Mekong Thai–El Paso, TX

Mekong Thai
1816 N. Zaragoza Rd.
El Paso, TX
(915) 856-0299
Mekong Thai

Mekong Thai


Mekong Thai represents both the frustration I have with El Paso Asian restaurants and the surprise that we get Asian food this good in a city where most people know little about authentic Asian cuisine.

My frustration stems from the fact that this restaurant is called Mekong Thai, Vietnamese, and Sushi (the Mekong River runs through two of these countries so that part at least makes sense). My philosophy is almost always that if a cook is from a certain country, that is the cuisine I want to try in that restaurant. I also know that if I ask for the authentic version there is a good chance it can be specially prepared, or that I will be pointed to the best menu choices for the type of food I want.

At this restaurant I was trying to ask these questions but I really do not think they understood what I wanted. The waitress told me that pad thai was a very popular dish and therefore that is what I should order (which was not the question I was trying to ask). I did order it, though, and afterward one of the chefs came into the dining room and I was able to ask him what had been my real questions. I found out that this was in fact one of their better dishes and that I had been given a good recommendation. Thai food was the chefs’ specialty, and at least the name “Mekong Thai” and the fact that most of the menu was Thai food gave a good indication of this.

Further conversation revealed that at least one of the chefs is from Laos, and the “native” food for both of them is Lao/ Northern Thai (Isan) style food. A former restaurant called True Thai on Fred Wilson Avenue across from Fort Bliss had an owner from this area, and she once made a special order of Isan style pad thai for me which I really loved and have been seeking out ever since. I believe the pad thai at Mekong is what I have been seeking, and perhaps it could be made a little bit more authentic if I request it, but the version they served me seemed really close.

Pad Thai

Pad thai

Pad thai

Pad Thai is supposedly one of the most popular dishes at Mekong, and this makes me think that people in El Paso (as in most other places) appreciate authentic and well prepared Asian food when it is made available. I think this surpasses the flavor in most pad thai dishes, although I could not say specifically what ingredients are in it unless I asked the chef. The color makes me think tamarind paste is prominent in the sauce, and the other ingredients are what I would expect in a good pad thai. In any case I thought this was a very good version of the dish.

My notes say I ordered the pad thai at a three star chile level, but I do not know the maximum amount of stars they have. To me the 3 star level was not enough, and I used the chile they gave me on the side to supplement it. It is always necessary to experiment with the chile level when I try Thai food in a new restaurant, and I made it right by adding my own. At least I am fairly confident that they will not surprise people by making the food too spicy for them (I have had this happen on occasion, and restaurants are probably following good policy by erring on the side of making it too mild rather than too hot).

Lao Food
On one hand I was upset that the wait staff could not give me enough information to know that the chefs were Lao, so that I could have ordered this type of food. On the other hand, though, I got one of the best pad thai dishes I have ever had (at the waitress’s suggestion), and I do think it was northern Thai (Isan) style based on what I can remember about the pad thai I had at True Thai Restaurant.

My belated conversation with the chef did give me some good information for next time, though, or just for general knowledge. He indicated that a couple of items on the menu are Lao dishes–papaya salad and a beef dish (I did not get the name of it but I think it was written on a special menu board they had).

The chef also indicated that there are several dishes on the menu that you can ask to be prepared “Lao style” so that they will have a little different flavor than the normal version. One thing he mentioned is that Lao food has more egg in it than the Thai version.

Some Further Comments
With Thai food I need to try several dishes before I can determine what I think is their best dish. What I can say, though, is that the pad thai was one of the top ones I have had anywhere.

I am not giving a rating to the restaurant yet because of the small sample size of food I have tried. In addition, I have not tried the Lao food, and I do not know if there are any “special dishes” which I could try. I do know, though, that the regular menu has some solid choices of delicious food.

They apparently have Vietnamese food as well, but I have not tried it and I do not even know what dishes are offered. I do think, though, that these chefs have good expertise with Asian food.


