La Mesa, NM
When you approach La Mesa, about 15 miles south of Mesilla on State Highway 28, you get more of a feeling that you are approaching a religious shrine than a small farming village in southern New Mexico. The “holy ground” you are entering is for possibly the best chile relleno anywhere (for once the reality lives up to the hype). It is much like going to Mamou, Louisiana to experience the very best Cajun music, except in La Mesa pilgrims are given a gustatory reward (unless by some very bad karma or extremely unkind trick of fate they end up in La Mesa on a Sunday or Monday when Chope’s is closed).
At Chope’s you enter the realm of world-class roadfood (not the gourmet kind of Mexican food found at Rick Bayless’ restaurants in Chicago). It is no longer a question at Chope’s of whether certain items are good, it becomes a matter of whether they are the best. I get discouraged sometimes because the salsa at Chope’s may not be as good as at some restaurants in Las Cruces, the green chile may not be as fresh some times of the year as at harvest season, or some of the dishes may not live up to what I consider the signature dishes: the chile relleno and the green enchilada (both made with locally grown chiles). At other restaurants, however, I would hope to find just one outstanding dish, while Chope’s in my opinion the chile relleno is uncontested, the sopapilla is one of the best anywhere, and the enchiladas are certainly noteworthy examples of New Mexico cuisine.
If Chope’s is known for anything it is the Chile Relleno that somehow seems different from those served anywhere else. Of course the freshness comes from its local source in the Mesilla Valley. While the Hatch chiles, grown north of Las Cruces, have become famous worldwide, there is actually quite a large variety of chiles grown in both the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys that include the milder Anaheims that are largely exported and the more spicy varieties that are popular locally.
Chope’s serves a somewhat flat shaped chile that is quite spicy compared to many of the long skinny ones that are more common throughout the country. While being more spicy does not necessarily make a chile better quality, I do think this is an important criterion for a New Mexico style restaurant. It is also important for the chile to be roasted and prepared properly, as are the ones served at Chope’s. I have always been impressed that Chope’s does not put a sauce on top. The relleno really does not need to have any type of sauce, since the chile, the cheese inside, and the perfectly cooked batter stand by themselves and provide all the flavor needed for an excellent chile relleno.
The Green Enchiladas are some of the best found anywhere. While many restaurants use a puréed green chile to pour on top of the tortillas, Chope’s uses large chunks of fresh chiles that demonstrate the texture and flavor of the green chiles that are used. A white cheese is used that is perfectly melted (and it looks as if some yellow cheese is also mixed in). Chiles come locally from the Mesilla Valley (from the Provencio Farm near Anthony), and are at their freshest around harvest season. Green enchiladas are one of the spiciest items served at Chope’s, but since about 2007 I have found them to be less so than they were up to that point. The daughters of Lupe and Chope took over management of the restaurant at that time, and there seem to have been several changes in the food including some I mention under the heading “Red Enchiladas.”
Around the beginning of August postings appear on the Internet asking about the availability of freshly harvested Hatch chiles in various cities around the United States. Locally, though, fresh green chiles are available from late May to the end of September, and this is when I prefer the green enchiladas over the red ones at Chope’s.
Since I first tried red enchiladas in the days of my youth when I was able to eat them at La Posta, the Pink Adobe in Santa Fe, and other New Mexico restaurants, they have been my preference over the green enchiladas whenever I eat New Mexican cuisine. I make an exception at Chope’s during the chile harvest season so I can enjoy the fresh green chile, but I will have to say that Chope’s has consistently good red chile anytime during the year.
Many other places seem to either use too many additives, purée the chile too much, or use chiles of lesser quality that do not yield the same results as at Chope’s. This is why I think both the green and red enchiladas are better than at most other restaurants.
The year 2007 also seems to be a turning point for the Red Enchiladas, when the daughters began managing the restaurant. Previously I noted that the red and green enchiladas were both very spicy, but the red ones were a little milder. Now I think the red enchiladas are usually the spicier of the two, but they are less spicy than before (my previous comments are in the Old Review on Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page).
