El Paso, TX
Carnitas Querétaro has multiple locations in El Paso, and each one is packed with extended families and groups of friends who come for “Mexican comfort food” that is filling and served as it would be found in a typical restaurant in Mexico. The emphasis at CQ is on meat– there are probably more types of Mexican meat dishes served here than at any other restaurant in El Paso, including lamb barbacoa, buche, and other specialties not usually found in the more Americanized Mexican restaurants.
Most of the meat items served are familiar to people, such as steaks, tacos, and burritos. It is definitely not necessary to “take a chance” on something new if you already have a favorite dish you would like to try.
The more adventurous dishes here have not been my favorites, but I suppose they may be to many people. The Lamb Barbacoa had a more “gamey” taste at Carnitas Querétaro than I remembered from eating it in Austin many years ago, but this may be the way it is supposed to be. I am probably not a very good judge of such things.
I think Carnitas Querétaro is better known for its specialties than some of the more generic Mexican food that is served at just about every restaurant. I would not say the cheese enchiladas, chiles rellenos, or combination plates are as good as the ones served at many other restaurants in El Paso. I would also pretty much forget about finding any exceptional vegetarian food here, since almost all the standout items I have tried have been meat items. The exception would be “Lent specials” served on Fridays before Easter.
Chicken Mole was once considered a rather exotic dish in El Paso, but is now found in most restaurants. Few do it as well, though, as Carnitas Querétaro. The mole has a more subtle flavor than at other places, and I would judge it to be one of the premier representations of this dish in El Paso. Although some first time eaters are apprehensive about the dish because one of its base ingredients is chocolate, the mole at Carnitas Querétaro is made from such a rich mixture of flavors the chocolate is not as readily discernible as in other versions.
The Chicken Mole Dinner is served with grilled chicken breast meat, in CQ’s apparent attempt to serve a more upscale version of this entrée as is being done at Barrigas, Sombras del Pasado, and other restaurants. I wish they would stick with the more traditional shredded chicken that is served on occasion, although I cannot figure out any pattern as to when the shredded chicken is used as opposed to a chicken breast. To me the breast meat usually tastes dry, and the shredded chicken has a better flavor.Despite the variablility in the way the chicken mole dinner is made, it is always one of my top two or three favorite dishes at CQ (at least the variability indicates that each one is individually prepared by whatever chef is on duty at the time).
I think the mole dinner always goes better with a flour tortilla (they provide a corn tortilla unless you ask for the flour one). Certain drinks seem to go best as well, with my preference being the cantaloupe drink (melón).
The Mole Burrito is made with shredded chicken for the more traditional style of mole. The burrito is wrapped in the same flour tortilla that comes on the side with the dinner, and might be a preferred alternative to the larger dinner portion. It has all the flavors of the mole dinner, but in a different form.
Enmoladas are another form of a mole dinner, and are popular as a Lent meal (when no meat is eaten). “Enchiladas” are tortillas with chile and “Enmoladas” substitute mole for the chile as the topping. The menu offers either cheese or chicken inside, but personally I think if I want chicken the mole burritos are probably better. The enmoladas with cheese offer a good opportunity for a delicious non-meat meal (although some would argue the cheese does not really make this vegetarian).
Carnitas (pork) is the signature dish of this restaurant, with the recipe originating in Querétaro (the rest of the menu is Chihuahua style). I ordered some tortas with carnitas meat and found it to be somewhat dry with a disappointing flavor. I am not an expert on this dish, though, so I cannot say whether the ones here are really representative of the way they are made in Mexico. I just know that other people swear by the carnitas here.
Pozole Tapatio, or hominy served with pork chunks and red chile, is one of the most flavorful versions of the dish I have tried. The yellow hominy might be an acquired taste for some, but mixed with the red chile and meat it offers another great opportunity to venture out from the mundane menu found at most restaurants. Several soups are on the menu but so far this is one of the best I have found.
The pozole comes with tortillas on the side, limes for flavoring, and cabbage to put into the soup if you desire. With all the side dishes that are served, I find the large bowl to be enough for a meal. I also think it is a big reason I enjoy the pozole here so much.
Aztec Soup is Carnitas Queretaro’s version of tortilla soup, with crispy tortillas that have been made soft by floating in the soup. The white meat chicken and avocado were good, and I liked the Mexican style cheese even better. I thought the best feature, though, was the flavor of the broth. This was not quite the best version of tortilla soup I have ever eaten, but it was close.
The Chile Relleno has a flavorful chile that is very hot because of leaving the seeds inside, a good cheese, and a ranchero sauce that covers it with large chunks of tomato and chiles (chiles on top of another chile!). It may be a little more greasy than other versions though.
Flautas have the same high quality as most of the other dishes, with the customary guacamole and sour cream (or at least this is customary in the more authentic Mexican restaurants). The chicken version comes with meat that is tender and flavorful. The guacamole that covers the flauta is puréed, but customers can also request the more chunky variety on the side as in the photo.
Green Enchiladas are puréed and more flavorful than the norm for El Paso, but are even better when turned into Enchiladas Suizas (served with white meat chicken inside and sour cream on top). The green chile seems to be a rather spicy Mexican variety, and is similar to the type I have eaten in Sanborn’s and other restaurants in Mexico. It has a more sour taste than the typical New Mexico green chile, most likely because of the other ingredients mixed in. As a chile lover I still think the New Mexico version is best, but the one here is a “must try” for the mixture of flavors that that make these special enchiladas (despite the name, I doubt if they can be found in Switzerland– actually the dish originated at Sanborn’s and was so named because of the Swiss’ love for dairy products).
