Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 15: American Southwest

Location: After four weeks of glamorous international travel, Tony returns “to his roots” with an adventure in the American Southwest, road-tripping it across the arid desert stretching from Southern California through Arizona to New Mexico and on to a final stop in Texas.

Episode Rating: One-and-a-half bloody meat cleavers out of five. Given that this summer has seen one of the more memorable strings of No Reservations episodes in recent memory, the American Southwest has to be one of the blander installments. It’s not that Mr. Bourdain ever makes for uninteresting television or that his destination is uninteresting – far from it. It’s just that compared to trips to Laos, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, it was kind of a letdown.

Summary: OK, so last week we were in Uruguay. And before that Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Laos. Where to this week, Tony? The American Southwest? Aw gee, well I guess that’s OK – there’s still plenty of cool stuff to see. To get things started, Tony rents a BMW for an old-fashioned American road trip and peels off into the sunset. The car choice was certainly a departure from Tony’s usual vintage car selection, but an appropriate one nonetheless. Things get going just southeast of Palm Springs at the Salton Sea. Read on after the jump to find out what happened.Although it appears to be a marvel of nature, the Salton Sea was formed by a man-made accident in 1905, flooding a low-lying desert plain near the Colorado River. For a short period the area was a vacation boomtown, though lately it’s largely become a ghost town. Tony makes a pit stop at the local hangout, the Ski Inn. After working up an appetite chatting with the locals, Tony orders the house specialty, the patty melt. It’s gooey and cheesy with a nice hamburger patty in the middle. Nothing spectacular, but certainly tasty.

Not wanting to relish his patty melt too long, Bourdain speeds onward towards Indio, California to visit the Shields Date Farm. After learning about the “fascinating” history of dates, Tony gets rewarded with a date-flavored milkshake. This looked delicious. Remind me to try one the next time I’m in California.

Like any good roadtrip, it was soon time to move on, and Tony crosses state lines into Arizona, eventually pausing in Phoenix, Arizona. In one of the more contrived moments of No Reservations, Tony has lunch with rock legend Alice Cooper, who owns a sports bar in Phoenix with baseball great Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson. Tony’s meal at the sports bar? The house specialty – “Randy Johnson’s Big Unit,” a two-foot hot dog smothered in chili and cheese. Let us not speak of this ever again.

Next on the Southwest itinerary was a remote ICBM missile silo. Tony gets a guided tour from a woman who used to work in the facility. Seeing this sort of thing doesn’t evoke the same sense of dread that it once did during the Cold War, but it’s an imposing sight nonetheless. And you know, missile tours can make you thirsty. That’s why Bourdain finishes his tour with the house’s special cocktail, the Titan-tini made with pomegranate, grain alcohol and vodka. How’s that for explosive?

Bourdain just keeps wracking up the miles though, and soon he’s in New Mexico, where he has a chance to sample the world-famous chili peppers in Hatch, New Mexico. To cool off from this spicy experience, the crew takes an invigorating run whitewater rafting. That’s all that happened in New Mexico. Sorry citizens of New Mexico, I’m sure there’s more to your state than Tony gives you credit for here.

At last, after numerous hours on the road, plenty of antacids and ample bathroom breaks, Bourdain reaches the “promised land” of the American Southwest in Texas. After doing a few blatantly stereotypical things like boot shopping and eating a 72-ounce-coma-inducing steak, I was about ready to turn off my television set. But then things took a turn for the better when Tony drops in for a visit with America’s favorite right-wing bad boy and Texas resident Ted Nugent.

Ted and Tony might not necessarily agree on politics, but they had plenty to talk about when it came to meat and guns. The two tool around Nugent’s huge ranch outside Waco, Texas, stocked with the world’s largest herd of African Oryx and a private firing range. In addition to shooting some of the world’s most deadly automatic weapons like the M60 as well as a sawed-off shotgun, the pair enjoy plenty of barbecue. At Ted’s house they grill some freshly-slaughtered specimens, including venison and wild-boar bacon. And because they didn’t eat enough barbecue, they have a second Texas-style meal of brisket and ribs at the Rusty Star.

Certainly a gratuitous ending to a gratuitous episode. The American Southwest is a place of great beauty and plenty of interesting cuisine, but I came away with the feeling Mr. Bourdain did not do it justice. Sometimes your destination takes care of itself. But other times you have to work for it a little. I think this particular installment falls into the latter category. Oh well, there’s still plenty of new episodes to go this summer – stay tuned dear reader, stay tuned.