Las Cruces, NM: Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot!
Las Cruces, New Mexico runs hot, temperature-wise, but it runs hotter with regional cuisine. You may think it’s all tacos and salsa, but there is much more to sample.
At De La Vega’s Pecan Grill and Brewery, in the heart of Las Cruces, you will discover the greatest selection of food and drinks with a pecan theme. Pecans are a widely planted in Las Cruces so it’s not uncommon to see a variety of pecan dishes on menus. De La Vega’s is happening spot; a Thursday night visit was hopping with a palpable energy, people decked out to impress, and servers swirling around with trays of food and beer. You may not think that chilies and pecans work together but they do. Their Stuffed Hatch Green Chiles are green chilies filled with white cheddar cheese, then breaded with crushed pecans, fried, and served with their house made ranch dressing (not an uncommon thing – a terrific sports bar called The Game in Las Cruces does the same basic idea and calls it the “Corked Bat”). As an appetizer it’s a must and the crisp breading contrasts with the gooey cheese and spicy chile. Try this with their Pecan Amber Ale, a surprisingly balanced brew with notes of pecan and hops. All in all you’ll find 15 beers on tap here and their pints runs $3.50, and where I come from in California, that’s a steal. Chilies work their magic with one of their signature dishes – Hatch Green Chile Chicken Lasagna ($16) a square of chicken layered into pasta with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses; but this uses a white cream sauce studded with diced chilies. This is a soft, cheesy entrée with enough heat and spice from the chilies, but balanced enough so you extract the other flavors. They serve this with seasonal vegetables, in my case fresh grilled asparagus.
In nearby Mesilla, 10 minutes from downtown Las Cruses, La Posta still reigns as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the region. Started in 1939 this family owned restaurant serves over 325,000 people annually. The place is brightly decorated and colorful, with an organic feel to the rambling hacienda; lots of different rooms and an attentive staff. President Bill Clinton has dined here and, as legend has it, so too did Billy the Kid, who was actually imprisoned in Mesilla a few doors down the street. They have over 100 tequilas available, several signature margaritas including some rimmed with pecans and honey. If you go, their Tostados Compuestos is one of their classic dishes. You can order two or three cups (I did two for $8.25 what with the house made guacamole and chips, and the Chile Con Queso I consumed first). A corn tortilla is formed into a shell, toasted then filled with beans, red chile con carne (pork in red sauce) lettuce, cheese, and diced tomato. This is spicy and earthy, and everything they do is made fresh daily. The ingredients are nothing unique, but are nonetheless fresh and well seasoned, and that’s what makes for great food.
For a complete shift the Double Eagle restaurant is a walk back into Victorian times…literally. The place is loaded with antiques and paintings from the turn of the century. Yes they gave a ghost story (and matching ghost chairs), but you can ask about that when you visit. The Double Eagle has the only dedicated beef aging room in all of New Mexico. You can get the add-on of a filet wrapped with bacon and green chile, as I did, which was an exceptional steak though I unwrapped the chile as it readily infused the steak with the bite of the pepper and you don’t want to overkill the thing. The Double Eagle was the first to offer green chile-infused vodka. General manager Jerry Harrell tells me they use whole green chilies, seeds and all, and add roasted jalapeno, let it steep between four to seven days and you’ve got a great drink served in a brandy snifter with enough heat and spice to make you hotter than the Las Cruces summer. The drinks are $4.95 (I added an ice cube to subdue the heat and to cool it down), or as Jerry says, it makes a great base for a Bloody Mary.
Or consider the Annual Salsa Festival where you can sample and vote on 20 different salsas, everything from Gazpacho cucumber and mint, to mango and pineapple salsa, to spicy habanero, to chunky avocado, tomato, bean, and corn iterations. There are craft vendors, food, live music, and the best dressed Chihuahua contest – all for just five bucks.
So stay sunny and visit this southern New Mexico region for a take on regional foods which will surprise you, and will heat up your appreciation for Las Cruces. www.staysunny.org
Article and photos courtesy of Michael Cervin