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?

7 Deadly Sins: The Best Fast Food Mexican Restaurants In Southern California

fish tacos at bull taco californiaIt really isn’t fair. California has sun, beaches, mountains and legions of fit, attractive people. But Californians also get to enjoy otherworldly tacos and burritos too. I know, I know, there are good tacos and burritos to be had in other parts of the country, but when it comes to fast food Mexican, California is still king.

Here’s how I like to roll when I’m visiting California: start the day with a breakfast burrito, feast on an grilled fish burrito for lunch and cap the day with shrimp or lobster tacos at dinner time. If I wasn’t always falling asleep early on the West Coast due to jet lag, I’d probably do another round of tacos late night too, if I could only stay up late enough to squeeze it in.

It’s very hard to distinguish where to get the best fast food Mexican fare in Southern California. Try one place and you’ll think it’s the best thing you ever tasted and then travel down the block to realize there’s someplace even better. But what follows is a run down of the best fast-food Mexican seafood tacos and burritos I had on a recent trip to Southern California (save for Rudy’s, which doesn’t do seafood).


La Sirena Grill (Laguna Beach, El Segundo, and Irvine)

I had a blackened shrimp burrito and my wife had a blackened wild salmon taco and a blackened tilapia taco here and everything was incredibly fresh and tasty. They have a sweet, tangy salsa that is out of this world. Much of what La Sirena serves is organic and even the containers they serve tacos in are made of corn.

carne asada tacos rudy's californiaRudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach, La Costa)

This place is the polar opposite of trendy La Sirena – there are no advertisements boasting about sustainability or humanely raised beef at this hole-in-the-wall joint but their carne asada is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and their chips are first rate too.

Rubios (Locations are mostly in suburban San Diego with a handful in other cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Vegas, Phoenix and L.A.)

I know that some foodies are suspicious of chain places, but I am rooting for this one to make it out to Chicago. I had two grilled mahi-mahi tacos with roasted corn, cabbage and creamy chipotle salsa and a gourmet shrimp taco, which came with toasted mozzarella, jack and white cheddar cheese, bacon bits, avocado and two chili sauces.

fish tacos rubiosBoth were ridiculously good and were served with chips and beans on a real plate. The nice young kids who work at the Carlsbad location I patronized were fascinated by my interest with the place. To them, it probably seems a bit odd to be fussing over tacos and taking photos of them, but they’re spoiled they can get these beautiful things anytime they want them.

Bull Taco (Cardiff by the Sea, Oceanside, Petco Park)

This beachside taco stand advertises itself as “Inauthentic Mexican” but has become something of a local institution in just five years, serving unusual taco creations. Nathan, one of the chefs at the Cardiff by the Sea location, told me that all the cooks who work there are classically trained chefs. Only in California would serious chefs be found working in a taco joint and thank God for that.

bull taco shrimp tacosI devoured three tacos – grilled sea bass, shrimp curry and the coup d’gras, a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Purists might balk at some of their concoctions but I would kill to have this place near my home in Chicago.

Bahia Mexican Restaurant (near the zoo in San Diego)

This modest little fast food place, with its colorfully painted chairs and tables, made me feel like I was in a working class neighborhood outside Puerto Vallarta. Big menu, low prices, no frills and it smelled great. After a long morning spent pushing my sons around in a stroller at the San Diego Zoo, I was starved, so I ordered a fish taco (grilled tilapia, $2.30), a shrimp taco ($3.30), and a lobster taco ($3.80).

bahia restaurant san diegoThe tortillas were very light and flavorful, the tacos were packed with seafood and everything was wonderfully fresh and delicious. My only complaint: the place is filled with vending machines selling junky toys and temporary tattoos, which my sons nagged me into buying. Halfway through my lobster taco, I relented and bought two sets of tattoos, but my 3-year-old didn’t like the one that came out of the slot for him. But even the tantrum that ensued couldn’t diminish the experience for me.

Taco Surf Taco Shop (Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego)

taco surf taco shopFor a place that’s filled with surfboards and is just a block away from the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach boardwalk along the ocean, this place is dark and slightly depressing. Taco Surf Taco has been featured as one of the best places to get a burrito in the country by Fox News and was also singled out by USA Today. I don’t agree with Fox News very often and I don’t agree with them on this call either.

The people working at TSTS are very friendly and my mahi-mahi burrito ($7.66) was big and tasty, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. Another diner told me I should have tried their California burrito, which has steak, cheese and fries, but I’ll leave that one to Fox News and others. One other beef: horrible music. I had a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” earworm for days after hearing it at this place.

poquito mas tacosPoquito Mas (7 locations in L.A.)

I had two shrimp tacos ($6.50) at their West Hollywood location and I thought that the name of this place, which means “a little more” in Mexican, was appropriate – there were only three shrimp in each taco – not nearly enough for my tastes. They were tasty though and I especially liked their array of spicy salsas, but not their dicey tortilla soup.

Conclusion: If I had to crown my very favorite seafood, fast-food Mexican meal in California, and it really isn’t fair because all of these places are great, it would be a tie between La Sirena and Rubios. Their tacos and burritos literally brought a smile to my face. Please, please, please guys, come to Chicago. I’m begging you.

There are thousands of places to eat seafood tacos and burritos in Southern California and no list of the best places is comprehensive. What’s your favorite place?

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Best (Authentic) Mexican Restaurants in Los Angeles

When Travel and Leisure runs an article about L.A.’s Best Mexican Restaurants, you bet we’re going to cover it here on Gadling.

I’ve spent most of my life in Los Angeles eating Mexican food and when I ran across this article, I confidently assumed that there was nothing new that Travel and Leisure was going to teach me about my hometown.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead of researching the more popular Mexican restaurants, writer Alexandra Marshall went in search of the more authentic and traditional. This led her to parts of the city to which I’ve never ventured–South Central, Boyle Heights, East LA, to name a few–but places where many immigrants from all over Mexico have come to live, bringing their local cuisine with them.

To further add embarrassment to my faulty sense of the Mexican culinary scene in Los Angeles, she completely ignores the run-of-the-mill burritos, quesadillas, and tacos and dives right into strange concoctions from other parts of Mexico. Here are just a few mouthwatering discoveries she mentions:

Barbacoa – “maguey leaf–wrapped mutton” cooked slowly over a bed of lava rocks
Horchata – “a cold drink with fresh nuts, cinnamon, and vanilla.”
Mole – “a powerful paste of ground chiles, garlic, dried fruit, up to 30 spices, seeds, nuts, and sometimes chocolate.”
Pan de cazón – “a casserole of minced shark meat, beans, and a mild, persimmon-colored tomato”

Yum. And to think I’ve been limiting my palate to tacos and burritos.

The article also features a list of the best places to eat the above mentioned goods. Sorry, but none of them have websites or, for that matter, take credit cards. Yes, this is truly authentic, rural Mexico.