Nellie’s Cafe–Las Cruces, NM

Nellie’s Cafe
1226 W. Hadley Ave.
Las Cruces, NM
(575) 524-9982
Nellie's

Nellie’s


As far as I can remember Nellie’s has the distinction of being the first New Mexican restaurant I tried in Las Cruces (other than La Posta in Mesilla). Nellie’s was the favorite of my relatives and the one we headed to first when we were in the City of the Crosses. From this time in the mid 1970’s until after 2000 I never noticed a change in the quality of Nellie’s, and it has always been as good as I remember from the first time I ate here.

The only thing that has changed, though, has been the hours (and of course the prices have gone up over the years). They no longer have dinner hours, and now close at 3:00 p.m.  While not a change from the old days, they are also closed from Christmas until about the third week in January, and again for a vacation in the summer. I either read or was told that this is the way they have been able to keep this family owned business alive for so long without facing burnout and having to close.

Nellie’s has always been my idea of what southern New Mexican style food should be. The red chile has always been my favorite here, but others have told me the green chile is best. This is the restaurant where I developed a great love for the sopapilla compuesta, and this is my favorite dish here. Really, though, everything is good (a friend of mine tells me they have the best huevos rancheros ever).

I believe there are several candidates in New Mexico for the best red chile, and Nellie’s is certainly one of them. What I especially like about Nellie’s, though, is that the heat level is not extremely high but the flavor of the chile is as good as the hotter varieties.

Sopapilla Compuesta

Sopapilla compuesta

Sopapilla compuesta with red and green sauce

The Sopapilla Compuesta is my favorite dish, and I am very glad I can go back and get the same dish I have enjoyed over the years. This dish is related to the stuffed sopapilla, but the beans, meat, lettuce, cheese, and tomato are put on top of the sopapilla, along with your preference of chile (red or green). Over the years I have enjoyed the meatless version as much as the one with meat. Either way, I think it is best with the red sauce. The one pictured above was “Christmas” (with both red and green sauce).

These photos are of regular orders, but you can also get a smaller one. Both are relatively inexpensive.

Sopapilla compuesta with red sauce

Sopapilla compuesta with red sauce

The Sopapilla Compuesta with Red Sauce pictured above had less sauce overall than the one with both red and green sauce, but seemingly had more sopapilla. I also thought it had more meat than the other version (the meat is the same that I typically find in New Mexican style stew).

There is a good view of the kitchen from the dining room/cash register area, and it is apparent how each dish is individually prepared and that there is no assembly line production here. I think the chile is made in large batches, but the way the rest of the food is prepared makes it almost inevitable that sometimes an order will have more meat, sopapilla, sauce, etc. than at other times, and that the way it is cooked will not be exactly the same. On the two orders shown for sopapilla compuesta, one had a crispier sopapilla than the other (so that I needed a knife to cut it). I cannot say, though, that there was any difference in the overall enjoyment of the dishes.

One big difference I see between the sopapilla compuestas served here and the stuffed sopapillas I have found in northern New Mexico is the size. These are a meal in themselves, while stuffed sopaillas are usually the size of a regular sopapilla but with meat, beans, cheese, and/or lettuce and tomato stuffed inside.

For both of these New Mexico dishes the sopapilla is a little sweet, but is more like bread than the dessert sopapillas served in Oklahoma and other places (most sopapillas in other places are also covered with sugar or cinnamon while these are not).

In any case, I am almost always surprised when I eat Nellie’s version how well the flavors of the sopapilla, beans, chile, cheese, lettuce, and tomato come together for such a flavorful combination. On the meat, I can take it or leave it, but I usually take it. The red chile is really what makes this much better than others I have tried. The green chile is also quite good, but the red is my favorite.

I noticed on their menu that they rate the green chile as having a four-chile spice level, while the red is two. On my own “chile scale” I rate the red chile as being four out of five, and equivalent to most of the red chile served in El Paso. I think the green chile is a little hotter, but certainly not twice as hot as the red (and I am not sure that Nellie’s meant to imply that it was).

