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: 2011, 2012, 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.
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).
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.
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 a new business. 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.
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.
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:
- Ice Cream from Ice Creamed Myself. Creamy decadence in fun flavors worth the cost.
- Vegan sushi from Mirai Grill above Teddy’s. Finally another place with more than just avocado and cucumber rolls as veg options.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.