Come to the border town of El Paso to savor the flavors seasoned by its Mexican neighbors and refined by an uptown culture.
Follow the scent of salsa downtown, where you can dip a chip at El Paso Chile Company. Brother and sister Park and Monica Kerr along with their mother, Norma, pack a gift boutique with tantalizing tastes from their catalog. The famous piquant salsas include Cactus, Snakebite, Roasted Tomato, Mango Peach, and our favorite, Chipotle Cha Cha Cha ($6 each).
On the way to your accommodations, drop in to a boot shop. More pointy-toed kickers are made in El Paso than anywhere else in Texas, and that's good luck for you. The artists at Arditti and Rocketbuster create once-in-a-lifetime designs for discriminating buyers, but most folks prefer the discount outlet stores.
Plan to save your dollars for shopping and dining in El Paso, where the chain motels provide the best lodgings. We like the Hawthorn Inn & Suites on the east side of town near the airport, where the $55 weekend rate includes a cooked breakfast; 1-800-618-0555. On the west side, we opt for the spacious rooms and Continental breakfast at La Quinta for $56.99-$63.99; 1-800-531-5900.
Dine early tonight at L&J Café to avoid the boisterous bar crowd--unless you plan to join in the partying afterward. L&J is one of the oldest and most revered restaurants in El Paso. Run by Leo and Frances Duran, it's known for incredible green enchiladas served with a huge helping of hospitality. "We want to make sure our customers feel like they're a part of our family," Leo says.
El Pasoans traditionally start Saturday with a spicy breakfast. We like the specials at Mike & Ana's. Don't miss the Machaca (eggs with shredded meat, onions, jalapeño peppers, and tomatoes) if ordering from the menu, but the extensive Mexican buffet deserves your attention too.
Breathe in the countryside at Rio Grande Valley Ranch from atop a horse. One- and two-hour trail rides follow the river with orchards, deserts, and mountains as a stunning backdrop. Owners Calvin and Heather Taylor keep a spirited stable of horses that enjoy the ride as much as you.
Afterward, venture just across the New Mexico state line to La Viña Winery. Texans Ken and Denise Stark share their passion of winemaking on an 11:30 a.m. tour that ends with a tasting (tour $5, tasting only $3). "We have a really good time with it," Denise says. They have 25 acres of grapes growing 24 varieties. You'll appreciate their Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Zinfandels ($10-$25 per bottle).
Indulge your luncheon appetite at The Magic Pan Restaurant and Catering. Our favorite salad, the Emperor's Secret, features romaine, hearts of palm, artichokes, and blue cheese, as well as a choice of homemade bread. They also offer hearty sandwiches rolled in tortillas, stuffed into pitas, or dressed up on focaccia.
Save a little time after lunch to explore The Magic Pan's shop of giftware, antiques, and garden art. Then wander next door to browse through the half-dozen funky shops. Cotes displays antiques and collectibles, while Shunia offers colorful Mexican Folk art. Tangled Vine sells chic accessories for the home and garden.
Pretend you're a local this afternoon, and sneak back to the motel for a siesta. When your appetite returns, head downtown to the elegant Café Central where chef Michelle Roetzer fuses seafood into Asian, Italian, and Spanish styles. Indulge in a leisurely meal, topped off with an apéritif nightcap.
The morning light on the wildflowers and grasses on Transmountain Road creates a beautiful postcard picture. Pull off at the overlooks, and if you have energy to spare, take a short hike in the Franklin Mountains State Park to see the desert up close.
Enjoy breakfast or lunch at Forti's Mexican Elder Restaurant. For the morning meal, The Forti family serves up delicious huevos rancheros (eggs served on tortillas with Spanish sauce and cheese; $6.50). If you go later in the day, be sure to try their specialty--carnitas (baked pork served with beans, rice, and green onions; $8.95).
Before heading back home, take one last glimpse of El Paso's colorful canyons and stirring vistas on the Wyler Aerial Tramway ($7 adults, $4 under 12). From the top of 5,632-foot Ranger Peak, you can satisfy your cravings for a delicious view of two neighboring nations.
Stars and Bard
The annual Shakespeare-on-the-Rocks Festival takes the stage at McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater Thursday-Sunday, September 5-29. There's also a marketplace, dinner, and preshow entertainment. Call (915) 565-6900.
For more information: Contact the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-351-6024.
This article is from the September 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.