Red Enchiladas

Red enchiladas rolled instead of stacked

Regular (rolled) red enchiladas with an egg on top and sour cream

Red Enchiladas are also excellent, and I always like to order them stacked. Because they do not come with blue corn tortillas they do not rise to the level that I would put the ones in northern New Mexico. The chile, though, is probably as good as you will find anywhere (my preference is the red, but both are good).

The default here is that they serve rolled enchiladas. You can ask for them to be stacked but I tend to forget because of the normal long periods of time between my visits here. Theoretically both should taste the same, but I do not think this is the case. I would say that the stacked ones tend to have more chile (because the cooks try to cover the top of the enchiladas completely) while the rolled ones have more cheese (this is put on the inside of rolled ones while stacked ones only have cheese on top). It is a little depressing that these are the types of questions I ponder, but hopefully it will brighten someone’s day by knowing which type of enchilada to order.

The egg here is mostly for flavor because I do not think the red chile is spicy enough that you would need the egg for its mouth soothing properties. You can also get sour cream with the enchiladas if you desire.

I should note that the Beans seem to have the perfect texture and lack the greasiness I find in many restaurants. I think this is a reason they go so well on items such as the sopapilla compuesta, or as a side on dishes such as the enchiladas.

Salsa

They don't give many chips, but you can get more if you ask

Chips and salsa

Another item for which Nellie’s is famous is the Salsa. It is spicy, flavorful, and fresh. I have bought some to take home several times, and this is something I would suggest if you have the opportunity.

Nellie’s also sells its red and green chile in take-home containers. I found out that they call all of these “salsa,” with the red chile being salsa roja, the green being salsa verde, and the salsa served with chips being salsa regular. This shed some light, though, on the fact that there is some confusion between the term chile (which I and others tend to use) and salsa (which is the term most restaurants in El Paso and Las Cruces tend to use).

Closing Comments
Anyone who remembers restaurants from the 1970’s will probably know that many places placed an emphasis on utility rather than decor (unless it was a fine dining restaurant). Nellie’s, as a local hangout, provided all the tables and booths that could fit into a small space, and the last time I saw it nothing has changed. Many of the newer restaurants might be considered nicer, but I am glad Nellie’s still allows me to relive the memories of what have really been my favorite New Mexican food experiences in Las Cruces.

This may be one of the top New Mexican restaurants in the state (I consider it to be among the top three I have tried within the past few years). Keeping the same food and the same traditions they had in the 1970’s when I first tried it is what makes it great, but there are some things I wish they would change (but I know they won’t, and I understand the reasons for it):

  • The hours are limited (they have had to do this for the family to keep running it all these years). It closes at 3:00 p.m., and they are closed twice a year for vacation (at Christmas through the first part of January and for a week or two in the summer). If you make it there before 3:00 on a day they are open you are fine–they are not in a hurry to kick people out of the restaurant after this time. If you plan to go near Christmas and New Year or during the summer it is probably a good idea to call and find out if they will be open.
  • The enchiladas are rolled instead of stacked (probably most people want it this way). Having relatives in northern New Mexico and having most of my early New Mexican food experiences there, I like them stacked. Many times I forget that Nellie’s does not serve them stacked unless you ask for them that way. I am making a note here to remind myself (and others) to ask for them stacked.
  • (This point is more for others than myself) I have been rather surprised by the time it takes to eat here when they are busy. Usually the wait for a table does not take too long, but waiting for orders to be taken can seem like a long time when they are trying to serve a full house. Many people will also experience what seems to be a long time for the food to be cooked. I am not very concerned about this because I know that everything is individually prepared, but I just think that readers should be aware of it.

Nellie’s is cash only (they have an ATM machine if you need it). I think the prices are pretty decent, and this is probably a result of their “cash only” policy.


