El Paso’s Best Mexican Food: Of Car Washes And Cemeteries

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Confession: With the exception of far too many layovers at DFW, I’d never been to Texas prior to two weeks ago. Despite having traveled all over the rest of the Southwest, as well as being possessed of a near-clinical addition to Mexican food, I just haven’t had a reason to make it to the Lone Star State.

That all changed when I was sent to El Paso by American Cowboy magazine to write about the city’s tradition of boot-making. And while my days were spent touring boot factories and learning the difference between a welt and a vamp, a girl’s gotta eat. Secondary only to my assignment at hand was unearthing the best local spots for Mexican or Tex-Mex food.

Fortunately, a friend of mine is from El Paso, and the kindly folks at the boot factories were also more than happy to aid in my research. It’s no secret that H & H Cafe and Car Wash and L & J Cafe serve some of the city’s best eats. After a disappointing experience at one of the nicer, much publicized Mexican restaurants downtown, I decided to focus on dives, exclusively.

Why? Because I’d much rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall imbued with local color, any day. They’re less expensive, and generally free of tourists. At least, the kind of tourists who frequent the type of restaurants I go to lengths to avoid (see aforementioned downtown eatery). There are no “2-for-1″ margarita specials, gringoized menu items, or attempts to temper the innate fire of the chiles used in the recipes. You’re getting the real deal, and eating amongst the folks who make these businesses the longtime landmarks that they are.

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Take H & H. For over 50 years, this Formica and aqua-and-orange-hued dive near downtown has been dishing up El Paso’s best chile rellenos. It’s a car wash, yes. But the “coffee shop” has a single counter, and just three small tables. There’s a token flat-top grill that’s clearly seen a lot of use. The waitresses are of a certain age, and sweet as pie. The food is heavenly. Three times in four days, I showed up to stuff myself on everything from earthy, potato-studded Chile Colorado to the aforementioned rellenos (a dish I normally dislike, since it too often resembles and tastes like oil-soaked socks) Even the salsa verde, a chunky, firey rendition, is amazing.

On my final visit, it was the cook’s birthday; so a regular pinned a sheaf of dollar bills to the shoulder of her smock for luck, and wished her “Feliz Cumpleanos.” To be a fly on the way at joints like this is to get a true taste of local color, no pun intended. Eavesdropping on the two guys next to me (a biker and a businessman in a peach button-down), I learned they both collect and restore vintage muscle cars.

Then there’s L & J, known as “the old place by the graveyard,” which, indeed, it is. Located off of Hwy 10 West, this historic spot with the random, quirky decor was founded in 1927 by Antonio D. Flores as “Tony’s Place (as popular for bootlegging as it was for its food, the story goes).” When Tony’s daughter, Lilia, and her husband, John, took over in 1968, they renamed it L & J.

l & j cafe, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The restaurant has continued to draw crowds for its righteous combo platters, soft and fried tacos (here, “fried” means lightly crisped, not “giant tortilla chip tasting like sawdust”), queso (all creamy, stringy cheese and green chiles), and enchiladas with red or green sauce. Despite the caloric content, this is food that tastes fresh, and the love with which its prepared is evident. The place is almost always hopping, so get there early if you want to avoid the local lunch or happy hour crowds.

I tried a few other highly-touted places in and around El Paso, but found them wanting. So I kept returning to my favorite initialized eateries for a fix. Now, back in Colorado, I’m jonesing again, and wishing that my local car wash would consider installing a flat-top and some Formica. A girl can dream, can’t she?