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: Tacoholics

I celebrated Record Store Day 2013 with records & tacos!

I celebrated Record Store Day 2013 with records & tacos!

This review was originally published in What’s Up Weekly on August 29, 2012, and can be found here.

Two years ago, Jessie Pena pioneered the gourmet food truck craze that has hit El Paso. The Tacoholics team found success serving their signature brand of tacos and sandwiches late at night. That success has brought them to an unlikely brick and mortar location inside an Eastside gas station.

The new location also has a new ordering format. Options are endless when you can choose combinations of proteins, tortillas, styles and salsas. Tacos can be purchased individually or in groups of four corn or two flour. Choose between chicken, pork, sirloin or tofu in four styles topped with a choice of four salsas that are made fresh daily.

Plain style, which isn’t plain at all, is seared and seasoned with southwest flavors. A South Texan contains grilled onions and queso fresco, while Campechanos style is topped with homemade chorizo. The most popular style is influenced by a taco that has taken the country by storm thanks to L.A.’s popular Kogi Korean BBQ food truck. Tacoholics is the only place in El Paso where you can enjoy this style of taco. Meat is glazed with a Korean BBQ sauce and topped with cabbage, sriracha and sesame seeds.
If you’re in the mood for something heartier, order the Mexican Philly or La Torta 915 – creatively constructed sandwiches inspired by our region.

All ingredients are fresh and locally sourced, including the tortillas and bread. Anyone fortunate to be within 3 miles of the gas station can have their meal delivered for a minimal fee. On occasion, the food truck can still be found during the late hours of the night.

Food truck: various locations and times, static location inside the Exxon gas station at 7450 Gateway East.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (or until sold out) Price range: $1.50-$6.
Vegetarian friendly (corn tortilla tacos and tortas; flour tortilla contains lard). For info visit www.tacoholics.comfacebook.com/tacoholics or twitter.com/tacoholics.

Additional Veg Snob notes:
This is the only place in town you can get tofu tacos, and they are amazing! When I first tried them over a year ago (you can read about it here), I thought the tofu was too soft, but they have since changed this and the texture is perfect now. All of the salsas are very good, so I’m not sure which is my favorite. You might want to get plain tacos so that you can try them all, but be sure to get at least one Korean BBQ.

Tacoholics on Urbanspoon

Year in Review: 2012

It’s already February 2013, and I am barely posting my annual year in review. 2012 was a crazy, wonderful, yet tragic year for everyone. 2013 is already getting off to a raucous start for me.

Disclaimer: My year in EP food review covers all foods including items that aren’t vegetarian.

photo (22)

Top: Tofu wings & veggie burger at the Hoppy Monk. Middle: Pita bread basket & falafel sandwich at Nour Mediterranean Cafe. Bottom: Veggie meatballs at Oliver’s & Pizza at Tosca.

Trends

The EP trend of 2012 was…burgers! More specifically, it was burgers topped with a fried egg. Hoppy Monk was the most decadent, offering a donut burger as one of its daily specials. Homemade veggie burgers made their debuts at Hoppy Monk, Ripe, and Crave.  The much anticipated Square Cow Burgers, Beer, & Wine opened and promptly closed. Create Gourmet Eats food truck continued to shine, and helped start Foodville Food Truck Park downtown.

The appetizer of the year was fried pickles. A year ago no one had them except for Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings. This year, you could find them at Bikini Joe’s (now Cabo Joe’s), Wing Daddy’s, Square Cow, Fiesta Lanes Bowling Alley, Toro, Smashburger, and Texas Roadhouse.

Already trending is hummus sans the chickpea. Eloise serves up red hummus that is made with beets, and Tom’s version is lima bean based.

I predict that mac & cheese will be the ingredient of 2013. Mac & cheese will step out of its role as side dish to fill other parts like appetizer, burger topping, pizza topping, and filling.

photo (23)

Top: Star City Kitchen and Belle Sucre Bakery. Middle: Portobella Mushroom Lasagna sandwich at Red Mountain Bistro and vegan “crab” cake at Opus World Bistro. Bottom: Pizza w/vegan cheese at The Pizza Joint and Pea tortellini first course at Opus.