I do not care for the Red Enchiladas as much, but they go well on combination plates such as the chicken tampiquena.
Chicken Tampiqueña in El Paso restaurants refers to grilled chicken with green chiles on top, accompanied by a red enchilada (and usually rice and beans). Restaurants usually give a price break ordering it this way as opposed to ordering chicken and an enchilada separately, so I usually find this dish to be a good choice.
Rice and Beans
Rice and beans are above average, but I do not care much for the chips and salsa (the Pico de Gallo is better than the regular salsa).
One of the best features of Carnitas Querétaro is the variety of Aguas Frescas that are served. While many restaurants in El Paso can compete for the best food, serving these authentic Mexican drinks plays a large part in the overall experience, and surprisingly few restaurants do it as well as Carnitas Querétaro.
Horchata is the traditional drink with lent specials (at least it is traditional with me), and the one here has a good cinnamon flavor.
Melón (canteloupe) is usually my favorite of the aguas frescas, and while it has traditionally been available only during the harvest season in the Pecos Valley or in California, I believe the availability of the fruit now lasts a large part of the year.
The Lemonade at CQ rivals the other drinks for quality and enjoyment.
The aguas frescas are almost like a wine in that patrons can pair their meals with the proper drink just as they would at a fine dining restaurant. Personally I get just about as much enjoyment out of the drinks at Carnitas Querétaro as I would with a fine wine.
On Fridays during Lent Carnitas Querétaro serves Comida de Cuaresma (Lent Dinner) specials that are among my favorite Mexican food experiences. Lent specials are provided for the faithful who wish to go without meat at least one day a week in favor of a fish or vegetarian meal. The restaurant says on the menu “It’s time to be good,” but I think it is also time to enjoy some delicious meals.
Two types of soup are offered in the specials, but my favorite is Lentejas, or lentil soup.
This soup is wonderful in its simplicity, with whole lentils, a few spices, and a dark broth. Served with Horchata, a rice drink with cinnamon, this is the start to a classic El Paso style Lent meal. Corn or flour tortillas are usually served with the meal, but I like to request that corn tortillas be served with the soup.
The main dinners are offered by themselves or as a package deal with soup and dessert (drinks are extra). Fish or shrimp is available, and there are three toppings offered for each one. I was surprised to discover that fish and shrimp are only available at Carnitas Querétaro during Lent, and are not on the regular menu. Perhaps this helps explain why the quality of the fish is consistently high.
One of the styles served is Pescado Veracruzano, or Veracruz style fish with a tomato sauce and green olives. The flavor of the fish is mild, and this helps to highlight the delicious sauce with green olives, chiles, and spices. I probably enjoy the Mashed Potatoes as much as anything on the plate, with a home made (not from instant potatoes) taste.
The Diabla Style Fish Fillet is also very good, but do not order this unless you like extremely spicy food. This has not been on the Lent menu every year, but it may be rotated back to the menu at some point.
Order the Al Mojo de Ajo fish or shrimp if you like an overwhelming garlic flavor (actually I do not, but Carnitas Querétaro does cook this style of fish the traditional way for those who do like it).
It is also possible to order a vegetarian meal, and of course enchiladas are always available from the menu. A special sauce, though, is available on the Lent menu in the Green Chipotle Enchiladas (shrimp chipotle enchiladas are also available). Normally the enchiladas at Carnitas Querétaro are not quite as remarkable as at other restaurants, but the chipotle sauce is not only very good but also largely unavailable anywhere else (or at least I have not seen it anywhere).
Capirotada dessert tops it off, a kind of drunken bread pudding with raisins and the little sugar balls on top that are sometimes used on cupcakes.
There are several Lent specials I enjoy in El Paso, but the one at Carnitas Querétaro is one of the best in terms of food quality (good fish, soup, and dessert). It is also one of the most filling and most expensive, which to me is probably its biggest drawback. Items are offered a la carte, though, if your appetite is not as large. A traditionalist, though, probably has to “have it all” for a complete Lent experience.
Carnitas Querétaro currently has four locations, but I would advise checking on line because the locations change from time to time. The former restaurant at 6516 N. Mesa St. is where the photos in this review were taken, but it has now moved a few blocks west to 7410 Remcon Circle.
I have also been to the east side restaurant, which has the same menu as the west side locations.
The address of the east side restaurant is 9077 Gateway West (shown in the above photo), and is located on the I-10 frontage road. There is now a second east side restaurant at 1451 N. Zaragoza Rd.
Another location at 4001 N. Mesa St. is located near the UTEP campus.
Carnitas Querétaro has such a large selection of items it is probably inevitable that there are some I do not care for very much. This has caused me to lower the rating a bit from what I would probably otherwise give it. This review, though, highlights many of my favorite dishes at the restaurant, and these are among the best I have found anywhere. The rating is an attempt to be objective about how the restaurant compares to others, but I feel passionately about some of the dishes, and they would definitely fall in the high “five star” category.
Cuisine: Mexican Chihuahua
Hours: Open Daily
Smoking: No smoking
Most Recent Visit: Mar. 5, 2010
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Chicken Mole, Green Chicken Enchiladas, Chicken Tampiqueña, Pozole, Aztec Soup, Lent Specials, Aguas Frescas
Mexican Food Details
|Green Enchiladas (cheese)|
|Green Enchiladas (Suizas)|
|Pico de Gallo|
Green Chipotle Enchiladas
Pescado al Mojo de Ajo