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 the spiciest item served at Chope’s, but since about 2007 I have found them to be slightly less spicy than they were up to that point. They still rate five chiles on my “chile index,” but I have not found them to be at the level found in many northern New Mexico restaurants.

Around the beginning of August postings appear on the Internet asking about the availablity 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 very 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

I have to report, though, that my experiences with Red Enchiladas have been noticeably different since the restaurant’s change in ownership in 2007. 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. I do think, though, that Chope’s has made a decision to make the red chile milder than the green (possibly to make it more acceptable to a wider audience), and of course both the red and green chiles come from local farms in the Mesilla Valley.

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 meal, providing a soothing effect to the mouth that counteracts the spicy chile. The green enchiladas are hot enough that I probably would not attempt to eat them without the relief of a sopapilla and honey interspersed between bites of the hot chile (although an egg on top of the enchiladas does provide some soothing effects). Many patrons order a sopapilla for dessert, but I prefer it with the meal (northern New Mexico style). 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. 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 I’m sure they will fill you in on the estimated wait time if you call ahead of time).

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. Note: Yelp says the closing time is now 8:00 p.m. except on Saturday, so it might be advisable to check with the restaurant before making a trip to La Mesa.

I sometimes have to look hard to find drawbacks to eating at Chope’s, but I have thought the enchiladas were too heavily saturated in corn oil. On my most recent visit, though, I was waiting for this unpleasant aftertaste to appear after my perfect (or close to it) meal, and it never did. My conclusion, then, is that either Chope’s has found a way to reduce the amount of corn oil used or part of the “home cooking” style that Chope’s uses is that the food will vary from one experience to another. I do think that many of the complaints I occasionally have about Chope’s are because my expectations are so high.

In case you find extremely spicy food to be a drawback, I believe Chope’s is now less of a problem than before (in fact, I used to find it too spicy even for my taste). The green and red enchiladas are now less spicy than before (I would say up to about 2007), and the chile relleno is not particularly spicy. It is still spicy enough, though, to have a great flavor of New Mexico chiles. I would similarly classify the red enchiladas as “not particularly spicy,” although the green enchiladas usually have more of a kick.

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 usually 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).

Some of the best bargains are available on the lunch specials, but choices are limited. The dinner menu, though, has some of the most reasonable prices in the Las Cruces area.

My experience is that the most worthwhile items to order are green enchiladas from May to September, red enchiladas the rest of the year, and the chile relleno any time. The rice is not exceptional, but the beans are a better choice for counteracting the hot chile (adding a sopapilla to the meal makes it even better). I do not like the enchiladas any better with an egg on top, but I sometimes order it for variety.

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 (there are few if any signs that give directions). 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 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 (about July 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).
  • Chope’s changed ownership in 2007. Since this time I have changed the chile rating from five chiles to four (red enchiladas and rellenos are not very spicy at all although the green enchiladas still might be classified as five chiles). 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.
  • I found the hours to be 11:30 am to 1:00 pm and 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm, although Yelp says it closes at 8:00 except on Sat. (and it has always been closed on Sundays and Mondays). Because it is in a small town a number of miles from both Las Cruces and El Paso, it is best to get there early if possible (I also estimate that there could be a 15 to 30 minute wait for a table).

RATING: 26

Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Cost: $$
Hours: Closed Sun. & Mon.
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Beer, Wine, Mixed Drinks

Most Recent Visit: Aug. 19, 2010
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Chiles Rellenos, 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

Casa de Sueños–Tularosa, NM

Casa de Sueños
35 St. Francis Dr.
Tularosa, NM
(575) 585-3494
Casa de Sueños

Casa de Sueños Restaurant in Tularosa


The city of Tularosa, a few miles north of Alamogordo, is not only one of the most beautiful towns in New Mexico, but it is one of the best examples of the unique culture and architecture generally associated with the Land of Enchantment. After being in Tularosa by chance on a Christmas eve and seeing the church lit up with luminarias and the celebrations of the parishoners, I now make it a point whenever possible to relive the experience if I can be in the area during the holidays.

Despite all the historical and cultural attractions of the area, though, there are surprisingly few places in this or any of the nearby towns to enjoy New Mexican cuisine. Casa de Sueños, judging from the cars in the parking lot and the mention it receives on the Internet and in travel publications, is the most popular and well known New Mexican restaurant in Otero County (with Alamogordo and Tularosa being the two major towns). By saying it is “New Mexican,” this really means that most food is served with either red or green New Mexican chiles, and it follows the standard menu found throughout the state.

