Work-related travel had me spending the latter half of the week in the Lone Star State, a river away from both a foreign country and another state. El Paso looks a lot like pretty much any other town in any other border state, a dry desert with equally spare-looking mountains. True to form, it was also pretty warm each of the days I was there. I spent plenty of time playing lizard and looking for a cool shady place to hide.
Thankfully the hotel, a Raddison right by the airport, was well-equipped to handle this. I stayed in a reasonably large suite with a real work area (complete with wired Internet), microwave, fridge and TV with inputs so I could hook up the DVD player. There was even a full-service restaurant dishing up complementary breakfast in the mornings, one of the best hot breakfast options I've seen in a hotel.
Naturally, this leads to the most exciting thing about Texas: the cuisine. It's a state that can lay claim to steak, BBQ and Mexican being as native as Ike and LBJ. I decided that I had to partake of all three during my brief stay in Texas' largest border city.
1700 Airway Blvd.
El Paso, TX 79925
The only time I break my "no chains" rule is when they're local or regional (and I don't mean in the Hardee's sense). Since there's a total of only 8 restaurants between western Texas and New Mexico, this fit the bill. I was pretty hungry after flying all day and the prospect of being able to walk to a semi-local place was too good to pass up.
The menu had the usual dizzying array of various meats with a few non-steakhouse items (like pasta) thrown in. There's also a salad bar, but I didn't try it out. Instead, I started off with a half-decent french onion soup. For an entree, I opted for one of the lunch specials, a 6oz cut of prime rib with a baked potato. True to the legends of Texas beef, this prime rib did not disappoint, perfectly cooked with a great salty flavor on the outside bits.
The biggest surprise is that I got to stuff myself silly for around $13. With a value like this, I'd have to give Cattle Baron a 4.5 out of 5.
226 Cincinnati Ave
El Paso, TX 79902
If you go to a border town and don't treat yourself to some local Mexican food, I'd have to seriously question your sanity. To that end, I took a recommendation from the client to check out Casa Jurado nestled right next to the University of Texas at El Paso. The neighborhood feels just like a hip college district, fragrant smells wafting from aged but not dilapidated buildings.
The inside of the restaurant felt very cozy, just like you'd been going there for years. The salsa that they serve before ordering was a thinner salsa like you'd find at a lot of more traditional restaurants, but it wasn't soupy at all and stuck to the chips. Even though we were pretty far inland, I opted for the fish tacos. I figured that since Texas has a lot of coastal areas, it was likely to be fresh (or at least more so than the ultra-fishy halibut I smelled in Ottumwa). While the tortillas were a bit on the greasy side, the tacos were very tasty and the flan I ordered as a follow-up was just as impressive.
Bear in mind that parking in the area is a bit of a problem, even on a low-key weeknight. Plan to show up early or park-n-walk from a nearby location. With the good service, great price tags and solid Mexican favorites, I'd award them a 4 out of 5.
House of Pizza
2016 N Piedras St
El Paso, TX 79930
I know, a pizza place seems kind of like cheating when it's not Chicago or New York. That said, I'm always about more than just regional fare. This was another client recommendation not far from the work site.
Given the hustle and bustle, it seemed to be pretty popular with the locals. The menu is a pretty standard offering of one-topping and specialty pizzas, sandwiches, salads and pasta dishes. We opted for one of the specialty pizzas, a standard garbage pie. It ended up being pretty good, definitely a solid standout from national pizza chains though it failed to be as impressive as either Rock Creek Pizza or Pier 49 Pizza in Salt Lake.
Like Casa Jurado, there's a big parking problem in the area and you'd do well to show up early to avoid the lunch rush. Also keep in mind that you can leave home without American Express and Visa is not everywhere you want to be as they only accept cash as payment. While the food is good, the lack of standing out from the crowd leaves me handing out a 3.5 our of 5.
The State Line
1222 Sunland Park Dr
El Paso, TX 79922
This is another local chain, one that hooked me by having its menu available online. It was a bit of a drive from where I was staying, almost 15 miles to, literally, the New Mexico border. I was determined to satisfy my need for smoked brisket one way or another.
The inside is about what you would expect if someone were trying to go for a stereotypical western-themed restaurant. Beat-up tables and chairs, weathered wood walls and lampshades made from old branding irons made it seem like the kind of BBQ place you'd see in Disneyland. Don't let the setting fool you: you can walk out of there stuffed with good food for a low price. The brisket plate I got came piled with a generous serving of meat and sides of beans, cole slaw and potato salad with some fresh-baked break for just $13. I also picked up dessert, apple cobbler a la mode. (The cobbler selection varies daily, so always ask what they have each night.)
What really stunned me was the fast service. It was a busy Thursday night and I ended up with an entree on my table in under 10 minutes. I suppose the sides and most of the meats are prepared ahead of time so that all you need to do is drop 'em on a plate and go. Despite the silly decor, I got a solid meal of BBQ for a price better than what I'd pay at, say, Memphis Championship BBQ. The sauce on the brisket wasn't entirely to my liking, but this restaurant deserves a solid 4.25 out of 5 for its delivery.