For the red enchiladas, I think putting an egg on top is a good example. I normally try to offset the chile effects by ordering an egg on top, but I have recently seen the red chile get milder to the point that no mitigating measures are really necessary. The flavor is good, and the care the restaurant takes to make the chile fresh every day is evident. Of course both the red and green chiles come from local farms in the Mesilla Valley, and any restaurant in the area will tell you that it is somewhat of a crapshoot as to how spicy the chile will be in any particular harvest.
I see a pattern, though, that both the red and green chile at Chope’s are less spicy than before.
Rice and Beans
For some reason the New Mexican restaurants in the southern part of the state prefer Refried Beans, such as the ones served at Chope’s, to the whole beans that are normally found in the north. I do not usually pay much attention to beans that are not northern style, but the ones at Chope’s are cooked so perfectly that I think they are almost as good as the whole beans.
The Rice has not left me with a very big impression, either favorable or otherwise, so I would say it is about average.
Chips and Salsa
The Chips are so nondescript I can barely remember them well enough well enough to write a review when I get home. I think, though, that they are so typical of the way chips should be prepared that it is the lack of any apparent flaws that make them not stick out in my mind.
The Salsa is another item that has undergone a transformation since about 2007, and I think very much for the better. It used to be memorable for being so spicy it almost numbed the taste buds before you even got a chance to try any of the delicious main dishes. Now, though, I think it retains the freshness it had before, but with a heightened flavor that I enjoy a lot more. The spiciness is variable, and sometimes it almost gets to the point of numbing the mouth, but the excellent flavor is more noticeable than the heat.
Sopapillas are light and fluffy, and are a recommended enhancement to the food, either during or after the meal (I prefer them with the meal). The red and green chiles are no longer spicy enough that I think eating a sopapilla with them would have much of an effect in amerliorating the heat, but it still would taste very good (you have to pay extra for the sopapillas). Of course they are also good for dessert. In the past the sopapillas have been rather greasy, but recently they have been perfect, and worth ordering even if you think your stomach cannot handle any more food.
What is now Chope’s Bar was the original restaurant, and is located next door to Chope’s Cafe (which was originally the Benavides family home). The bar serves the same food as the restaurant, and this can be a great help during the times that the restaurant is full and you have to get on a waiting list for a table. In fact, I think one of the major drawbacks of this place is having to drive for miles deep into the heart of the Mesilla Valley farm country and not knowing if you will face a long wait once you arrive (Chope’s does not take reservations, but at times the bar has had seating space when the restaurant did not).
The restaurant itself is in an old house, and has what I would describe as a somewhat crowded dining arrangement. The main dining room is adjacent to the kitchen and is small, noisy, and busy, but also tends to be very friendly where it is easy to talk to the staff and other patrons. The larger dining room is quieter and provides slightly more space between tables, but they are still rather crowded.
The restaurant is open only until 1:30 p.m. for lunch, but the 8:30 p.m. closing time at dinner should give most diners enough time to reach La Mesa and wait for a table if necessary.
One of my preferences is to order items individually rather than on combination plates. The prices are not high and meals are affordable, even if I end up with too much food. Enchiladas on combination plates are rolled instead of flat, and they sometimes make other modifications that make the food come out in a way that is not to my preference (such as spilling chile on top of the relleno when I like it with no chile on top).
A great tip that I found by accident is to go Thursdays during lunch hours when all of the combination plates are on special (at what I thought was a very good price).
Coming from El Paso, La Mesa can be reached from IH-10 by taking the Vado exit (NM 227) and going west to Vado. You then turn left on NM 478 and go south less than a quarter mile, where NM 227 again goes to the west (the direction signs can sometimes be easy to miss). From Vado you should follow NM 227, and keep going straight after it turns into NM 28. Once you are on Hwy 28 La Mesa is the next town.