RATING: N/R

Cuisine: Thai
Cost: $$
Hours: Closed Tue.
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Jul. 10, 2018
Number of Visits: 1
Best Item: Pad Thai

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Thai Tea
MSG: N/A
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Pad Thai

Carlos & Mickey’s (Montwood)–El Paso, TX

Carlos & Mickey’s
12111 Montwood Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 307-6886
Carlos & Mickey's on Montwood

Carlos & Mickey’s on Montwood just west of Loop 375


Carlos & Mickey’s is one of the city’s old-time “classic” restaurants serving El Paso style Mexican food (that combines Chihuahua style cooking with local chiles and other border style twists). There are now two Carlos & Mickey’s in El Paso plus one at the airport (usually I discount the airport locations as being an “express” version of the airport that is not as good as the original with the exception of one experience I had at LAX, so this means that you never really know until you try it).

I have eaten at the “other” Carlos & Mickey’s on Magruder for a number of years, and have largely dismissed it as a tourist trap, but my last visit was over ten years ago. Even as touristy as I thought it to be, it still had good food (I think much better than the ultimate tourist attraction of La Posta in Mesilla, New Mexico). I thought, though, that people went to Carlos & Mickey’s more for the drinks and the mariachis than the food.

The actual name of the Magruder restaurant was Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s (perhaps the “bandidos” part was a reference to the prices they charged?). In any case, for whatever reason the Montwood location is strictly “Carlos & Mickey’s.” I think this is a good thing because this is what everyone calls both restaurants, and the fact that I had to list it on the index under the “L’s” meant that some people may not have found my review.

The Montwood restaurant is relatively new and smaller than the original restaurant (so the Magruder restaurant is probably still better for the ambiance because of the hacienda style building and the outdoor patios, etc.). I frankly liked the food better on Montwood, though. Whether Carlos & Mickey’s has changed their food, whether it is different at the two locations, or whether my tastes have changed over the ten years since my last visit, is yet to be determined. I do make a recommendation, though, to visit the Montwood location.

I am currently developing a list in my mind of the best Mexican restaurants in El Paso. The top category are ones that I think are the very best and which contains about three restaurants (Amigos, Forti’s, and Las Palmas, but is subject to change). The next category includes more restaurants but is still very exclusive, and I think Carlos & Mickey’s Montwood may be a member (but with only one visit there I do not want to say definitively). In any case, this is a very good El Paso style Mexican restaurant.

Chips and Salsa

Chipa and salsa

Chips and salsa

There are a couple of things I like about the Salsa here: it is spicy (not gringo style) and it does not contain cilantro.

The Chips looked like round tortillas that had been toasted, but otherwise seemed traditional and good.

I liked the fact that they paid a lot of attention to some small things that many restaurants do not, such as as the chips and salsa.

Mexican Plate

Chihuahua plate

Chihuahua plate with beans, red enchilada, chile relleno, taco, rice, and guacamole served on the side

Many restaurants offer a “Mexican Plate” with a combination of items so you can try different things. At Carlos & Mickey’s they have several choices, such as the Chihuahua Plate that I ordered.

The Red Enchilada on this plate had a very good flavored red chile, and was spicy to about the “4 chile” level without being too spicy. The flavor was a little bit different than most, with a somewhat vinegary taste (I don’t know what that is about, but it was good).

The Chile Relleno surprised me by not having sauce on top. although you have a spillover effect of the red sauce from the enchilada. The Mexican cheese inside was very good, as were the green chile inside and the batter around the outside.

I believe the Taco comes with shredded beef, but if not you can order it this way. I really thought the key to this being an excellent taco was the Mexican cheese, so it would not matter much whether you get it with ground or shredded beef.

Out of the rice and beans, probably the beans are better (but both were very good).

I noticed that there were no green enchiladas on the menu, and I asked the waiter about it. I had remembered that at the Magruder restaurant the green enchiladas were Tex-Mex style and not typical of El Paso food, but I wondered why they were not listed on the menu here. The waiter said they were called chile con queso, and that you could order an enchilada with this as a topping (this would be what I called the “green enchilada” at the other restaurant). This cleared up the mystery, although it is probably not something I will order at either restaurant.

Other Items
There were not any other favorite items from the other restaurant that I did not try here except the tamales, so I would say this would be something worth trying at some point.

Drinks
When I used to go to the Magruder location they did not serve horchata, and I do not know if they have have now added this to the menu. The iced tea here is good, though, and of course they have alcoholic beverages.