Hurry Up and Wait

  • Square Cow Burgers, Beer, & Wine took forever to open, and then closed before the year even ended. I had been there three times, and received poor service each time. The food wasn’t good either, not even for my meat-eating friends. This is really unfortunate because it had a great atmosphere, beer selection, and concept.
  • A group announced plans of opening a nonprofit restaurant that operates on a pay-what-you-can basis. A large press release was issued earlier in the year, but the group has been quiet since. Check out their website: The Mustard Seed Cafe
  • The Green Ingredient was supposed to open in the fall. It is still not open. The restaurant’s concept is healthy food with an emphasis on vegetarian and vegan options. It will be located downtown in the Chase Tower at 210 E. Main St.
  •  Kinley Pon of Kinley’s House of Coffee and Teas and GECU announced a unique partnership; they plan on opening a tea house that will also have a virtual teller/ATM.  Construction behind Kinley’s coffee shop began late summer with a projected opening date of late December and early spring. No word on the progress.
  • The Magic Pan’s Cincinnati location in Kern closed to make way for Agave Kitchen and Bar which is yet to open.
  • Valentine’s Kitchen decided to head downtown. The Mexican eatery was located at 4012 N. Mesa next to Hope and Anchor. Its new location will be at 504 W. San Antonio.
  • Cafe Italia, a westside eatery also announced plans of opening a second location downtown.
  • Hello Day Cafe was supposed to open next to Tricky Falls/Bowie Feathers, also located downtown. Jim Ward, one of the owners said the cafe will serve coffee, have top notch veg options, and offer downtown lunch delivery. No word on its progress.
photo (24)

Top: Tofu tacos at Tacoholics and Mediterranean sandwich at D’Lox. Middle: Tembloroso house coffee beans (Picacho Roasters) and Reuben at Eloise. Bottom: Cabo Joe’s west and Quinoa salad at Red & White Wine Bar.

Hello, Goodbye

  • The biggest, saddest news this year was the closure of iconic El Paso staples Jaxon’s and Capetto’s. Capetto’s had been in operation for 56 years, while Jaxon’s had operated for nearly four decades.
  • Star City Kitchen opened in Nofish’s previous location. It’s open 24 hours, 6 days a week. Cool decor and atmosphere with a fun, creative menu. They have a mashed potato of the day, which can contain funky ingredient combos like peanut butter and sriracha. Unfortunately their creativity falls flat when it comes to their veg options.
  • The university area got another worthwhile Mediterranean restaurant called Nour’s. They start you off with a complimentary basket of pita bread and an amazing creamy dip that happens to be vegan.
  • The Montana Steakhouse which had taken over the original Jaxon’s location closed down. Caruso’s Italian Ristorante opened in its place and closed down about a month ago.
  • The owner of The Greenery opened a new restaurant called Crust in the former location of the Maria Chuchena Mexican restaurant. Crust features pizzas and Italian dishes. I have not tried it yet, but it seems overpriced and I’ve heard mixed reviews.
  • The Greenery closed its market during the summer and announced plans to open Big Juli’s Burgers, Brats & Brews. Come fall, Big Juli’s was canned and the market reopened with slight renovations including a sit down area. They also unveiled a Greenbacks rewards program.
  • The shopping center that Ripe is located at received new tenants, Japanese Crepe House and Sunny’s Sushi. Sunny’s eastside location is still in operation.
  • Big Bun closed in July after 50 years of service and then reopened in a new location at 209 E. Mills, the former location of Alberto’s Mexican Restaurant. They have kept some of Alberto’s dishes alongside Big Bun standards at a reduced price.
  • Fort Bliss’s Freedoms Crossing Shopping Center had a couple of new additions this year: Chi-Town BBQ & Italians.
  • Italians also opened a pizzeria at Sunset’s former location at 5380 N. Mesa.
  • Sunset Pizzeria may have closed, but staff and recipes have been resurrected into Tosca Stone Oven Pizzeria down the street at 4017 N. Mesa. The Sunset menu has been revamped and is much larger.
  • The New City Grille not only has new owners but also has moved to a new location at 101 N. Kansas at San Antonio. It was originally located at South Mesa and Third Street.
  • Tacoholics Food Truck opened up a brick-and-mortar location inside the Exxon at 7450 Gateway East, near Hunter. Don’t let the gas station setting deter you. Their tacos, tortas, and freshly made salsas are so good! Try the tofu tacos!
  • Red & White Wine Bar decided to close shop on the eastside and move into Toro’s former location at Kern.
  • Crave opened Shelby Shack inside the Casa Ford service station at 5815 Montana. They serve breakfast, burgers, sandwiches, and Crave’s signature green chile mac & cheese. Crave is also operating a food truck downtown at Foodville.
  • Newcomer Red Mountain Bistro made Texas Monthly‘s 2012 list of best new restaurants.
  • More food trucks: Sweet Addiction, Moshibox, El Paso’s Wurst, Pappa’s, The Reef, & BFF (still not operating yet).
  • Basico Bistro & Cafe is a new restaurant located inside of the Coronado Tower at 6006 N. Mesa. They serve pizzas, sandwiches, burgers, and bistro classics.
  • Pastry Chef Jonathan Bowden was extra busy this year making and selling bread and pastries at the farmers’ market and other events, and supplying bread to several local restaurants. He then opened Belle Sucre Bakery at 7500 N. Mesa where you can get macarons, eclairs, authentic New York rye bread, and more six days a week!
  • Bikini Joe’s had to change its name to Cabo Joe’s, and opened a second location at the former location of Ernie G.’s, which was previously Andre’s Pizza.
  • My favorite newcomer of 2012 had to be Eloise. Here’s a laundry list why: Wes Anderson theme, French press coffee, almond & soy milk options (I’m really digging soy Cortados), craft beers, Lone Star on tap (which I’ve decided to boycott for personal reasons), house infused liquors (cool , but not my thang), and now a lunch menu with delicious vegan/vegetarian paninis.