From Las Cruces or Mesilla it is easy to reach Chope’s– just take NM 28 south.
Chope’s, like many other Mexican restaurants in the area, offers specials on Fridays during Lent that are appropriate for the season. Chope’s not only offers food that is not normally on the menu, but it comes at a very good price (and the special with a chile relleno offers the item I would most like to order anyway).
The plate pictured includes Quesadillas that were made the traditional way I have experienced them in home style restaurants in the borderland. The Chile Relleno was as good as ever, but I do not know why it had a large amount of cheese sprinkled on top when this is normally not the case. The Lentils were excellent, with less salt and garlic than I usually find in the ones served in El Paso (and to me the ones at Chope’s are better).
Capirotada is also served with the Lent special but they were out when I went. Still, this was an excellent deal.
Things to Know
- In chile harvest season (possibly starting in late May and lasting to late Sep.) the green enchiladas and chiles rellenos are especially good, and would be what I recommend.
- The rest of the year I still recommend the chile relleno, but I prefer the red enchiladas to the green. The chile relleno is what I consider to be the restaurant’s outstanding dish (any time of year).
- After 2007 I changed the chile rating for the restaurant from five chiles to four. I think the enchiladas are still good but I no longer order an egg on top (which I needed for heat amelioration). The chile relleno has about the same spiciness as before, and is probably at the “four chiles” level. The salsa is much less spicy than before, but I think it is also much better than previously.
- The bar is next door to the restaurant and serves the same food. However, I am usually willing to wait in line for a table in the restaurant because it is quieter and I like the setting better.
Update Apr. 2018:
After visiting several New Mexican restaurants in 2018 I just want to make a few comments about Chope’s. I consider this to be one of the three best I have tried. The others are Nellie’s in Las Cruces and Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque. Each restaurant, though, is best for certain things. At Chope’s it is the chile relleno and the green enchilada in season (both the red and green enchilada are excellent all year but I hesitate to say they are absolutely the best in New Mexico). Probably my meal of choice at Chope’s is a chile relleno and red enchilada (change that to green enchilada in Aug-Sep each year).
At Nellie’s my favorite item is the stuffed sopapilla, so I would say whether this or Chope’s is the best in Las Cruces depends on what you are ordering. I still believe what I have believed for a long time–the red chile is better at Nellie’s and the green is better at Chope’s (even when it is not harvest season I think Chope’s has the edge on green chile).
Mary & Tito’s has a very different style of red chile, which is to add a delicious meat to it that arguably makes it the best in New Mexico. I cannot make a blanket statement for the whole state, but out of the three restaurants I think Mary & Tito’s has the best red chile if you want meat in it, Nellie’s is the best for plain chile (although I do like it on the stuffed sopapilla which adds a similar type of meat), and Chope’s is probably the best of these three restaurants for green chile (although outside of harvest season I like the red chile better than the green at all three restaurants).
Update May 2019:
I would like to point out a very interesting article on eater.com about Chope’s Restaurant. The article gives a detailed history of Chope’s, including the fact that it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service. It is one of the few restaurants in the United States to be so designated, largely because the qualifications for placement on the list are so rigorous. Chope’s has been run by the same family for over 100 years, and this is significant. One large factor for its designation, though, was Chope’s connection with the Braceros who worked on the nearby farms until the program ended in 1964. There are many reasons I recommend this article including the story of the Benavides family who owns Chope’s and insights about the food that they serve. Now the daughters of Jose (Chope) and Guadalupe (Lupe) Benavides operate the restaurant, and they have been faced with what is at times an onslaught of customers because of the publicity the restaurant has received on web sites and media. They also talk about the possible future direction of the restaurant.
Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Hours: Lunch 11:30 to 1:30; Dinner 5:30 to 8:30; Closed Sun. & Mon.
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Beer, Wine, Mixed Drinks
Most Recent Visit: Apr. 26, 2018
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Chiles Rellenos, Red Enchiladas, Green Enchiladas, Sopapillas
Mexican Food Details