RATING: 26

Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Cost: $$
Hours: Open 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (closed Sun. & Mon.)
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Serves breakfast

Most Recent Visit: May 24, 2019
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Sopapilla Compuesta, Red Enchiladas, Beans, Salsa

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 5 Green Enchiladas
star 5 Sopapilla Compuesta
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa

Julio’s–El Paso, TX

Julio’s Mexican Food
7470 Cimarron Market
El Paso, TX
(915) 581-2242
Julio's Mexican Food

Julio’s Mexican Food


Julio’s had its beginning in 1944 in downtown Ciudad Juarez, Mexico when Julio and Guadalupe Ramirez opened an upscale Mexican restaurant (as opposed to the more numerous establishments serving tacos or street food). At that time it was called Julio’s Cafe Corona (I do not think this had anything to do with Corona Beer which is quite popular in Mexico).

When I first encountered Julio’s it had moved to the PRONAF area located across the “free bridge” at the eastern end of Ciudad Juarez. This was a popular commercial center with American style shopping centers as well as stores aimed at American tourists where “genuine” Mexican souvenirs could be purchased. The Sanborns coffee shop was nearby, as well as what I think were the city’s only two Chinese restaurants, the Shangri-La and the Lai Wa Yen (all of these other restaurants are still operating, and Paco Wong’s is the El Paso branch of Shangri-La).

I will have to say, though, that out of all of these restaurants, Julio’s was the one that I thought was the most special experience and which truly gave me a taste of Mexico. Julio’s was a little bit out of the tourist area, and seemed to cater to local tastes. It was definitely upscale, meaning that it had a full menu instead of specializing in tacos or another item that would be considered the restaurant’s specialty. At Julio’s everything was genuinely good, and there was a lot from which to choose.

One thing I considered to be upscale was the enchiladas, which seemed to be more complex than the typical ones found in Ciudad Juarez. The enchiladas at Julio’s were actually very similar to the ones served in a number of El Paso restaurants, and which I have dubbed “El Paso style” food. These had added spices and flavor than what I think are the typical Mexican style enchiladas, and I believe this is actually authentic Mexican food (but I call it El Paso style because this is the place where it is the most commonly found). Julio’s menu states that the food came from Guadalupe’s family recipes.

For a number of other items including steaks, flautas, chile relleno, etc., Julio’s is a good example of typical Chihuahua style food (referring to the State of Chihuahua). Julio’s serves upscale versions of everything on the menu, but this means they use the best cuts of meat, etc.

Julio’s has had a restaurant on Interstate 10 in east El Paso for a number of years, and sometime after this branch opened the Ciudad Juarez restaurant closed. It was explained to me that the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez own the El Paso restaurants, and there are now three restaurants including one in far east El Paso.

Julio's bar area

Dining room and bar area

The Julio’s in west El Paso is the only one not called “Cafe Corona,” but I do not know the significance of this name change. In any case, the food not only follows the Cafe Corona tradition, but so far I think this restaurant tastes the most like the original one in Ciudad Juarez.

Julio’s opened in early 2019 and is located in an upscale commercial center called Cimarron Market. The restaurant has a choice location at the intersection of Resler and Paseo del Norte where it is visible from both of these major streets. It is about a half mile from Interstate 10, and about a mile south of Loop 375 (Trans Mountain Dr.).

Chips and Salsa

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

Although the Salsa was very flavorful, it was not at the El Paso level of spiciness and I believe this is definitely not the same salsa that was served in the Ciudad Juarez restaurant (the salsa I had at the I-10 location seemed to be like Julio’s original salsa).

You can order Chipotle Salsa which is definitely spicy, but they failed to tell us that it costs $1.50 (I do not mind the price, but I mind that they did not tell us). In any case, I would say this salsa is quite good and is worth the price.

The Chips were definitely among the top ones in El Paso (and this is saying a lot because El Paso chips in general are better than just about anywhere else).

Corona Mexican Plate

Corona Mexican plate

Corona Mexican plate

With the exception of the guacamole I think this combination plate was definitely top notch, and worthy of being called “Corona” (Spanish for “crown,” and which is the same meaning as my name which comes from the Greek word). In any case, it seems that every Mexican restaurant has a “Mexican plate,” but this is one of the better ones.

Probably my favorite item here was the Red Enchilada (the red enchilada is the default on the plate rather than the green and is the way the restaurant has been serving it since 1944). This had the classic taste of an El Paso style enchilada, although I think it was actually developed in Mexico. My explanation of this is that El Paso and Ciudad Juarez used to function as one city with people crossing the border at will (or with minimal red tape as it was when I first came to El Paso). This style of enchilada was probably not common very far south of the border, but it was widely prepared in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

I also need to note that the enchilada was quite spicy (although not to the level of spicy New Mexican red chile). To me everything was right about this enchilada, although there are several others in El Paso that are probably equally good.

The Chile Relleno was unusual for El Paso because it did not have sauce on top, and this was a good thing. I believe that a really good chile relleno does not need anything to enhance it, and that was the case here. This one had a very good chile and an even better batter for a very flavorful item. I noticed on the menu, though, that if you order a chile relleno plate it does have sauce on top (either a Spanish sauce or a spicy Mexican sauce).

The Shredded Beef Taco was also very good, although it was probably the weak point of the three main items because of the meat being a little greasy. When that is the worst thing I can say about a combination plate, though, I would rate this as an excellent plate. The Monterey Jack type of cheese on the taco was very good (I do not know, though, the exact type of cheese it had).

The beans and rice were both excellent, but probably I was more impressed with the rice because at most restaurants this is a weak point (but not here). I thought it had an excellent seasoning as well as being well cooked.

The weak point of the plate was the Guacamole which I thought was very bland. It was very fresh, though. This surprised me because I had very good guacamole at the Interstate 10 location.

Overall the Mexican plate was one of the best of the city. Probably the item that stood out as being better than at other restaurants was the chile relleno.

Other Items
One of the best features of Julio’s is that it has some of the more upscale items that I like to seek out and which are not on the menus of many restaurants. I have found several of these in the section of the menu called “Julio’s Specialties” (they say these are original recipes that date back to 1944). The Corona Mexican Plate is listed in this section, and I ordered it first for the sake of nostalgia.

Some others, though, that I either have not tried yet or do not have a specific memory of them, include the following:

  • Steak Tampiqueña
  • Chicken Tampiqueña
  • Chicken Mole Poblano
  • Cochinita Pibil

This is not a complete list of everything that looks good, but these are some of the items I seek out in upscale Mexican restaurants across the country when I have a chance to try them and enough of an appetite that I can order them.

Julio’s also has a section on the menu noted as “Our Classics” which include Flautas, Tacos, & Tostadas. One item I noted was the flautas, which I had at the Gateway East (I-10) location and enjoyed very much. In addition, though, they have chile con queso flautas which I do not remember ordering previously, but this was one of my favorite dishes at the now closed Casa Jurado (and I think this is a classic El Paso dish).

Other Locations
The Ciudad Juarez restaurant is no longer open, but the other El Paso locations are at 8050 Gateway Blvd. East (Interstate 10) and 3630 Joe Battle Blvd. (Loop 375).

Closing Comments
The restaurant is upscale, but the prices for common dishes (such as the Mexican plate) are not out of line with other restaurants that are not as upscale. Julio’s does raise the price of most bills, though, because of things like charging somewhat high prices for drinks and having an extra charge for the chipotle sauce.

I do not understand the reasoning behind the regular salsa this restaurant serves. It is not very spicy, and is not like the salsa I have had at the Gateway East location (which I think matches the salsa that was served in Ciudad Juarez). Otherwise I am very happy with this restaurant and I think it tastes like the original Cafe Corona in Ciudad Juarez. I wonder if it is truly like the original restaurant, though, because of obvious signs such as the salsa having changed.

This restaurant seems to have been built with an eye to the future because it is on the fringe of the city in a location that it seems few people know about. Yelp reviews indicated that after it opened they were trying to get their act together in terms of customer service, but when I went it seemed that they had successfully worked this out.

I enjoyed the meal but I realize the restaurant is at its early stages. If I am able to return and try other items I will have a better idea about how I like this restaurant overall and how it compares with my experiences at the other Julio’s restaurants. From what I experienced, though, I definitely think it is worth trying out.


RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican Chihuahua
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Has a Bar

Most Recent Visit: May 22, 2019
Number of Visits: 1
Best Items: Red Enchilada, 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 4 Guacamole
star 5 Beans
star 5 Rice
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa

Karam’s–San Antonio, TX

Karam’s Mexican Dining Room (Closed)
121 N. Zarzamora St.
San Antonio, TX
Date of Review: Jan. 2005

Karam’s has been around for so long it is one of the few restaurants I can say I have gone to for more than 30 years. I also think it is one of the best examples of Tex-Mex food there is. So far, in fact, it has turned out to be the restaurant by which I judge Tex-Mex food. Many restaurants in Austin came close, and some had specific items that were better, but Karam’s seems to have captured the essence of Tex-Mex cooking to a point that it is almost equal in quality to other styles of Mexican cooking.

Known for its Cheese Enchiladas, I think they are some of the best I have had that are not New Mexico or El Paso style. They are interesting because the tortillas are soaked in a sauce that turns them the signature red of true Tex-Mex style.

Although the enchiladas themselves are good, a combination dinner is even better– there may be no better examples of Tex-Mex style Tamales than at Karam’s. These have a masa that is soft and seems to break away the moment a fork touches it, with a flavor that I could almost imagine all the times I had fast food and TV dinner tamales while on a student budget, but which even most Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin could not duplicate.

Karam’s is popular enough to have required building a parking lot across the street. In addition to the restaurant, Karam’s Catering, a separate portion of the building dedicated exclusively to take-out orders, does a brisk business. With the mild weather found in south Texas, the outdoor patio with a fountain is an added attraction.

I think that unless you are specifically hungry for meat items such as the fajitas at Mi Tierra, you really owe it to yourself to make Karam’s your one special San Antonio Tex-Mex meal. It is a San Antonio institution for a reason.

RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican Tex-Mex
Cost: $$
Alcohol: Beer
Special Features: Catering

Chile Index: chile 3

Most Recent Visit
Jan. 6, 2005

Number of Visits: 4

Best Items
Cheese Enchiladas, Tamales, Tacos

Special Ratings

star 5 Cheese Enchiladas
star 5 Chicken Tacos
star 5 Tamales
star 3 Refried Beans
star 5 Chips
star 4 Salsa

Menu (Date Unknown):

Menu courtesy of Eugene F. Michael El Paso Menu Collection, MS499, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department. The University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Note to Readers:

This review is reprinted from my original web site (Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page) and the newer site (OK Gourmet).  By putting it on Steve’s Food Blog I hope to keep it accessible to readers and to preserve the information as something that I think is of historical importance for Tex-Mex restaurants.

Karam’s was quite possibly the best Tex-Mex restaurant I ever found in Texas (there were a couple in Austin that were close).  Unfortunately when I discuss Tex-Mex restaurants I often have to refer to ones that are now closed (of which Karam’s joined the ranks in about 2005).  I wrote a blog post about why I do not think the Tex-Mex food served now is as good as it was at these former restaurants which were considered leaders of the Tex-Mex restaurant world:

Why Does Tex-Mex Not Taste the Same as I Remember Growing Up?

The Karams’ daughter wrote a very informative comment about the restaurant, and it is certainly relevant to this review as well as a discussion of Tex-Mex food in general.

 

Pamela Karam’s Comment (Dec. 10, 2015):

Dear Steve,
Karam’s Mexican Dining Room of San Antonio had the absolute best Tex-Mex in the country.
My parent’s invented the style that chefs tried to copy without much luck.
All over the country to this day when I say I’m from San Antonio, strangers will ask me if I ever ate at Karam’s. Of course they go crazy about the food when I tell them who I was lucky to be.
My dad started me in the kitchen and I know the secrets to the taste of our food.
I miss a Deluxe Dinner as much as the next person.
Thank God I can whip one up when necessary..
I’m glad you enjoyed our place.
I loved it and miss it every day.