El Paso Vegges Out

El Paso became very vegetarian friendly this year. Mercado Mayapan offered a full vegetarian and vegan menu during the month of August. Opus World Bistro began adding creative vegan options to its menu, as well as hosting vegan wine dinners. We also thought The Green Ingredient was going to be El Paso’s only vegetarian restaurant, but it turns out they’re going to serve meat, and they still haven’t opened yet. Oh well, at least there’ll be plenty of veg options.

Restaurants that don’t offer a vegetarian option or are currently offering a salad, mushroom burger, or pre-fab veggie burger, need to step it up— this is no longer acceptable. Opus has vegan crab cakes and eggplant mimicking bacon. The Hoppy Monk and Ripe are making exceptional veggie burgers. Eloise has a vegan Reuben that is so good, you won’t miss the meat and cheese.

Actually, El Paso restaurants need to do better with their meat options as well.

Our local businesses took a hard hit this past year. We saw local staples and newcomers bite the dust that none of us saw coming. 2012’s mantra was go local. But El Pasoans can’t carry all the blame; after all, how many times have you heard someone say such and such place is pretty good— for El Paso. So, step it up and make something that’s good by all standards.

With that said…

…miscellaneous thoughts for local businesses: 

  • Train and communicate with your staff. And treat them well— they deal with difficult people and they’re representing your brand.
  • Be consistent.
  • Don’t overcharge if your food isn’t up to par.
  • If you have a website or social media presence, update it frequently and respond to inquiries and comments! Also, don’t use Facebook or other social media to rant about customers or drama. I won’t name names, but a local business currently does this. It’s unprofessional, annoying, and tacky.
  • Enough with high end frou-frou restaurants. How about a casual, affordable and fun restaurant (that serves beer of course)? Or a diner? We don’t have many diners in El Paso. I’ve never been to this place, but wouldn’t it be awesome if someone opened up something similar to Spiral Diner?

So much happened in 2012 that this became lengthy. Did I leave something out or post any wrong info? Let me know by leaving a comment. Also, tell me what your favorite restaurant or food memory of 2012 was. 

You can also check out my 2010 and 2011 year in review posts.

Year in Review: 2011

Last year, I was inspired to write a “Foodie Forecast” of the food trends in El Paso. This year I’m going to change it up a bit by providing an overview of El Paso’s restaurant scene, as well as personal highlights of 2011.

