More than Beer and BBQ: The Fine Foods and Eateries of West Texas, Plus a Recipe for Tex-Mex Street Corn
From street food to fine dining, culinary temptations abound on our week-long trip through West Texas. Photo: Elena Veselova/Getty Images
The avocado tostadas at Taconeta, a hipster Mexican joint in El Paso’s Houston Park neighbourhood, vividly reminded me that most Canadian Tex-Mex food is just a fatty, salty, pale imitation of real Tex-Mex.
I’m still thinking about those tostadas: crunchy tortillas heaped with fresh guacamole, topped with pickled red onion and salsa macha, then dusted with carrot and kale powders. Our group ordered one each, devoured them, then promptly ordered seconds. We did the same with Taconeta’s Mexican street corn (see recipe below). It took monumental restraint not to order a duplicate round of chicken tacos as well.
Most of Taconeta’s dishes are “small plates,” but we admitted to each other that if we kept up that pace, small plates were soon going to translate to big weight gains. Reluctantly, we took our leave — only to discover that we would encounter all sorts of other culinary temptations on our week-long trip through West Texas.
The large, potent margaritas the night before should have been our first clue. They were shaken up a friendly bartender at La Perla, the posh rooftop cocktail lounge at the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park in downtown El Paso. Under their influence, we tottered across the street from the hotel to Café Central. Despite its plain name, this El Paso institution is as fancy as La Perla — the kind of place that dares to top spaghetti with caviar. (Caviar is lost on me, so I opted for the shrimp risotto special and was not disappointed.)
We had the chance to make some West Texas dishes ourselves a few days later at the Texas Culinary Institute. Founded by El Paso native Yvonne Enríquez in 2022, the small school offers three-hour classes in a wide range of cuisines; we cooked a Mexican American brunch.
The star of the meal was huevos divorciados (divorced eggs). To create it, we made batches of green and red salsa, roasted some hashbrowns and chorizo sausages and fried a panful of eggs. To assemble the dish, we crumbled the chorizo into two patches, one on each side of the plate, with a band of hashbrowns in between. After sliding a fried egg on top of each patch of chorizo, we covered one egg with green salsa and the other with red. We now had a plate that roughly approximated the green, white and red stripes of the Mexican flag. As a final flourish, we garnished the plate with fried onions, cotija cheese, cilantro and refried beans.
Since El Paso is in the far western corner of the state, near the New Mexico border, even “West Texas” is east of it. Our first restaurant beyond the city was about 60 kilometres southeast of downtown. At Cattleman’s Steakhouse, on the working Indian Cliffs Ranch, the smallest steak is a six-ounce filet mignon garnished with shrimp. But if you’ve been wrangling temperamental heifers all day, you could choose “the Cowboy,” a two-pound porterhouse T-bone. Feeling my arteries hardening just reading that menu item, I split the difference and dug into an excellent 10-ounce New York strip.
Our next overnight stay was at the Hotel Saint George in the small town of Marfa. Once a lonely water stop along the Southern Pacific Railroad, Marfa is now home to a contemporary art museum named Chinati Foundation and several upscale restaurants. At Cochineal, chef-owner Alexandra Gates highlights Texas ingredients in her daily prix-fixe menu of small plates. Our six artistically presented dishes — which included items such as persimmon-tamarind cheesecake — more than sated my increasingly Texas-sized appetite.
Largely empty Interstate 90 took us from Marfa through the agave-dotted Chihuahuan Desert to the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine. Cool, foggy November weather had put paid to our plans to hike off some of our meals in Big Bend National Park, but we learned a lot about the region’s ecology and history at the museum before stopping for lunch at nearby Reata restaurant.
By this point, I knew enough to limit myself to just an appetizer from Reata’s menu of “Texas cowboy cuisine,” and I was glad I did. Not only was the bowl of jalapeno-cilantro soup huge, but it was also packed with veggies and delicious.
After overnighting in Marathon, we struck out on even quieter secondary highways to reach the tiny community of Terlingua, notable mainly as the home of DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ.
After passing a cluster of motorcycles parked outside DB’s corrugated iron building, we walked into a rustic bar. There, almost all eyes were clapped on the TV, where the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs would eventually beat fellow Texan footballers the Baylor Bears by one point. We ordered at the counter, then settled down at a white plastic table to wait. My barbecued brisket sandwich, washed down with a Texas-brewed Shiner Bock beer, was one of the simplest meals of the trip, but one of the best.
On our final day in West Texas, we tackled the five-hour drive back to El Paso in one long, dry, dusty shot. Our reward was a final memorable meal at Anson Eleven, where most dishes are fancy twists on classics such as rack of lamb and seared duck breast. After dinner, I headed back to our digs at the landmark Hotel Paso Del Norte and collapsed into my very comfortable bed.
It might not have been the most diet-friendly trip, but it was worth it.
For more details on visiting West Texas, go to TravelTexas.com.
Elote de Taconeta (Taconeta’s Mexican Street Corn)
Corn on the cob (12)
1 tbsp (15 ml) salt
2 cups (500 ml) mayonnaise
- Place peeled corn on the cob in boiling water for 25 minutes. While corn is boiling, prepare the lime mayo. Zest and juice the limes. Put the mayonnaise, salt, zest and juice into a blender, and blend until combined.
- Remove the corn from the pot and grill on all sides to get a nice char.
- Generously brush or spread the mayo over each cob until you don’t really see any of the kernels.
- Next, sprinkle cheese all over the corn, turning the cob to make sure you get the cheese all over and that it sticks to the lime mayo. Do this over a dish to minimize mess.
- Finally, sprinkle the corn with chile powder. Serve with a lime wedge on the side, and enjoy! P.S.: It’s ok to get messy.
*Cotija, a dry salty cheese that is sold as a powder or in chunks, can be found where Latino foods are sold. If you buy it in chunks, crumble it to a more powdery consistency. If you can’t find cotija, you can substitute another powdered cheese, such as parmesan.
**Taconeta uses a house mix of crushed, dried chiles but recommends home chefs to use Tajín or another commercial brand of Mexican chili powder.