About Steve

Hello, I am Steve of Steve's Gastronomic Home Page, which was started as a hobby to let others know about some of my favorite restaurants. This blog is an update and expansion of the original web site, and a chance for readers to leave their comments and suggestions. The most up-to-date restaurant reviews are at OKGourmet.com. For now I am including links to the reviews rather than try to move everything to Steve's Food Blog all at once. I am not a professional food person and I do not have a connection to any restaurant. As a geography major in college (Texas Christian University and the University of Texas at Austin) I am interested in different countries and cultures. This has now expanded to food in not only focusing on ethnic, national, and regional foods, but also in trying to determine what constitutes authentic ethnic food. My academic training and profession also inspired me to try to make a "master list" of restaurants, which I have included in the Blog as "Steve's List". I have included a box for comments on the list so that others can help me compile the list and keep it updated. At the very least, though, I hope it will serve as a list of interesting restaurants to try when traveling to different geographic areas.

Chope’s–La Mesa, NM

Chopes Bar & Cafe
16165 S. Hwy 28
La Mesa, NM
(575) 233-3420
Chope's in 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).

Chope's kitchen

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 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.

Chile Relleno

Chile relleno

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.

Green Enchiladas

Green enchiladas

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. 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.

Red Enchiladas

Red enchiladas and chile relleno

Red enchiladas served flat with an egg on top, and chile relleno to the side

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

Chips and salsa

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

Sopapillas

A basket of freshly cooked sopapillas going to a table of anxiously awaiting customers

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.

The Bar

Chope's Bar

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).

The Restaurant

Part of the main dining room

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.

A view inside to the waiting room

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.

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 photo

A photo of “Chope,” for whom the restaurant was named

Lent Specials
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

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 (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.


RATING: 26

Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Cost: $$
Hours: Lunch 11:30 to 1:30; Dinner 5:30 to 8:30; Closed Sun. & Mon.
Accessible: Yes
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

Chile Index: chile 4
Special Ratings
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 5 Green Enchiladas
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 5 Beans
star 4 Rice
star 4 Chips
star 5 Salsa
star 5 Sopapillas

Sunny’s Sushi–El Paso, TX

Sunny’s Sushi
910 E. Redd Rd.
El Paso, TX
(915) 842-9508
Sunny's Sushi

Sunny’s Sushi on Redd Rd.


To me the national restaurant review web sites do not help much for restaurants such as Sunny’s Sushi. The information they give is that this is a Japanese restaurant, but my friends told me that the owners are Korean and that Korean food is really its specialty. I know that the name indicates that it is Japanese (and it does have some Japanese food, including sushi). There is a sushi craze in El Paso that I know restaurants want to use to their advantage, including this one. I only had a small sample of the sushi that came on the lunch special, and I do not know how their sushi ranks with other restaurants. What I can say, though, is that the Korean food is pretty solid.

For lunch they offer Lunch Box meals as their specials. I really do not think that you save any money eating these or coming at lunch, but what you get is a sampling of numerous items with a total quantity of food that was almost more than I could eat and was definitely more than I should have eaten (although sometimes I know it is all right to splurge).

Sunny’s has three locations in El Paso, and two are on the west side. My friends are familiar with the restaurant on Viscount, and judging from their comments it sounds as if the food is the same at all three locations.

My long time favorite Japanese restaurants in El Paso are Matsuharu and Riyoma, and for Korean food I like Han Il (some other Korean restaurants in northeast El Paso are also very good). The bulgogi was good, but otherwise Sunny’s did not serve anything that would rank it among these top restaurants for me. I have only tried it one time, though, and everything is always subject to trying new dishes and having different experiences.

Lunch Special

Miso and house cucumbers

Miso and house cucumbers

The two items pictured above come with all lunch specials. The Miso soup was very good, and tasted as if it was made from scratch (some in El Paso taste like they are made from a mix).