In 2011, El Paso saw more movement than usual in the restaurant scene, or at least that’s how it seemed. Let me know if I’ve left anything out, and tell me about your favorite food memories of 2011, whether they be in a restaurant or in your kitchen, vegetarian or not.

The EP food trend of 2011 was…sweets! Yogurt shops popped up all over El Paso, and cupcake/dessert bakeries infiltrated my Groupon/Living Social deals inbox. Sweet Corner opened up downtown and received a bit of publicity from local media.

Clockwise from left: Tabla, Roasted Cauliflower @ Tabla, Veggie Burger @ Tom's, Vergi-e Pizza @ The Pizza Joint, Veggie Nachos @ The Pitch, Salsas @ Bikini Joe's

So much happened in 2011. This is in no particular order.

  • Commonwealth closed down, making way for newcomer Tabla. The owners of Ripe brought Spanish tapas to the Union Plaza district downtown. I attended their grand opening and got to try a couple of dishes for free. There aren’t too many options for vegetarians, but the dishes that are veg friendly are tasty and the vegetables are perfectly cooked. Unfortunately, the white bean dip contains bacon. Chef and staff are very friendly and accommodating, so they might be able to make dietary modifications.
  • The Ripe family was busy in 2011 when The Drifter food truck decided to stop drifting & set up permanent shop at Tom’s Restaurant on Boston St. in the Kern area. I tried the veggie burger (Boca patty) topped with Manchego & Romesco sauce. Loved the Romesco sauce!
  • John Geske, owner of Geske’s Firegrill & The Garden, took a risk investing in Bikini Joe’s at the former Casa Verde location near Bassett Place (Center). This place has a fun atmosphere and that’s about it. No veg options except for side dishes and a sad salad that was supposed to have greens, but only had iceberg lettuce. Pros: free self serve chips and salsas bar, Corona Ritas. Geske has hopes of turning this restaurant into a chain. Good luck?
  • 2900 closed down, but The Pitch opened a few doors down. This sports bar is veg friendly! The veggie nachos are amazing, but can be really salty  at times. Other veg options include portobello burgers, veggie tacos, veggie nachos, veggie quesadillas, & grilled cheese. I heard that these are the same owners of Coach’s Grill, which unfortunately closed down as well this past year.
  • The Pizza Joint also opened in the same shopping center as The Pitch. Order veggie pizza by the slice or as a whole pie in a fun, eclectic setting with beer on tap. Open until 3 am on Fridays & Saturdays! Kind of reminds me of Two Fisted Mario’s in Denver, but not nearly as delicious & cheap (sorry). Vegan sauce is available upon request (?).
  • The original Jaxon’s at Mesa closed down, and Montana Steakhouse quickly took its place. The steakhouse had 4 locations in Juarez for almost 30 years before coming to El Paso.
  • A couple of new chains came to El Paso in which none resonated well with me. Potbelly offered poor customer service and scanty servings. Baja Fresh also offered poor customer service and poor food quality. The manager couldn’t tell me whether or not their bean offerings were veg friendly. In better news, their rival (?) Chipotle will be opening up their first EP location in the 2900 shopping center (this place is a buzzing!)!!! Schlotzsky’s returned to the westside with a Cinnabon. I used to be a huge fan of this place, but I forgot how expensive it is!
  • Spec’s opened up in the Sunland Park area. This was probably the best news of the year. This Texas chain has a wide variety of beer, wine, liquor, cigars, & fine foods at mostly reasonable prices. Their deli serves an awesome veggie sandwich, as well as a veggie burger (haven’t tried it yet).
  • A new Mediteranean place opened up on the westside called Zino’s. Veg options include falafel, vegetarian platter, & pasta dishes. My mom loved this place, & I really liked their falafel & fries (they had garlic, spices, & cheese), but their hummus was a weird orange color.
  • Everyday Gyro opened on Cincinnati. Food was subaverage & a bit salty. I think I’d rather grab falafel at Sinbad, Zino’s, or Al-Zaituna. Their fries were really good (had fresh garlic) & the hummus was pretty good, with an earthy taste.
  • The eastside finally saw the return of an Indian restaurant in the area. Indian Curry Leaf opened up in the Sun Pointe Shopping Center on Lee Trevino. Everyone has raved about this place, but I wasn’t impressed when I tried their lunch buffet. Either way, I’d give them a second chance because I love Indian food & they’ve begun offering weekday lunch specials in lieu of their buffet.
  • The Drifter may have closed shop, but Create Gourmet Eats food truck began its operations in 2011. They offer the usual veg option of a portabella sandwich, but the bread & toppings make this sandwich pop. Create has hopes of making it onto the Eat St. show on the Cooking Channel, so be sure & vote for them before Jan. 31. I guess they’re all about mainstream media because they completely ignored my review of them (I sent a link) & chose to only promote certain reviews. Otherwise, they are super nice & friendly.
  • I found Jonathan of Belle Sucre at Ardovino’s Farmers Market, and was blown away by the bread (type of baguette?) that I bought. They also specialize in candies, cookies, cakes, pies, & pastries. They have plans of opening a retail location on the westside, and I am all too excited.
  • Hoppy Monk finally opened up their kitchen a couple of months ago. I was underwhelmed by the lack of veg options & the greasy, bland appetizer that I ordered (Trappist mushrooms). I also didn’t appreciate being charged for an extra aioli when I only received two (menu said it came with 3). They’re still working out the kinks, so hopefully everything will be improved upon.
  • Primo’s Craft Beer has opened & I have not been there yet! It’s located in the UTEP area, and boasts a wide beer selection.
  • Steak houses and seafood restaurants popped up all over town, but I’m not going to list them for obvious reasons. Let me know if one offers a good veg option (I have a steak lover at home).
  • Someone on Facebook reminded me to mention Valentine’s Kitchen, next to Hope and Anchor, which supposedly serves up some really good food. Doesn’t sound very veg friendly though. Check out this review from the UTEP Prospector.