Other Locations
The original and largest restaurant is at 1310 Magruder St. near the airport, and there is one in the terminal of El Paso International Airport.

Closing Comments
The “El Paso” style designation of this and other restaurants means that the chile on top of the enchiladas is spicy but not as much so as most New Mexico restaurants. I think this is a good place to try the local cuisine, particularly because they combine it with very good Mexican cheese, and the chile relleno is not smothered with the spicy chile as many restaurants do.

There is no green chile here, but instead it is called chile con queso. My recommendation would be to get this as an appetizer or side dish rather than on an enchilada, because the red enchilada is the one you would really want if you would like to try El Paso style cuisine. The Chihuahua plate I tried (with enchilada, taco, and relleno) had a very good selection of items, and was also about the right amount of food for me.

I cannot think of an item that it better at Carlos & Mickey’s than at any other restaurant in town, but what I tried was certainly as good as I can find at most restaurants.


RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Full bar

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 10, 2019
Number of Visits: 1
Best Items: Red Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Shredded Beef Taco

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: N/A

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchilada
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 5 Shredded Beef Taco
star 5 Beans
star 5 Rice
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa

JJ’s Mexican Food–El Paso, TX

JJ’s Mexican Food
5320 Doniphan Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 581-7267
JJ's Mexican Restaurant

JJ’s Mexican Restaurant on Doniphan


JJ’s first came to my attention as a small neighborhood Mexican restaurant with cheap prices and very hot salsa. The casual atmosphere meant that customers could spend as little or as much time as they wanted on the meal, and since food is paid for at the counter when ordering, patrons can leave as soon as they are finished or order the food as take-out. In addition to getting good Mexican food, it was sometimes very convenient to go out to eat and not have to make a “production” out of it.

JJ’s is probably best known for its gorditas. These are made with a deep fried corn masa, and while this is supposed to be a traditional Mexican recipe, it is surprisingly difficult to find any that are even close to the ones at JJ’s. Some web sites have published lists of restaurants that have them, and it looks as if there are about five or ten restaurants in El Paso that make them the traditional way (an alternate traditional way is to make them with a flour tortilla, but this is not the local style that I have experienced in El Paso).

After many visits to JJ’s I would definitely say that the gordita is their best item. Moreover, while I have not tried all the ones in El Paso, the one at JJ’s must either be the one by which all others are judged or else it is very close. There are several fillings available, and I prefer some over others, but the shell here is what I think makes them a standout (everyone has their own taste when it comes to the filling).

JJ’s opened in 1982, I have seen information on the Internet that it has changed owners since then. This may be completely unrelated, but I think the rest of the menu besides the gorditas has been getting better recently. The gorditas are usually the reason to come, but I like to get other items beside this on a combination plate, and I have enjoyed all of them. This was not true previously, and this is why I think the new owners have made some changes for the better (or else my tastes have changed more drastically than I thought).

In any case, I always feel positive about restaurants that are improving or at least seem to be doing a better job of satisfying my taste buds.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

To me one of the main attractions of JJ’s is the chips and salsa. I made note previously that the salsa was red, and now it is green. It is always on the spicy side, and to me it is obvious that it is made from fresh, locally grown chiles. Sometimes it borders on being too hot to eat with the chips, but even if this is the case a small amount sprinkled inside the gordita gives it an excellent flavor boost.

The Chips are always good and go well with the meal even if the salsa is too hot.

Gorditas

Avocado and ground beef gordita

Avocado gordita with ground beef gordita in the rear

Gorditas are by far the best item I have found at JJ’s. I think the restaurant recognizes it as their signature dish to the point that their east side branches are known either formally or informally as JJ’s Gorditas.

The gorditas at JJ’s are known for their light, thin crust that I think you inhale more than swallow (the flavor is very substantial, though). Inside will be a choice of several fillings: ground beef, shredded beef, chicken, beans, or avocado (I am not sure of the one with beans is still on the menu but if not, I am sure they can make it this way).