House Cucumbers have a red sauce that looks like kimchee, but I did not think it was nearly spicy enough. It may be the restaurant’s own version of kimchee, but in any case the cucumbers are good, and anyone can enjoy them even if they do not want to go anywhere near something spicy like kimchee.

Bulgogi lunch box

Bulgogi lunch box

I am not sure if I got the Bulgogi Lunch Box because the waiter recommended it or because I did not see anything else I wanted to order, but I would say this makes a good choice. The meat is marinated and has a very good flavor, and its other qualities (tenderness, lack of gristle, etc.) are similar to those found in the Dyer Street Korean restaurants. The meal here is packaged differently than at the standard Korean restaurants, with this one concentrating on Japanese side dishes.

I thought the mixed vegetables and salad were the best side dishes on this plate, relegating most of the Japanese side dishes to “disappointing” status (not that I did not want to eat them, but only that they are better at some of the city’s Japanese restaurants). In my mind this is a pretty good Korean restaurant but a not very serious one for Japanese food (but my time spent in Seattle eating at some excellent Japanese restaurants enters into this).

The tempura was not disappointing in its flavor as much as I thought they should have given me some sauce to go with it.

The sushi and gyoza (dumplings) that came on the plate did not seem to be anything notable, but they were enjoyable.

Other Observations
Although the bulgogi on the lunch box special was as good as I have found at most of the city’s Korean restaurants, I also have to consider how it is packaged. The side dishes were not really disappointing as much as I have had better at many Korean and Japanese restaurants in various cities. Also I thought the price for lunch was pretty steep, but this is a disturbing trend I find at the city’s “Sushi” restaurants (as opposed to the traditional Japanese or Korean ones). Also the quantity of food on the lunch box special was more than I really wanted.

My bias is that I like traditional Japanese or Korean restaurants rather than fusion ones that serve both. I especially have very little desire for the “California Roll” type of sushi that is popular in El Paso. I should note, though, that I did not order the sushi at Sunny’s, and I am basing my comments on items that I like to order at other restaurants.

I looked at Sunny’s menu on their web site and it appears that the only choices at lunch are sushi or the various lunch box specials. Based on this it looks as if they have good food but everything comes in large servings (or at least expensive ones). I am not sure about the serving sizes at dinner menu but it is more expensive than lunch.

For those not familiar with El Paso, though, the Dyer Street Korean restaurants are on the other side of the mountain from Sunny’s and might as well be in another city. It is great to have good Korean food on the west side, and I am glad Sunny’s has not only one location but two in the area.


RATING: 22

Cuisine: Korean and Japanese
Cost: $$
Hours: Closed Sun.
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 15, 2018
Number of Visits: 1
Best Items: Bulgogi, Miso, Mixed Vegetables, Salad

 

Asian Food Details

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

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Bulgogi
star 4 House Cucumbers
star 5 Miso
star 4 Tempura
star 5 Mixed Vegetables
star 5 Salad
star 4 Gyoza

Sushi Zen–El Paso, TX

Sushi Zen
7040 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX
(915) 585-8848
Sushi Zen

Sushi Zen in Coronado


El Paso is actually replete with sushi restaurants, and I think the only parts of town where they are not in abundance are the lower income areas near the International border where it is also hard to find such amenities as grocery stores (other than neighborhood convenience stores). I am not one to start a crusade saying that the people there should demand that something be done about the situation, because it is a matter of economics whether anyone has what could be considered a necessity such as a grocery store or a luxury such as a sushi restaurant. Although both of these are unequally distributed throughout the city’s neighborhoods, market demand dictates that both are in abundance in the area. I think that many people who have the money to go out to eat have sushi high on their priority list, judging by the number of restaurants that have opened.

In El Paso the sushi restaurants are not only all over the map geographically, but this also applies to the quality of the food. Many are not even owned by Japanese people (I would say this is true in the majority of cases). Sushi in El Paso usually refers to the California roll branch of this cuisine rather than trying to import fish that is fresh enough to make a decent nigiri or sashimi. I do not want to get into the argument right now about whether California rolls and other rolls are actual sushi, although the same argument is even made for sashimi.