Clockwise from left: Buffet @ Indian Curry Leaf, Portabella Burger @ Create Food Truck, Vegetarian @ Potbelly,Veggie Delight @ Spec's

2012 Brings Good & Bad News

  • Sunset Pizza is closing down on Jan 21. This breaks my heart immensely. I’ve always thought that they served the best pizza in town, and this place holds significant memories. Fortunately, their menu & passion will carry on under a new name & location at Tosca Pizzeria, 4017 N. Mesa (where San Francisco Oven used to be) in March 2012.
  • El Paso is finally getting a Chipotle!!! It will be located near UTEP in the shopping center at 2900 N. Mesa. Some people are disappointed by another burrito place opening in our predominantly Hispanic town, but haters gonna hate. I LOVE this place. It’s delicious and veg friendly.
  • We’re still awaiting the opening of Square Cow Burgers, Beer, & Wine. I sure hope they have a veggie burger.
  • VSEP will offer an Indian cooking class, as well as continue to host bake sales and dinners.
  • Fire (inside the DoubleTree Hotel) stopped serving the DoubleTree Hugger sandwich. It turns out that Kipp’s Cheesesteak’s veggie sandwich is cooked in beef stock.

Personal Highlights

I saved my personal highlights for last in case you didn’t want to read them. 2011 was a great year for me foodwise. I fully devoted myself to this blog, and my pictures improved dramatically when I invested in a fancy camera.

  • VSEP events: The Vegetarian Society hosted some fun and educational events. My favorites were the Arirang Tour & a cooking class held at Singapore Cafe.
  • I won a Big Green Egg Grill from Harmony Valley Foods for my Chili Chile Cheeseburger recipe!
  • The El Paso Times interviewed me & wrote up a nice big article in the Living section, which in turn, drove a lot of traffic to this blog.
  • Finally attended La Vina’s Wine festival. Read about it here.
  • Picked my own veggies in La Union, NM from The Maze’s garden.
  • VSEP sponsored my participation in the 23rd Annual Lone Star Vegetarian Chili-Cook Off. Alas, I did not place.
  • I participated in Vegan MOFO. This really helped me find focus and inspiration. It also accelerated the amount of posts I wrote during that month. Most importantly, the sense of community was amazing.
  • Found out that Hot Dog on a Stick serves veggie dogs on a stick. $3 is what you pay for nostalgia, convenience, & greasy goodness.
  • Lean Cuisine started offering Veggie Cuisine entrees featuring Gardein products. You can find them at Walmart.
  • I also invested in an iPhone and I hate to admit it, but I love it. I’ve posted less restaurant reviews due to the Foodspotting app. Other apps I frequently use are Instagram, Epicurious, and Urbanspoon.

