Steve’s Best Food Experiences of 2021

Last year I did a Best Food of Oklahoma City” article, listing what I thought were the most noteworthy out of quite a few very good experiences I had in various restaurants. This year the great majority of my restaurant visits have been in El Paso, Texas, along with some in Las Cruces, New Mexico as well as Oklahoma City. Although I am now covering multiple geographic areas, the criterion for inclusion on the list is simply that it was one of my best meals, regardless of where it was located geographically. Restaurants are listed alphabetically, first by state and then by restaurant.

  • A Note from the 2020 List: Bricktown Brewery in Oklahoma City has since taken the Green Chile Cheeseburger off the menu

New Mexico

Le Rendez-vous
2701 W. Picacho Ave.
Las Cruces, NM

Quiche and salad from Le Rendez-vous

Quiche provencal and side salad from Le Rendez-vous in Las Cruces, NM

I had already known about the high quality pastries that were available at Le Rendez-vous in Las Cruces, but when I was able to go for brunch I was treated to one of my best meals of the year with the Quiche Provençal (one of that day’s specials). This hit all the points I look for in a quiche–the crust, the eggs, the ingredients inside, and the way everything was blended and balanced. Probably quiche is not all that difficult, but it seems to be so in the Southwest where I find very few really good versions of it. The side salad that came with it was as impressive as the main dish in the way it was executed, and overall I can understand why there is frequently a waiting list for people to get in.

 

Nopalito
310 S. Mesquite St.
Las Cruces, NM

Red enchiladas at Nopalito

Red enchiladas st Nopalito in Las Cruces, NM

Normally there is a good choice for traditional New Mexican food in Las Cruces, but with restaurant closings due to the pandemic and limited hours of certain places, the choices diminish. Nopalito, though, is open to its full hours (although at first it had some tables marked off). Even more importantly the food is consistent and has given me excellent experiences the times I have gone. There may be other red enchiladas that give the classic flavor that they should have, but I consider Nopalito to be among the best, and honestly I think it is the best in Las Cruces. I think their warmed salsa is a special treat as well. The chile relleno is also especially good here.

 

State Line
1222 Sunland Park Dr.
El Paso, TX

Beef ribs at State Line

Beef ribs at State Line BBQ in El Paso, Tx/Sunland Park, NM

State Line is part of the County Line chain of restaurants, except that this one is on the state line between Texas and New Mexico. The entrance to the restaurant is on Sunland Park Drive in El Paso, Texas, while the main part of the restaurant itself is in Sunland Park, New Mexico (thus I am listing it as a NM restaurant). Only the patio is actually in Texas. It thus joins another NM restaurant I visited (Porter’s in Farmington) in having very good beef ribs. In fact, very few barbecue restaurants even offer beef ribs, but they are definitely worthwhile when you can get them. These ribs are some of the best, and I credit their barbecue sauce as being one of the main reasons this is so.

 

Oklahoma

Birrieria Diaz
6700 N.W. 39th Expressway
Bethany, OK

Lamb birria at Bierrieria Diaz

Birria at Birrieria Diaz in Bethany, OK

Birrieria Diaz is one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in the OKC area, and it has such a wide variety of menu items it is hard to say which ones are my absolute favorites. One that belongs on the list, though, is their signature dish–the birria. It comes with either beef or lamb, but the lamb has such a good flavor with tender meat that I have continued to order the same thing on repeat visits. The birria is a good choice for a “special occasion” (it is a little bit more expensive than other items) but other very good choices include pozole, flautas, huarache, tacos Diaz, tacos al pastor, gorditas de rajas, and whatever daily special they have. I also like their enchiladas because they are made the way I have found them in Mexico (but without the grease that the south of the border version frequently has).

 

Charleston’s
5907 N.W. 39th Expressway
Oklahoma City, OK

Chicken fried steak at Charleston's

Chicken fried steak at Charleston’s in Warr Acres, OK

Over the years I have had several experiences at Charleston’s that did not make much of an impression on me, or they had an impression on the negative side. After seeing many good reviews of the chicken fried steak, however, I thought this certainly sounded like a good possibility, and it turned out to be so. This was somewhat of an unconventional CFS because of the chipotle gravy although the high quality meat and mashed potatoes are something I would expect from an Oklahoma restaurant. This was quite an enjoyable meal, and may even make me disappointed with some of the other versions of the popular dish that may be served in other restaurants.

 

Pho 54
15501 N. May Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK

Com Bi Suon Cha Trung (combination pork) at Pho 54

Combination pork at Pho 54 in Oklahoma Ciry, OK

Pho 54 is a suburban restaurant that is close to the quality of the Asian District Vietnamese places, except that in some ways it is even better. It is better because it has many of the same dishes but with a lower-MSG version, and the quality seems to be about the same that I have experienced so far. The combination pork rice plate (“Com Bi Suon Cha Trung“) that I had in 2021, though, is the best item yet. It was especially notable because of the exceptionally tender and flavorful meat. The side dishes (shredded pork skin and the pork loaf) are a bonus, but it was the meat itself that really made this meal stand out.

