1226 W. Hadley Ave.
Las Cruces, NM
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 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
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).
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.
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).
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 (it is definitely one of the best out of the ones I have tried). The enchiladas are very good, but it is really the sopapilla compuesta that I think makes it stand out from other restaurants, and which may actually be the best in the state.
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 to consider which some may see as drawbacks to eating here:
- 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 about two weeks in the first part of August). 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.
Update Aug. 2019: Nellie’s is closed from Sunday August 4 until Friday August 16 this year (as reported by Yelp). This gives a general indication of when they take their summer vacation each year.