From reading other web sites I understand that Sushi Zen is owned by Japanese people and that it has some of the best sushi in town, if not the best. I did not try anything from the sushi menu, so I will not attempt to give a rating to a place for which I am unable to evaluate their most popular and best rated dishes. Even though the sushi here is supposed to be the best in town, I will say that I would not expect it to be like places on the west coast, Florida, etc. Still, though, I only want to report on the food I have tried.

Miso and hot tea

A very good miso soup and Japanese green tea are served

What I did find out about Sushi Zen is that they give customers a quality product for their money. A la carte items are fairly inexpensive, and you can arguably get an even better deal with a lunch combination plate consisting of three items for $10.95 (this was the price when I ordered it). Of course I also felt that it was my duty to readers to be able to report on as many items from the menu as possible, and I found the lunch combination plate a good way to do this.

Lunch Special
The A La Carte menu is effective for both lunch and dinner, and is divided into Appetizers (about $3 to $5), Kitchen ($5 to $6), and Sushi ($4 to $8). These prices are for 2018 when I visited. For the lunch special ($10.95) you can pick any three items from any of these categories. I picked two from “Kitchen” (Salmon and Tofu Veggie Plate), and one of the appetizers (Shrimp Tempura).

Shrimp tempura

Shrimp tempura from the “Appetizer” menu

My favorite was probably the Shrimp Tempura, although all three had elements of them that I liked better than others. For instance, I liked the shrimp tempura very much, but I thought the eel sauce that came with it was very thick, very sweet, and not very flavorful.

Salmon

Salmon is one of the “Kitchen” items

The Salmon was very fresh (it did not have a “fishy” taste) and it had a good flavor, but the color was not anywhere close to the red that I associate with high quality salmon. The sauce was also somewhat lacking in flavor. For El Paso this was very good salmon and I would order it again, especially compared to what I find in other restaurants.

Tofu vegetable plate

Tofu vegetable plate from the “Kitchen” section of the menu

The Tofu Vegetable Plate was certainly good quality, but just lacked flavor. I would rather it be this way than the other way around, and like the other two dishes I would order this again. It is a good value for the money, especially if you get it on the lunch combination as I did.

Dinner Menu
For dinner you can also order anything on the three menus I mentioned except the lunch combination special. Dinner also includes some much more expensive items such as special sushi rolls and grilled steak (these items are also available for lunch but they are not available on the lunch combination special).

In short, except for the lunch combination special they serve the same items at lunch and dinner, and they are at the same prices.

Other Observations
The restaurant was quite busy when I went, and I think if there is anything El Pasoans know it is a good bargain. I believe Sushi Zen certainly gives people their money’s worth on the lunch special, and individual items are not expensive compared to other restaurants.

I have not tried the sushi, but I hear that it is good. The menu lists only rolls, though, and there is no traditional nigiri listed. I do not know if any of the rolls contain traditional sushi fish, and if this is true I would question the restaurant’s use of the name “Sushi” although that does not diminish the quality of the food they do serve.

I complained about the flavors of some of the dishes, but the restaurant does not have a sweet Americanized flavor–I think it is real Japanese but perhaps modified because of the ingredients available in the Southwestern desert and also the tastes of the people in the region (which would make it “Americanized,” if true, but I just do not believe the food here is what I would normally classify as being Americanized).

There is another Sushi Zen at 2400 N. Mesa Street (I believe this is the original restaurant). I think that both of them have the same food, and the one at 7040 N. Mesa would certainly be easier in terms of finding a parking spot.


RATING: N/R

Cuisine: Japanese
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 30, 2018
Number of Visits: 1
Best Item: Shrimp Tempura

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Green
MSG: No
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Shrimp Tempura
star 4 Salmon
star 4 Tofu Veggie Plate