In west Texas, between New Mexico state and Mexico proper, El Paso is a cultural crossroads with a culinary scene to match. From authentic southern steakhouses and Tex Mex joints to inventive new restaurants, get a taste of what this border town has to offer with our ten top picks.
Both an outstanding restaurant and a worthy cause, Café Mayapán forms part of a social enterprise that champions regional Mexican cuisine while providing training and employment for women from El Paso’s deprived neighborhoods. The menu changes with the seasons and features classic dishes like chiles en nogada and mole poblano, made using local ingredients. Special events, including Easter and the September corn festival, are also celebrated and there are regular workshops and exhibitions exploring Mexican culture and cuisine at the mercado (market) on site. Café Mayapán is green-conscious too: anything that’s left over from the restaurant becomes compost for a community gardens project.
Elegant Café Central first opened its doors in 1918 in the town of Juarez, just over the border in Mexico. After a series of transformations and relocations, it settled on El Paso’s Oregon Street and has since become known as one of the best upmarket options in town. The perfect spot for a late-night drink, it has an outdoor terrace, an amply stocked bar and a carefully considered wine list which has won the restaurant numerous awards. The menu is equally inviting with stand-out dishes that include cream of green chile soup and roasted rack of Colorado lamb. Both cultured and refined, it hosts live jazz on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings between 6.30 and 10pm.
If you’re tired of Tex Mex, the Greek cuisine at Zino’s is a breath of fresh air. One of El Paso’s best-loved restaurants, it’s known for vibrant salads dressed with herby olive oil and salty feta, warming lentil soups and gyros made with fresh pita. There are crisp falafels too, along with delicious dips and appetisers, from hummus to baba ganoush and stuffed vine leaves to calamari. With sticky baklava for dessert, you can tour the Peloponnese in a single sitting just as chef Zino Souikni intended. An excellent introduction to the food culture of Greece, Zino’s looks set to be an El Paso favourite for many years to come.
Just 20 miles outside of town, Cattleman’s Steakhouse at Indian Cliffs Ranch is widely regarded as one of the best in the country. From the house rib-eye to the ‘Cowboy’ t-bone, which weighs in at a respectable two pounds, everything here is cooked to perfection, branded with char marks from the grill. Seafood options include cold-water lobster and shrimp, with sticky barbecued ribs, cooked in the restaurant’s antique mesquite wood smoker, a further highlight. Dotted with ancient wagons, outbuildings and herds of grazing longhorn cattle, the ranch is spectacular in itself. Its sweeping desert views and rocky mesas (plateaus) have provided the setting for a number of Hollywood productions.
Texan-style tapas sharing plates are the order of the day at this modern warehouse conversion. With dishes such as paella and albondigas (meetballs) with chorizo and manchego cheese, there are definite nods towards Spain, but Tabla also offers clever combinations of its own, including chickpea fries with chipotle ketchup and Moroccan spices, and ribs with apricot and almonds. Desserts are equally inventive, ranging from sweet potato doughnuts with maple syrup to arroz con leche (Spanish rice pudding) accompanied by hazelnuts and dried grapes. In the heart of downtown El Paso, the restaurant is a short walk from many of the city’s cultural hubs, including the Abraham Chavez Theatre and the El Paso Museum of Art.
An El Paso institution, affectionately referred to as ‘The Old Place by the Graveyard’, L & J Cafe is a family-run Mexican joint that has been passed down through three generations. Founded to keep the liquor flowing during prohibition, it has a loyal local following to this day and has won numerous awards for its food and ‘dive bar’ atmosphere. The cafe has even made a few famous friends over the years, playing host to Clark Gable and the Andrew Sisters, among others. Even in El Paso, a city held up as the Mexican food capital of the USA, the border cuisine here stands out. Start with a plate of tostadas and salsa before moving on to the excellent homemade caldos (soups), fajitas, burritos and enchiladas.
Arty and hip, Tom’s Folk Cafe has just a handful of tables, but they’re well worth fighting for. A self-titled concept restaurant that celebrates Americana, Tom’s specialises in playful takes on classic Southern dishes drawing on influences from Mexico and France in the process. Its bison burger with blueberry jam has a fan club of its own while the crayfish mac’n’cheese, fried chicken with grits and New Orleans-style Po’ Boy sandwiches also come highly recommended. If you’re in the mood for something lighter there are soups, salads and seafood dishes, including grilled snapper. Living up to its folk café billing, Tom’s also hosts the odd live music event on Sundays.
Despite it’s less-than-salubrious shopping centre location, Ripe Eatery is a firm El Paso favourite on account of its enticing comfort food and full calendar of live music events. The weekend brunch menu is a particular highlight and offers everything from blueberry and ricotta pancakes to omelettes and French toast. There are also several variations on classic Eggs Benedict, including the Mexican-inspired Huevos Rancheros Benny, which comes with bacon, chipotle and tomatillo salsa, black beans and chorizo hollandaise – definitely a substitute for both breakfast and lunch. Ripe also hosts a number of themed nights including a popular happy hour between 3 and 6 p.m. on Mondays.
With a smart outdoor patio, a bar boasting beer, wine and scotch whiskey menus and a long list of cigars (when in Texas), there are plenty of reasons to visit The Garden even before you get to the food. Among the restaurant’s strengths are its vegetarian options, including pastas, pizzas, and roast vegetable salads that come with a wide choice of dressings. Sushi and sashimi also feature prominently along with Southern favourites such as burgers and pulled pork sandwiches. At weekends The Garden doubles as a club with stylish sets from local DJs keeping the party going until the early hours.
Just outside the city limits, over the border in New Mexico, Ardovino’s is known as much for its rustic Italian cuisine as its mountain-framed setting. You can drink in the views from the restaurant’s patio, complete with wood-fired pizza oven, or sit in the 1950-style Mecca Lounge, hung with paintings by local artists. Many of the herbs and vegetables used by the restaurant are grown on site appearing in dishes such as scarlet snapper with artichokes, mushrooms, Kalamata olives and orzo pasta. Throughout much of the year there’s also a Saturday farmers market where you can buy fresh produce, along with homemade salsas, honey, granola, jewellery and handicrafts.