Parking Lot

The sprawling parking lot of Casa de Sueños

Casa de Sueños is open daily, and seems to sponsor a number of banquets, private parties, and meetings of civic groups. Do not worry, though, because the restaurant is large enough to handle customers during the peak periods as well as any special parties that are booked.

Red Enchiladas

Red enchiladas

Red enchiladas with blue corn tortillas and an egg on top

Casa de Sueños stays true to the tradition of New Mexican cuisine by offering enchiladas served flat, with blue corn tortillas (optional), and a fried egg on top (this is also optional). Red Enchiladas are usually my preference, and that is how I ordered them here. The red chile contained spices and other ingredients that I call “adulterated” red sauce, but it was pretty typical of the type of red enchiladas I have found in southeast New Mexico.

What was not typical for the southern part of the state was the fact that blue corn tortillas were served in the enchiladas (these cost a dollar extra), making them close to the northern New Mexico version. They were served flat by default (usually I have to request them this way in the southern part of the state), so overall they were very good compared to other New Mexican restaurants in the region. Flat enchiladas are my preference because they seem to absorb more of the sauce and thus more of the flavor than ones served with rolled tortillas.

I was hoping for a red sauce that used a more pure red chile, but there was enough red chile to give it a good flavor. Everything else in the enchiladas was good (including the cheese), so I would have to say these were a good example of New Mexico enchiladas.

Stuffed Sopapillas

Stuffed sopapilla

Stuffed sopapilla with green chile

Stuffed Sopapillas are something I greatly enjoy when they are done well, but I was somewhat disappointed by the one at Casa de Sueños. The sopapilla had a good flavor, as evidenced by the plain sopapilla served as a dessert (although I think most restaurants would not serve a sopapilla for dessert after it had been eaten as a meal). A choice of fillings was available, and I thought the whole beans I ordered were good (whole beans were also served on the side). It comes with red or green chile, and the green chile I ordered was spicier than the red, but just as diluted with additives as the red chile had been. The sopapilla’s texture, though, was too heavy and not fluffy enough.

After trying both the red and green sauce I preferred the red, and I think I would have enjoyed the stuffed sopapilla more with the red sauce.

Rice
The Rice was mixed with corn and other vegetables, and was a little bit unusual for New Mexican restaurants.

Salsa
The Salsa was a high point, with it being spicy but not tongue-numbing. It tasted as if it were made with fresh chiles. The chips were thick and good.


RATING: 22

Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Lunch buffet (Mon.-Fri.), Sunday brunch

Most Recent Visit: Nov. 20, 2009
Number of Visits: 1
Best Items: Enchiladas, Salsa

Mexican Food Details

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

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Christmas in Southern New Mexico–Tularosa, NM


Nellie’s Cafe–Las Cruces, NM

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

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). The last few times I tried to eat at Nellie’s I kept finding it closed, at first because they were only open a few nights a week and I went on the wrong night (I think they were open Fri. and Sat. night). Then I tried going at lunch, but always getting there too late (for a while I think they were open until 3:00 p.m., but by the time I made it there they were closing at 2:00). My last attempt was early enough, but they were taking one of their periodic vacations (I think they do it every summer and around Christmas time). Finally it has ended up that I have not been able to go there at all for several years. I understand that the family wants to have some time together outside of the restaurant, so I am not upset about Nellie’s hours– only disappointed that I have not been able to go in a while.

Nellie’s has always been my idea of what southern New Mexican style food should be. Lately I have found some other restaurants that are equally good or better, but Nellie’s has always been a good standard by which to compare everyone else. Others have told me the green chile is best, but I like the red because this is usually my preference when both types of chile are very good. It is seldom that I get to make this type of comparison in a single restaurant since one type of chile is usually good while the other leaves something to be desired.

Stuffed Sopapilla
The Stuffed Sopapilla is my favorite dish– probably not because it is better at Nellie’s than their other dishes, but because this is usually my favorite New Mexican dish when all of them are prepared well. Nellie’s stuffs it with red or green chile, beans, lettuce, and meat (or you can order it vegetarian). I liked it equally well with and without the meat, and I think the sopapilla itself and the chile are what make it exceptional. Although the beans and lettuce were pretty plain, they were very good in contrast to some other places where the lettuce is not as fresh as the beans are not as flavorful.

Red Enchiladas
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 would put them above the stuffed sopapilla. The chile, though, is probably as good as you will find anywhere (including northern New Mexico).

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.

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.


RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican New Mexican
Cost: $$
Hours: Breakfast & lunch only
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Serves breakfast

Most Recent Visit: May 10, 2002
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Stuffed Sopapillas, Red Enchiladas, Salsa

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 5 Green Enchiladas
star 5 Stuffed Sopapillas
star 5 Salsa