa verde

Basic Salsa Verde
Makes about 2 cups

4-6 green chiles, roasted and peeled*
3-4 tomatillos, peeled and rinsed
white onion (I slice off about a quarter to half-inch end of an onion)
1-2 garlic cloves
small handful of cilantro, about ¼ cup (optional)

Place the tomatillos and onion in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Reserve the liquid.

In a blender, toss the green chile, tomatillos, onion, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ cup of the cooking liquid and blend until smooth. Add more cooking liquid until it reaches the consistency you want. Add cilantro and season with salt and pepper if needed, and blend once more until combined.

*If you’re chile isn’t already roasted, do so by placing on the grill or on the open flame of a burner until blackened on all sides. If you don’t have either, place them on a hot dry comal or cast iron skillet until blistered and blackened. Set them aside in a covered bowl for about 15 minutes to steam the skin and cool down. Peel, cut off stems, remove seeds and rinse.

salsa verde calabacitas

Calabacitas in creamy salsa verde

I am obsessed with Silk’s unsweetened cashew milk. It’s great for savory cooking. For the calabacitas dish pictured above, all I did was saute diced onion and squash for a few minutes. Then, added a bit of cumin, garlic powder, oregano, and paprika and sautéed a few more minutes. I added some of the salsa verde and unsweetened cashew milk, and simmered for about 15 minutes.

green enchiladas

The walnut cream on top is simply 1/2 cup of raw walnuts blended with 1/2 cup of water. No soaking required.

I threw these enchiladas together real quick, so I don’t really have a set recipe. They’re totally vegan; instead of cheese they are stuffed with shredded zucchini. For the filling, I sauteed onion and garlic, added diced fresh tomato and shredded zucchini seasoned with salt and pepper. I cooked it until most of the water evaporated. Have your salsa verde simmering on the stove in the meantime.

It’s tough to find blue corn tortillas in El Paso, but now you can buy freshly made ones from Chuy’s Tex Mex Restaurant. You can buy half a dozen for $1.50 or the full dozen for $3. I heated the tortillas directly on a burner, dipped them in the simmering sauce, stuffed them with the filling, and rolled them. You can either serve them right up topped with sauce and walnut cream or bake them. To bake them, spread a bit of sauce on the bottom of a casserole pan, roll your enchiladas, spread sauce evenly over them, cover with foil and bake for 10-15 minutes in a 350° oven. Serve with sour cream or walnut cream (1/2 cup of raw walnuts blended with 1/2 cup of water) and cilantro.

squash enchilada filling squash enchiladassquash enchiladas side

El Taco Tote Introduces New Tacos!

Juarez often conjures up fantastic nights of revelry for many of my peers. The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, so many El Paso teens had (have?) fake IDs that got (get?) them into bars and clubs where drink-and-drown specials were the norm, meaning $5-10 got you bottomless drinks. Not me. My standout memories of Juarez go back to my childhood when we visited my dad’s cousin, but not necessarily for familial reasons. My name might as well be Lisa Simpson, because I had a massive overbite. Fortunately for us, my dad’s cousin was an orthodontist.

Worry not folks, there is a silver lining to the Saturday mornings in the dental chair and nights of headgear. Not only did I have less of an overbite to look forward to, but there was also El Taco Tote. Yup, there once was a time when The Tote solely existed in Juarez. Even though I ate meat back then, my fondest food memories were of their salsa bar, quesadillas, and papotas (translation: awesome baked potatoes). Fast forward to the 2000’s, a world where 20 El Taco Tote locations are scattered throughout Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At one point, Denver was graced with a location. As much as I love Denver, I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. They also used to have Taco Cabanas! Those people don’t know when they’ve got a good thing.

The legendary salsa bar. Taco Cabana needs to step up their game & offer complimentary chips.

Well, the point of this post is not to reminisce about my geektastic childhood, nor to berate Denver’s bad taco decisions (they’re not all bad. Hooray for Chipotle!). The point is to announce once more that The Tote now has a vegetarian (possibly vegan. I didn’t ask as I was already being annoying by asking too many questions) taco option!!! Last month, they added two new tacos and there was a whole teaser campaign on social media as to what they were gonna be. I commented on Instagram about about how it should be a veg option, and then the time came to announce the newcomers, and by golly it was a veg option! So, then I got to thanking them and they invited me to try them. :D 
The new mushroom veggie taco is currently only available at El Paso locations (score!). At $2.99 a taco, you get a taco loaded with sliced  mushrooms and chopped onions and peppers sauteed in Maggi seasoning. Maggi liquid seasoning, also known as Jugo de Maggi is popular in Europe and also Mexico, where it’s usually used in Micheladas and soups. It tastes kinda like if soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce had a vegetarian baby. It gives everything a nice “meaty” umami flavor without any animal products. Anyways, I liked the taco and thought it was a good size for three bucks, although it had way too much onion and was a little on the salty side (probably due to the Maggi). Fortunately, the onion was well-cooked and didn’t dominate everything. If you’re vegetarian, be sure to order it on a corn tortilla, the flour ones are made with lard (refried beans also have lard).

I recommend ordering one or two tacos, one papota and trying every salsa on the complimentary chips and salsa bar! There’s even cucumbers and radishes! If you’re one of those salsa-squeamish people, by all means do yourself a favor and try the avocado salsa. It’s like liquid guacamole, but way better than I just made that sound. You’ll want to drink it and no one will judge you. People here bypass the little condiment cups to load up the paper boats. Other vegetarian options would be a cheese quesadilla on corn tortillas. They also have red cheese enchiladas, but the rice and beans that they come with contain chicken stock and lard.

For more info, visit tacotote.com or follow them on Instagram @tacotote.

Provecho!

I love each salsa equally. That’s a lie. I won’t even touch the pico (ew to raw onions) & guacamole is everyone’s favorite. The rest are loved equally.

My Instagram post.

Disclaimer: El Taco Tote asked me to come in to one of their locations to try three of the mushroom veggie tacos free of charge. They did not ask me to review or promote their new tacos. All opinions are my own.