 

Saffron
3627 N. Portland Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK

Ginger paneer at Saffron

Ginger paneer at Saffron in Oklahoma City, OK

I think Saffron and Naan are two very special Indian restaurants (but I did not eat at Naan in 2021 and thus it is not on this list). At Saffron I tried dishes that were recommended on Yelp and perhaps this was the secret to finding the best dishes, but I tend to think that many other menu items are excellent as well. Of the two dishes I got I would most recommend the ginger paneer, an Indo-Chinese dish that is unlike other Indian style Chinese dishes I have had because of its Chinese flavors that are not overwhelmed by the Indian spices. The more traditional dal makhani was quite good as well, but the ginger paneer really had unique flavors that I had not experienced anywhere else.

 

San Marcos
12201 N. Rockwell Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK

Carne asada tacos at San Marcos

Tacos de carne asada at San Marcos in Oklahoma City, OK

The tacos de carne asada at San Marcos earned a place on this list after I went to several places in El Paso that either did not have this item or served inferior versions, and I have only found one place in the Sun City that I think is as good (Delicias Cafe). San Marcos is more than happy to give you condiments to make the tacos even more flavorful (lime and salsa are free, and they frequently gave me a small amount of guacamole and pico de gallo to jazz it up). The tacos were so good, though, that really I would say the lime was enough. Many other restaurants also do not include cilantro on the tacos, which is another reason I especially enjoyed the ones at San Marcos.

 

Texas

Cafe Italia
6705 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Half and half margherita and smoked pizza

Half margherita and half smoked pizza at Cafe Italia in El Paso, TX

I used to have two favorite pizzas in El Paso with one of them being Hello Pizza (this is now closed due to the passing away of its owner). The other is Cafe Italia which now has two locations, with the original being on Mesa Street (I have not yet been to the new location off of Resler Drive and Paseo del Norte). The pizza here is very close to Neapolitan style and is not certified by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, but I have always found it to be quite good. My favorite pizza here is the margherita which has a very delicious but lightly seasoned tomato sauce that allows the other ingredients to be showcased. One of the key ones is their house made mozzarella, with the basil being so fresh that it is notably better than at most other restaurants. By ordering a half-and-half margherita and smoked pizza, though, I have found another favorite pizza here (the mozzarella is smoked in a manner that I think makes it almost as good as the margherita).

 

Carnitas Queretaro
7410 Remcon Cir.
El Paso, TX

Chicken mole at Carnitas Queretaro

Chicken mole at Carnitas Queretaro in El Paso, TX

I find Carnitas Queretaro to be one of the most inconsistent restaurants in El Paso, but when they do things right I have experienced some of the best Mexican food in El Paso. The meal I want to showcase for 2021 is the chicken mole because this is certainly one of the best I have had anywhere. Actually I have found the meat items (chicken, steak, carnitas, etc.) to be more consistently good than some other dishes here, and I think they are always a good thing to order when you have a sufficient appetite for them.

 

Delicias Cafe
865 N. Resler Dr.
El Paso, TX

Carne asada tacos at Delicias Cafe

Tacos de carne asada at Delicias Cafe in El Paso, TX

Delicias Cafe is one restaurant where I think I can tell you the best items because I have tried almost all of them. One new one that I tried for the first time this year, though, was the tacos de carne asada. This was my favorite item at San Marcos in Oklahoma City, and so far Delicias’ version is the only one I have found in El Paso that I think is of equal quality. It is actually better because of the beans and rice, and because it comes with a complementary caldo de res. This year I have had everything from a hamburger to huevos rancheros at Delicias, and all of them have been good, but the tacos de carne asada are my new comfort food when I come here.

 

Forti’s
321 Chelsea St.
El Paso, TX

Combination plate No. 3 at Forti's

Combo no. 3 at Forti’s in El Paso, TX including what I think is the best red enchilada in town

Like a few other restaurants I think Forti’s has been struggling with consistency issues, but it seems to be back to its prime and I have been able to experience what I think are the best red enchiladas in El Paso. The other food here sets a high standard as well, but I always like to get one or more enchiladas. Besides the enchilada plate there are two other ways to do this–either with the combination plate or with a tampiqueña (which has an enchilada on the side). All three of these are really my favorite dishes at the restaurant. On the last two the other items can arguably be said to be as good as the enchilada, but I am somewhat of an enchilada fanatic and especially appreciate the enchiladas here.

 

G&R Restaurant
401 E. Nevada Ave.
El Paso, TX

Tri-color enchiladas at G&R

Tri-color enchiladas at G&R Restaurant in El Paso, TX

The owner of G&R Restaurant has New Mexico roots, and I think the chiles used on the enchiladas are a little different than at most El Paso restaurants. One of the items I like most at G&R is the tri-color enchilada plate, with red, green, and sour cream enchiladas (the sour cream is put on top of red chile). Several other restaurants in town also have tri-color enchiladas (two notable ones are Leo’s and Avila’s). I think G&R is the best of these, if nothing else because I find the green sauce to be spicier and more flavorful.

