When I realized that I’d be traveling to El Paso during the month of June, I tried to prepare myself.
My childhood summers were spent in North Texas, so I know blistering heat all too well. I’ve peeled myself out of soaking vinyl car seats, and know that a nearly-frozen glass bottle of soda on the right sweltering day is a portable endorphin rush in the face of the oppressive Texas sun.
But still I paused when I thought of El Paso. My last visit was to see family nearly 20 years ago, and my memories today are still of the heat. El Paso’s heat is entirely different -- so different that I can’t call it sweltering. El Paso does not swelter; the lack of humidity prohibits it. This heat is an unhumanely dry coal-fired kind of heat. Occasionally, a variance in air pressure will puff a limpid sigh over the Franklin Mountains, briefly inspiring flags to flutter and whirling up little dust devils, but all the while, the heat remains.
In the sun, everything becomes instantly desiccated -- paper towels are unnecessary in restrooms, because the hot thirsty air takes only seconds to rob moisture away from wet hands. With no humidity to transfer heat into darkness, the shade is the only beacon of hospitality. The temperature swings wildly between indoors and outdoors, depending on the path of the sun.
In other words, El Paso is like the moon, but with Mexican food.
The ubiquity of Mexican food in El Paso will come as no surprise; 70% of the the greater Juarez-El Paso metropolitan area is actually in Mexico, and the two cities co-existed nearly seamlessly for the majority of their history. In the past decade, increasingly stringent US border policy, compounded by horrific violence perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels, have driven a wedge through this transborder community. But food traditions remain intertwined, and El Paso continues to prepare its own brand of Tex-Mex, developed by the tastes of border town entrepreneurs, western pioneers, factory workers, and Army families.
Fort Bliss has been conjoined to El Paso since its founding in 1849, and signs of militaria are woven into the city’s character. Convoys of sand-colored vehicles regularly move around town, and when they’re passing cacti and dark brown mountains instead of the standard-issue American retail strips, few visual clues would differentiate the city from Kabul. El Paso feels serious, and seems devoid of frivolous industry. Countless side streets are populated by rows of identical taupe buildings, each occupied by small independent shops that provide understandable, consumer-oriented products and services. Tire alignment shops, hardware and auto parts stores, and small food markets are everywhere, but needless to say, there are no resorts here.
But hospitality, especially the genuine variety that comes only from family-owned restaurants and cantinas, isn’t hard to find. The locals have rewarded their favorites, like H&H Carwash and Restaurant and the L&J Cafe, both of which have been in business for decades.
On my trip, I tasted my way through strip mall Mexican food, hole-in-the-wall Mexican food, and roadside Mexican food on the way out of town. I didn't have one bad meal. Enchiladas were invariably cheesy and saucy like any good Tex-Mex, but the baseline spice levels were significantly higher, on par with New Mexico. Another gift from the neighboring Land of Enchantment was the liberal use of green chiles, as well as the option for "Navajo Style", wherein standard tortillas could be swapped out for pillowy naan-like native American flatbread.
I don't have plans to return to El Paso any time soon. But if I do, I won't worry so much about the heat.
|That's flatbread, not a tortilla|
|Servings are Texan-sized|
|A butterfield spotted near Midland|
|Bad breakfast advice|
|MREs at the Fort Bliss Museum|