Clockwise from left: Arirang Market, My winning burger entry, La Vina Winery, Lean Cuisine & Gardein joined forces, Chickpea Soup recipe forVegan Mofo, La Union garden

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and comment in 2011!

Review: Create Gourmet Eats Food Truck

For me, tracking down a food truck with vegetarian options in El Paso often proves to be a formidable task. Problems I’ve encountered have been that there are only a handful in town, they tend not to be very mobile, they have odd hours, they run out of the veggie option, and sometimes they’re not very consistent or adept at social media. A month ago, I was delighted to find that one of the newest food trucks would be downtown at a convenient time for me.Loft Light Studio, located on El Paso Street, was hosting their monthly Martket event, and Create was serving up burgers outside. When I arrived, I immediately saw the brightly colored truck and heard music blaring from the speakers attached to the vehicle. There was already a line, and people were coming in and out of the building. I didn’t go into the Martket event because I didn’t want to pay the $5 entry fee since I couldn’t stay for long. I definitely want to check it out next time!

I must admit that I was a little disappointed to find that the veggie option was a portabella burger rather than an actual veggie burger patty. If you read my previous post, ‘Portabella or Portobello?, then you know my feelings towards the ubiquitous mushroom burger. According to their menu, the Portabella Burger is a tender marinated portabella mushroom cap, avocado, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and mixed greens on a multigrain ciabatta bread. All 4 of their “House Eats” are $7 and served with shoe string fries. For $1 extra, you can sub the fries for fresh asparagus or sweet potato fries.

If you’re not into the “House Eats,” you can create your own fix. For $7, you choose the protein, bread, cheese, sauce (all made from scratch), and toppings. I decided to trust the House, and ordered the portabella burger the way it comes, since it sounded so delicious. My disappointment vanished after biting into an explosion of flavors and textures. The mushroom was perfectly cooked and marinated, and bits of chewy sun-dried tomatoes were complimented by perfectly ripe avocado. There wasn’t any cheese in it and I was surprisingly okay with that. The only drawback was that there were a few bites that tasted oversalted, but I’m guessing it was due to the sun-dried tomatoes. I don’t really like ciabatta bread, but this one was soft and I loved the seeds on top. I tried both varieties of fries and both were good, but also a little salty.

They also sell Jones Sodas and sweets, such as Andes Mint brownies and Kit Kat brownies.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a vegan option.

Visit these links:

In front of Loft Light Studios (315 S. El Paso) on June 30, 2011

Order here!

Portabella Burger w/Sweet Potato Fries

Yum!

Create Gourmet Eats (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

Foodie Forecast

I hadn’t even considered posting a best of 2010/2011 forecast piece until I read an article in the El Paso Times. I was surprised to find that they actually wrote an article rather than publish a syndicated one. It was good to hear what EP restaurant owners are thinking and doing about the food scene here. I was inspired and thought it might be fun to try my hand at covering and forecasting EP’s food trends.

My 2010 Food Trend Year in Review:

Craft Beer, especially on draft.

  • 2010 was the year of beer in El Paso. The Side Door Liquor Store/State Line held its first annual beer tasting event in April, and I was blown away. There were unlimited tastings of over 100 beers. About eight of the beers were on tap, while the rest were in the bottle. Representatives from the breweries were present as well. It was like a mini version of Denver BrewFest. Their tasting was so successful, they decided not to wait a full year, and held another one in August. Other places such as Billy Crews held their own beer tastings as well.
  • Several beer dinners at local restaurants were also held throughout the year.
  • Commonwealth, a so-called gastropub (a pub that concentrates on quality food) opened. I haven’t been there because it does not look like there’s any veg items on the menu. I’m not sure if they were trying to emulate the Commonwealth bar in D.C., but I wish they actually had, because their menu looks amazing.
  • The Hoppy Monk, a bar that serves over 100 craft beers opened in December. No Budweiser or MillerCoors products are served there.

