El Paso, TX
Before writing about one of El Paso’s “classic” restaurants I try to search other material that has been written about their history and connection to other restaurants. In the case of Leo’s the story can be found on its web site which recounts the fact that the restaurant was founded in 1946 by Leo Collins and Willie Terrazas at the corner of Cotton and Yandell Streets in El Paso. It further states that “From this location, a tradition was started that has been passed down from generation to generation.”
Willie Terrazas, Jr., manager of the one and only Leo’s location now in operation on Remcon Circle in west El Paso, enjoys talking to customers and telling the restaurant’s story (and he said he remembers me from their former “Crossroads” location at 8001 N. Mesa). He stated that this restaurant has been in operation for 13 years (as of 2019) and that the last of their other locations at 315 Mills closed in 2016 (it became La Morena Restaurant but is now home to Mac’s Seafood).
I have read that Leo’s was the first restaurant in El Paso to serve baked cheese enchiladas as well as the first one to offer sopaipillas (here they are served free with all entrees). Even today these two features are not widespread in the city. I would say that red enchiladas are probably the best item here, but what I like even better is a combination plate such as the tri-color baked cheese enchiladas or a combination of enchiladas with a chile relleno or other items.
I have been going to the various Leo’s since the 1970’s, and along the way I have tried many other items but at the time I was not taking notes about them to include in an article. The 1970’s was also the time there were nine locations including one in Lubbock, so for anyone who has been around as long as I have it would be hard not to have multiple experiences with Leo’s to the point that it is as much about nostalgia as it is about their baked enchiladas and other favorites that I am sure everybody has.
For locals an article about Leo’s is not one that will lead them to a new discovery, but it is a reminder that there are several long-running restaurants that helped put El Paso on the map for Mexican food and which still enjoy a good deal of popularity.
Chips and Salas
The Chips are thin with a good flavor. The Salsa is spicy in a good way but I think not so spicy that it would be hard for people to eat who are used to the “gringo” style salsa served in many parts of the country.
The Number 2 Popular Combination comes with an enchilada, taco, and a chile relleno. Interestingly, these are the same items served at the No. 2 dinner at Avila’s, another restaurant that serves baked enchiladas, sopaipillas, and which has a tri-color enchilada plate. Sometimes it seems as if all Mexican restaurants in El Paso serve pretty much the same food, but even if the menus are similar there are nuances in the food that definitely make each restaurant unique.
The Red Enchilada is usually my favorite item at El Paso Mexican restaurants, and it has been the same here. I really do not crave them enough to order a whole plate of them, but they are very good on a combination plate with other items. They are less spicy than most of the ones in El Paso but they are spicy enough that I still classify them as “authentic” El Paso style enchiladas.
The Chile Relleno is a good representation of this item as it is commonly prepared in El Paso with a mild Spanish sauce on top of a spicier green chile. The breading is very good.
The beans and rice are both five-star quality, but I particularly like the beans with the baked tostadas inserted into them (and the beans become a dip to put on them). It is my understanding that the beans are vegetarian (and are not made with lard).
One of my favorite dinners here is the Tri-Color Baked Cheese Enchiladas plate (No. 16 in the Entrees section of the menu). Also called the “Mexican Flag,” it comes with a red, green, and sour cream enchilada. On the current menu you have to pay a dollar extra for rice and beans, but you do get a free sopaipilla for dessert.
Unlike some restaurants the sour cream enchilada is not put on top of the chile but it is strictly cheese and sour cream. I thought it was good but it is definitely not very spicy.
I do have to report a problem I had with the dish pictured, though, which is somewhat representative of a situation I have experienced more than once at Leo’s. What I noticed was that no red sauce was visible on the plate, and the green was barely perceptible. I found out that there was some red sauce from the red enchilada underneath the sour cream enchilada, but like the green enchilada the chile was in what I considered to be a small amount. I told the waitress that the red chile was almost non-existent and her response was to bring me another red enchilada which was definitely up to Leo’s normal standards.
The Red Enchilada pictured here was brought by the waitress to make up for the one on the Tri-Color plate with almost no chile, and this one confirmed that the red enchiladas are probably the best item at the restaurant. If you are not happy with what is initially served, though, it is definitely worthwhile asking the restaurant if they can make it right.
I think the menus at many Mexican restaurants are far too dependent on beef as a flavor enhancer, but the beef dishes at Leo’s are one thing that seems to be very worthwhile. One example is the Flautas that had very good shredded beef with a crispy shell. The fact that the waitress recommended beef over chicken confirms the observation I had that perhaps the beef is one of the things the restaurant does best.
Flautas usually come with guacamole and sour cream, but I ordered some with Chile con Queso to see if they would be anything like the queso flautas I had at the now closed Casa Jurado. Unfortunately, these flautas turned out to be disappointing since the queso turned quickly into a solid mass that did not taste like real cheese. For that matter I did not really get much flavor from the chile that was mixed into the queso. Ordering the chile con queso on flautas is more economical than getting an order of chile con queso, but my tendency would be to pass on either one of them.
Sopaipillas come free with the entrees, and this is one of the signature features of Leo’s. The one pictured, though, tasted very oily and left a bad aftertaste in my mouth (I have subsequently skipped the sopaipilla when I have gone to Leo’s and frankly have enjoyed the meals much more by doing so). Of course other people’s experiences may be different, but I would say the meals are fine here without the sopaipilla.
There seem to be some quality control issues here, as evidenced by the fact that I was served tri-colored enchiladas which were almost totally lacking in red and green chile (something that is not normally the case at Leo’s). They made up for it, but I think this is a big operation that probably has several people cooking the food, so mistakes will happen.
Some things here are probably just not going to be as good as at other restaurants, and I think sopaipillas are one of these. In my many years of dining at Leo’s, though, I do remember them being better in the past so I do not know if this situation will also be corrected.
This is one of the places where I think the atmosphere of the restaurant enhances the experience. The manager comes out and talks to customers, the service is very good, the building is pleasant, and in a way I think it is even a positive when you have to wait for a table because then you can meet other people who are also sitting in the waiting area. In any case, coming to Leo’s is many times more than just for the food.
When I mention “El Paso style” Mexican food, Leo’s is a place where you can get a good idea of what it is all about. In some ways it is even better than the average restaurant (I especially like the fact that they bake the enchiladas). There are a lot of choices for El Paso style Mexican food, and Leo’s is one of the ones who has been doing it the longest (I saw a source that said when Leo’s first opened there were only three Mexican restaurants in El Paso, and Leo’s became the fourth because “What El Paso needs is another Mexican food restaurant”). I do appreciate the history of the restaurant, but I would say Leo’s strength is its food and not just because it has been around for a long time.
Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Hours: Open Daily
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Breakfast buffet on Sat. & Sun.
Most Recent Visit: Jun. 24, 2019
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Red Enchiladas, Tri-Color Enchilada Plate, Salsa