 

L&J Cafe
3622 E. Missouri Ave.
El Paso, TX

Combination plate at L&J

Combination plate at L&J Cafe in El Paso, TX

 

L&J Cafe is considered by many to be El Paso’s best Mexican restaurant. This year it was my clear winner of the “Mexican plate” contest after I tried the Mexican plate or combination plate at about ten different restaurants (although the red enchilada was best at Forti’s). The only letdown here was the taco, while the enchilada, chile relleno, taquito (rolled taco), chile verde, beans, and rice were all stellar. I almost never encounter a Mexican plate where so many items are this good. For some of the items (such as enchilada and chile relleno) I think some other restaurants are equal or better. For the chile verde I am not sure that anyone else is better. Over the years I have found many other items I like besides the ones on the Mexican plate, so overall this is an excellent place to come (but expect to have to wait for a table unless you come very early or between about 2:30 or 3 pm until about 4:30 or 5 pm).

 

Mamacitas
325 N. Kansas St.
El Paso, TX

Shrimp tacos and tortilla soup at Mamacita's

Shrimp tacos and tortilla soup at Mamacita’s in El Paso, TX

Mamacita’s is part of a fairly new trend in downtown restaurants that is serving upscale Mexican food. This is not just serving expensive cuts of meat but also taking more common dishes and giving them a flavor and presentation that gives an upscale experience. I would like to try more dishes here, but the one I did try–the shrimp tacos–was one of my best food experiences of the year. Actually the tortilla soup, which they can add on to your meal for three dollars extra, had just about the same impact on me.

 

Nour
3800 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Chicken kabob at Nour

Chicken kabob at Nour in El Paso, TX

There are now several very good Lebanese restaurants in El Paso, but Nour has especially impressed me, and I thought it was very comparable to the best Lebanese restaurants in Oklahoma City. I tried three items in 2021 and all of them would be worthy of being on this list (so I am not saying to order the chicken kabobs as much as that anything here is good).

 

Peppe’s Restaurant & Cantina
6761 Doniphan Dr.
Canutillo, TX

Peppe's Noonday Combination

Noonday combination with chile relleno, tostada compuesta, and green enchilada at Peppes in Canutillo, TX

After all the Griggs Restaurants had been closed in the early 2000’s I still have a hard time believing that their food is back in the form of Peppe’s Restaurant, owned by a couple who were long time employees at Griggs. The other thing I have a hard time with is deciding what to order when I come here. I usually get the Noonday Combination because it allows me to have three of my favorite items, but even with this it means that I am missing out on quite a few other good choices. The Noonday Combination is actually available all day (but they kept the name of this plate that Griggs only served at lunch). They allow certain substitutions, so this allows me to have a tostada compuesta, green enchilada, and chile relleno (by combining items on different combination plates).

 

Pho Tre Bien Bistro
3737 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Pork chop at Pho Tre Bien Bistro

Pork chop with egg on top at Pho Tre Bien Bistro in El Paso, TX

The pork chop and egg at Pho Tre Bien Bistro was near the top of my list of favorite meals for this year. The meat was good, but the sauce was probably what impressed me the most. The egg on top and the fresh vegetables were also factors that made this dish memorable. The price was also surprisingly low for something I enjoyed so much. I enjoy other dishes at the Bistro as well, but the pork chop has been the best for this year.

 

Singapore
3233 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Green tea chicken at Singapore Cafe

Green tea chicken at Singapore Cafe in El Paso, TX

The green tea chicken was a new flavor to me when I tried it at Singapore Cafe, and since then it has become one of my favorite Asian dishes. The dish is spicy and has a sauce like most Asian food, but I understand that the tea leaves are marinated so that this gives an additional flavor element to the food.

 

Sun Garden
6600 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Szechuan pork at Sun Garden

Szechuan pork at Sun Garden in El Paso, TX

There is a Chinese menu at Sun Garden with authentic dishes, but it seems that everything I tried to order was not available, and the situation has been worse during the pandemic. This does not mean, though, that there is not anything worthy of being on my list, as evidenced by the Szechuan pork. The owner told me that it is actually a Chinese dish called yu xiang rou si, or “fish flavored shredded pork.” This has a sweet and sour flavor, although without the exaggerated sweet element that some restaurants do to give some food a more Americanized taste.

 

Tasty Kabob
6600 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX

Lamb chops at Tasty Kabob

Lamb chops at tasty kabob in El Paso, TX

There are so many good items at Tasty Kabob it was hard to say which was my favorite meal in 2021. I chose the lamb chops because it was like having a very good steak dinner, but with meat that is marinated with the owner’s family recipe from the Middle East. Khoresh gheimeh was my “co-favorite” dinner here, but honestly I liked the lamb chops so well I got it twice (and both times had someone to help me eat it because it comes in a pretty large serving).

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