Farmers’ Markets

  • A couple of local farmers’ markets have been around for years, but they seemed especially trendy this past year.
  • New farmers’ markets popped up, such as the one at the Outlet Shoppes.

Food Trucks

Juarez Restaurants

  • This year we saw a lot of Juarez based restaurants open up locations in El Paso. Off the top of my head, they were: Carousel, Los Cunados, Garufa, and Tortas Nico. El Pasoans had mixed emotions about the establishments. Many were excited to have them come to El Paso, while the rest felt that these restaurants should not be supported because they are supposedly drug funded.

Social Media

  • A lot of local restaurants made the leap to Facebook and Twitter, some successful and some…well they just abandoned their sites. “I’m Doing El Paso” did a great job of letting El Pasoans know about drinking and eating news, as well as the best deals in town.
  • Some restaurants made their presence known on Foursquare by offering rewards.
  • Food trucks let everyone know of their location through Facebook and Twitter.

My 2011 Food Trend Forecast:
My list is probably going to look lazy to you because I feel that most of 2010’s trends are going to continue on in 2011. My hope is that they become bigger, better, and more affordable as the demand grows.

Beer

  • More bars, more craft on tap, & a focus on food pairings. Everyone has become or is trying to become a beer snob these days. El Pasoans are still true to their domestics, but they also want to splurge and sample craft and import beers. I think we’re going to see a couple more bars open that are going to try to capitalize off of the craft beer craze. A lot of current bars and restaurants are going to rethink their taps, and possibly add more out of the ordinary draught choices.
  • In 2010, we saw a first attempt at a gastropub via Commonwealth and an influx of beer dinners. I think more local restaurants are going to include beer pairing suggestions on their menus. I also think that beers will play a key ingredient in new menu offerings. Hopefully they will go beyond beer battered foods, chili, and beer floats. I heard that the Hoppy Monk is going to eventually open their kitchen and offer a small menu.
  • The Greenery, World Market, The Side Door Liquor Store, and some grocery stores sell single bottles of beer to create your own six pack. I think more people are going to want to host their own beer tastings at home.

Social Media

  • We’re definitely going to see more restaurants, both chain and local utilizing social media. Carl’s Jr. has bypassed Foursquare and other location based sites by creating their own mobile app rewards program. I don’t think local restaurants will invest in creating their own apps, so most will probably utilize Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places, etc. Restaurants need to realize how important social media is to their businesses these days. Customers want to know what’s going on at their local restaurants, and interact with them both positively and negatively. This feedback is going to help restaurants succeed and better themselves, as well as create a strong loyalty to their brand. Chefs in larger cities are on Twitter and tweeting about what they’re cooking at both their restaurants and at home.

Seasonal Eating

  • The popularity of farmers’ markets has made us more aware of what’s in season.  I think El Pasosans are going to try to cook more with foods that are in season. It’s tastier, healthier, cheaper, and helps narrow down what to cook for dinner. Sustainability has been a hot topic for the past couple of years.

Vegetarianism

  • Meatless Monday was created back in 2003, but it picked up even more popularity in 2010. Many publications are including a weekly feature that focuses on Meatless Monday recipes, including the NY Times and Cooking Light. The Stanton Magazine also wrote an article about this trend. Unfortunately, someone posted a negative and ignorant comment about vegetarianism. I posted a comment, but it was never approved (?!), so you won’t see it there.
  • Last May, Mario Batali joined the Meatless Monday campaign by offering vegetarian options at all 14 of his restaurants on Mondays. They even came up with a cool, minimalistic MM logo. It would be great if El Paso restaurants had at least one veg option on their menus. Even chains like Applebee’s don’t have a substantial veg option.
  • Las Cruces opened SB’s Late-night Lunch Box, a mainly vegetarian/vegan restaurant. While I don’t foresee a veg restaurant opening this year in El Paso, I do think that more El Pasoans will order vegetarian at restaurants and dabble in cooking more meatless meals at home.

What trends did I miss? Do you have any forecasts for 2011?

Best of 2010: Beer Tasting @ State Line