Avocado Gorditas have been one of my favorites, more for health reasons than because of flavor. It is interesting that the avocado turns the crust a green color as it soaks through, making this type of gordita easy to spot. The lettuce and tomato served in the gordita make the avocado taste somewhat like a guacamole salad. The yellow cheese is probably more to complement the flavor of the crust than the filling. All in all I like this better than the gordita at Little Diner, one of the few other restaurants that even serve an avocado gordita. The main difference between the two restaurants is that Little Diner’s crust is thicker as opposed to a somewhat light and fluffy texture which I think is JJ’s signature. Somehow, though, I think JJ’s also does a better job with the avocado filling.

JJ’s serves two types of beef gorditas, a shredded beef style and the ground beef gordita that is comparable to the one served at Little Diner. It is a matter of taste as to which one is better, but lately I have enjoyed the shredded beef more. Of course it is a bonus that customers can spoon on some of JJ’s fresh salsa.

The gordita that has become my absolute favorite, though, is the one with a chicken filling. Somehow this does not sound traditional, but I thought it was very good.

The problem I had with JJ’s gorditas at the “old” restaurant was that they left a “corn oil” aftertaste that I thought was stronger than I found in other restaurants. Recently, though, I have found JJ’s to have improved, while the much heralded ones at Little Diner have had such a thick and dense texture that I think there is now no comparison with the ones at JJ’s (even though I think the fillings in Little Diner’s gorditas are good).

Little Diner is known nationally for its gorditas, but recent ownership changes at both restaurants have caused some changes so that I would encourage those who have the chance to try both restaurants and compare the gorditas. Do not rely exclusively on reviews which are several years old (I would say that my experiences may not totally reflect how the food is normally prepared at both restaurants, but I still go back to the advice to do your own taste test).

Other Items

Combination dinner

Combination dinner with shredded beef gordita, chile relleno, and red enchilada

JJ’s has a number of combination plates, many of which contain a gordita with other items. For all of these you can choose your own filling for the gordita, and the choice of plates only involves the other items that will go with it.

I think probably my favorite item to go along with the gordita on a combination plate is the Chile Relleno. In the El Paso Upper Valley and adjacent Dona Ana County, New Mexico, it seems that it is impossible to find a bad chile relleno (the chiles are grown locally). The ones at JJ’s are a little bit greasy, but are definitely within my tolerance level. I have had some with no sauce on top and some with a red tomato flavored sauce (both are very good). The chile itself and the breading are also very good, along with the cheese.

Another good choice is the Red Enchilada which has a good red sauce, although I do not think JJ’s has one of the city’s premier sauces. I have seen good reviews for the green enchilada, but I have not tried it.

The Pregnant Burrito is so large it usually qualifies as a meal in itself (I am not sure if it comes on any combination plates. This is a very large tortilla enveloping a large helping of chicken and the condiments that provide the vegetables and spices. The pregnant burrito did not include the best grade of chicken when I tried it, but was otherwise delicious with large amounts of cheese, lettuce, avocado, and red chile.

The Refried Beans at JJ’s have not been noticeably greasy (I do not know if they are made with lard or corn oil but I do think that they taste much like the ones at other restaurants). They are very good for cooling the mouth if I order something spicy or use overly generous portions of salsa with the meal.

I have found the Rice to be genuinely good and flavorful (previously it was sometimes overcooked but I have not found that to be the case recently).

Drinks
JJ’s serves aguas frescas drinks including Horchata that is one of the best I have tasted with generous amounts of cinnamon.

Other Locations
“JJ’s Gorditas” restaurants are located at 1188 N. Yarbrough Drive and 10750 North Loop Drive (both are in east El Paso). I believe the one on Doniphan is the original restaurant.

Closing Comments
I think JJ’s does one thing really well, and that is the gordita. Other items are also very good, and I think certainly better than they used to be. I think the gorditas here are certainly worth trying, and for most people they will be quite different than ones they have had at other restaurants.

This is a very casual restaurant. You pay when you order and they bring the food to the table, but after that you are mostly on your own (although you can get drink refills, etc.). Because of this the prices are cheap, and this makes it even better to enjoy what I consider to be one of El Paso’s treats.


RATING: 23

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Has a food truck

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 17, 2019
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Gorditas, Salsa, Horchata

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: N/A

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Gorditas
star 4 Pregnant Burrito
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 4 Chicken Mole
star 5 Red Enchilada
star 5 Beans
star 5 Rice
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa