Chopes Bar & Cafe
16165 S. Hwy 28
La Mesa, NM
Chope’s in La Mesa, NM south of Las Cruces
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).
The kitchen is adjacent to the main dining room
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 enchiladas (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.
Around 2007 the daughters of Lupe and Chope took over management of the restaurant, and I initially thought they had made changes to the food because I found red chile that was less spicy than before (and I did not have enough samples of the green chile to really tell about the spiciness). On a recent visit, though, I was served red enchiladas that were reminiscent of the old ones in their spiciness. When I asked the employees about it they said that was just the way that particular harvest turned out. Thus this is one case where a change in management of a long-running restaurant did not result in an appreciable change in the food (and the more visits I made the more I found this to be true).
Chope’s chile relleno without sauce on top
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.
Chope’s green enchiladas made with fresh green chiles
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.
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. Over the years I have noticed a fresher flavor to the green enchiladas around harvest time, and other sources have confirmed this as well. I asked the owner when the exact dates would be for this, and she stated that around September and October would be when they would have the freshly harvested green chile. Thus this is the time I would especially recommend for people to try the green enchiladas at Chope’s if they can (for me this has been a very special experience that I have not found at any other restaurant).
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.
I would also make a personal note that I have observed a difference in the way they prepare onions in northern and southern New Mexico. The ones here (at least at Chope’s) are sharper than in the north, and thus I prefer for the enchiladas to be made without onions. Those who feel as I do, though, have to ask Chope’s to omit the onions because otherwise they will come in the enchiladas by default.
Red enchiladas served flat with an egg on top, and chile relleno to the side
For about ten months out of the year (November to August) the Red Enchiladas are my preference at Chope’s, and only lose this status during harvest season because the green ones are exceptionally good here. Generally the red chile is the only one I eat in New Mexico and El Paso, so this is in no way a knock on Chope’s green chile.
Over the years I had noted that the red and green enchiladas were both very spicy, but the red ones were a little milder (my Previous Review on Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page reflects this fact). My current understanding, though, is that it all depends on the chile harvest, and the only way to know which type of chile is spicier is to ask the people working at the restaurant.
Regardless of the spiciness, the red chile at Chope’s always has a very good flavor. I am especially happy, though, when it also comes from one of the spicier harvests.
I would suggest having the enchiladas served flat (for both the red and the green). They come this way on the enchilada plates, but are rolled on the combination plates unless you request otherwise. The reason I like them flat is that they have more of a red chile flavor this way (I think they pour more chile on top, and it soaks into the tortilla better than when they are rolled).
I like the enchiladas without onions but if you want them this way you have to request it (onions are served in the enchiladas by default).
Stuffed sopaipilla with a chile relleno on the side
Although my favorite dishes are the chile relleno and the enchilada, I discovered that I was missing out by not trying the Stuffed Sopaipilla until 2019. This is definitely one of the best ones I have tried, although in my opinion Nellie’s in Las Cruces remains as the champion in this category. One area where I think Chope’s excels, though, is in the quality of the chile con carne stuffed inside the sopaipilla. It was not so much the chile as it was the meat itself that made Chope’s stand out for me.
Customers choose between chile colorado con carne, chile verde con carne, ground beef, chicken, or bean as a stuffing choice for the sopaipilla. The one I tried was chile colorado, and I definitely thought this was a good choice.
For all the non-meat items (sopaipilla, lettuce, tomato, beans, etc.) I have always preferred Nellie’s over the other restaurants, and I believe this will remain my choice. When adding chile con carne into the mix, though, I believe Chope’s will be the first choice of many (and may become mine as well).
Combination No. 3 with a taco, two enchiladas, and a chile relleno
Combinations come with rice and beans, and include three main items. In addition, they have a choice of adding a chile relleno for an extra price. Combinations are available for lunch or dinner, although they have a lower price Thursday for lunch (constituting the only true lunch special I have found at Chope’s).
Even at the regular price the combinations are a good value, and I definitely like being able to get enchiladas and a chile relleno in one meal. I would advise people, though, that enchiladas come rolled on the combination unless you ask for them to be flat (as they are in the above photo). On the enchilada plates, though, the enchiladas are served flat.
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 only been excellent on recent visits, but it has impressed me as being one of Chope’s signature items. I do not think it has been as consistent over the years as other items at the restaurant, but it now seems to be some of the best I have found anywhere in El Paso or southern New Mexico.
Chips and Salsa
Chips and salsa
The Chips are nondescript in the sense that they do not seem outwardly to be much different from any others. I just know that all the factors are there to always make them a part of the meal that I really enjoy.
The Salsa seems to have undergone a transformation since about 2007 when the daughters took over, 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. I do not know, though, if there was a conscious decision to tone the salsa down a little or if it is just my perception.
A basket of freshly cooked sopaipillas going to a table of anxiously awaiting customers
Sopaipillas 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 not always spicy enough that I think eating a sopaipilla with them would have much of an effect in ameliorating the heat, but it still would taste very good (you have to pay extra for the sopaipillas). Of course they are also good for dessert. In the past the sopaipillas have been rather greasy, but recently they have been perfect, and worth ordering even if you think your stomach cannot handle any more food. One item of note is that they give you a jar of honey with a squirt cap that does not make a mess all over your hands as would be the case at restaurants that provide the little packets that you have to open with your fingers.
Chope’s Bar, located next door to Chope’s Cafe, serves the same food as the restaurant
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).
Part of the main dining room
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.
Patrons at Chope’s frequently spend time in the waiting room before a table opens up
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. I have discovered that they are pretty liberal on the closing time and lock the door about 1:35 to 1:40 at lunch time. They also keep the kitchen open past this time so that you can order items such as sopaipillas. I noticed that on Saturday they are open all day, but this seems to be the only day for which this is the case.
The combination plates are becoming my preference here because I can get the enchiladas and chile relleno together at a good price. The enchiladas on these plates, though, are rolled instead of flat. They will serve the enchiladas flat on request, though.
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.
A photo of “Chope,” for whom the restaurant was named
Lupe managed the restaurant until her daughters took over
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).
Lent special with quesadillas, chile relleno, and lentils
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 the green enchiladas are especially good, and would be what I recommend (Chope’s serves freshly harvested chile from about the beginning of September to the end of October).
- The chile relleno is the best I have found anywhere, and would always be a good choice here. The combination dinners have a choice of adding a chile relleno for two dollars extra, and I think it is well worth it to do so.
- The bar is next door to the restaurant and serves the same food. It gives you faster service if the restaurant is full and there is a waiting line, but I am usually willing to wait for a table in the restaurant if necessary because it is quieter and I like the setting better.
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.
Update Oct. 2019:
After visiting several New Mexican restaurants in 2018 and 2019 I just want to make a few comments about Chope’s. I consider this to be one of the best in the state, and definitely the best for the chile relleno as well as a very good choice for a relleno/ enchilada/ sopaipilla combination. There are very few cases where I think the green chile would be my first choice, but I make it a point to order it at Chope’s during harvest season (Sep. & Oct.).
Nellie’s in Las Cruces is my other Southern NM favorite, but here I usually order the stuffed sopapilla. People I know are divided about whether they like the red enchiladas better at Nellie’s or at Chope’s, but I think these are generally considered to be the two best places for them in the Las Cruces area.
The food in northern NM is very different in several ways. There my favorite item is usually the blue corn red enchiladas, which I think are better than the enchiladas I have had in the southern part of the state. Although I personally do not generally like the green enchiladas as much as the red, this is where I think the south is more competitive with the northern versions (even though southern NM serves regular corn tortillas instead of the blue one). During harvest season (September and October) I think Chope’s green enchiladas may even be better than the red ones, but the truth is that any time of the year the green enchiladas here are some of the best in the state.
I have tried several restaurants in the north recently, and these are the ones where I have found the best blue corn red enchiladas:
- Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque has one that is excellent, but I particularly like the one with meat (not a style of enchilada sauce that is generally found in the south).
- El Bruno’s in Cuba, NM so far is tied for the best non-meat sauce I have found in the north, and I would say also in the state. I tried the meat sauce at El Bruno’s also, but I thought that for this Mary & Tito’s was superior.
- Tomasita’s in Santa Fe was tied with El Bruno’s for my favorite red enchiladas (I was not able to try The Shed, La Choza, or restaurants in other cities such as Taos or Chimayo which are highly recommended, so this is not yet a scientific sample that will allow me to claim that I have found “the best”).