If only walls could talk, you’d want the adobe brick walls at La Posta (The Inn) to recount their impressions of the veritable “who’s who” of Western history who once sought shelter within its fortified walls. You’d want those walls to reveal their thoughts of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid who hung out at La Posta on his road to notoriety. You’d want those walls to tell you about the steely presence of General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded Allied forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II. You’d want those walls to share their account of Generalissimo Pancho Villa, another sojourner who sought shelter at La Posta. Certainly no raconteur could provide the details known only to the walls at La Posta when it quartered controversial frontiersman Kit Carson or for then General, later President, Ulysses S. Grant.
Built in the 1840s by Sam and Roy Bean, themselves historical luminaries, La Posta was originally a freight and passenger service. After the Civil War, it became part of the Butterfield Stagecoach line which ferried passengers and mail from eastern outposts in Memphis and St. Louis to California. During the 1870s and 1880s, the sprawling edifice was home to the Corn Exchange Hotel, which was, for decades, one of the finest lodges in the southwest. It wasn’t until 1939 that La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant began operating in the northwest corner of the building.
La Posta de Mesilla was founded by Katherine “Katy” Griggs Camuñez, a true renaissance woman and pioneer in the business world at a time and place in which such gumption was uncommon. One of the marketing techniques she used to draw guests into her restaurant was the then relatively unheard practice of offering free chips and salsa, something New Mexicans took for granted until so many restaurants recently stopped the practice. Katy wasn’t all business, however, showing a whimsical side in filling the lobby with exotic birds such as macaws and parrots as well as aquariums teeming with piranha. Some of the original birds are reputed to still be greeting guests (some with profanities allegedly learned from Katy herself).
In 1996 after Katy’s death, La Posta was acquired by her great niece Jerean Camuñez Hutchinson and her husband Tom who own the restaurant today. Jerean and Tom have expanded and renovated the complex, adding indoor and outdoor dining areas to an already yawning complex. The sprawling Territorial Style compound, on the National Register of Historical Buildings, now boasts of more than 10,000 square feet, with several shops. The Griggs family, by the way, is as responsible for two dynastic New Mexican restaurants. Katy’s daughter Consuelo and her husband Jack Thomas founded El Pinto in Albuquerque.
La Posta is a dichotomy–both an anachronism and a thoroughly modern enterprise. Were it not for the motorized conveyances in its parking lot, you might swear you’re stepping back in time as you approach the restaurant. As its 75th anniversary draws near, it remains one of the most famous and most popular restaurants in the entire southwest. Sometimes 10,000 square feet aren’t nearly enough to hold the throngs of diners clamoring to eat there. Fortunately Katy’s whimsical diversions remain in place along with several sitting areas in which patrons can wait comfortably to be seated. The lobby also hosts restrooms labeled “viejos” for men and “viejas” for women, two terms literally meaning “old man” and “old woman” respectively, but which when not used in humor may be construed as deprecatory.
Similar to La Posta’s indefatigable founder, Jerean and Tom Hutchinson have not let grass grow under their feet. In June, 2013, they announced a partnership with Huerradura, a premium tequila-maker, to blend La Posta de Mesilla’s Herradura Private Reserve Double Reposado, to be sold exclusively at La Posta. The barrel in which the tequila is aged is on display in the restaurant’s lobby. This announcement came shortly after USA Today named La Posta one of the top ten restaurants in the United States for Mexican Food. There’s no doubt La Posta’s walls were celebrating both achievements.
Alas, change isn’t always welcome. In April, 2006, La Posta de Mesilla lost the heart and soul of its kitchen with the passing of Panchita Flores, matriarch of the kitchen. Panchita cooked at La Posta until she was 91 years old just as health concerns had led her to hesitantly plan on retiring. Panchita ran the kitchen for more than three decades before her death. She made the red chile and salsa for which the restaurant is famous and never relied on a recipe to do her job. Her cooking skills were instinctive, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that when necessary.
Some long-time diners wil tell you La Posta’s food just hasn’t been the same since Panchita’s passing. My friend Steve Coleman of OKGourmet.com believes “La Posta has had a substantial decline in its chile heat index. Even those who have never tried New Mexican cuisine before can probably feel safe that the food at La Posta will not be too spicy, but that the flavors found in this type of Mexican food can still be experienced.” More than 70 percent of respondents on Urbanspoon indicate they like La Posta while Yelp reviewers give it 3.5 stars out of five. La Posta must be doing many things right because they’re still serving more than 300,000 meals a year.
When you step into La Posta de Mesilla, your initial impression might be that ownership is capitalizing on the many tourists who frequent the restaurant. On either side, you’ll find shops selling touristy bric-a-brac: souvenir t-shirts, gourmet food products such as bottled salsa and even jewelry. Prefacing the main dining area is the colorful menagerie of fish, fowl and flora. Floor to ceiling cages house tropical birds, tropical fish swim in large tanks and large trees and plants complete a tropical illusion. It’s all very comforting.
La Posta boasts of several dining rooms, the most popular of which is the Lava Room. The Butterfield Stagecoach Trail horses once stabled there wouldn’t recognize the room which now features walls of ancient lava rock and tropical trees. Every dining room is ornamented with art and artifacts. Much of the restaurant retains original ceilings, adobe brick walls, authentic wood vigas and latillas as well as tiled fireplaces. The Pecan Tree Courtyard is a very popular al fresco option.
The menu includes several popular favorites handed down over the centuries by the restaurant’s founding family. It’s apparent that Panchita’s students in the kitchen paid close attention to the legendary chef. Several items on the menu warrant “best of” consideration despite what nay-sayers decry. Of particular note is the restaurant’s chile con queso, made with three different cheeses and New Mexico chiles. It’s a creamy antithesis to the gloppy con queso too many restaurants serve. Served with hot corn tortillas made on the premises by well-practiced tortilleras, this con queso is among the best in New Mexico.
The chiles rellenos, served sans sauce, are as authentic as they come and in our estimation, are second only to the rellenos at Chope’s in La Mesa among all chiles rellenos in the Las Cruces area. The chiles rellenos are served two per order in a platter that includes refritos, rice and garnish. A whipped egg white batter sheathes green chiles with very little heat, but they’re generously stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese. The relleno is cooked on a griddle until golden brown.
Duncan Hines, a pioneering restaurant critic, once called the Specialty of La Posta an “unbelievable dining experience. The specialty features a starter of chile con queso and corn tortillas, guacamole salad (or tossed green salad), one rolled red enchilada, tamale, chile con carne, rolled taco, frijoles, rice and a sopaipilla. Unfortunately, the “forget” portion of the term unforgettable seems to be a kitchen foible. On both occasions in which I ordered the Specialty, both the con queso and sopaipillas were absent. The items which did make it onto the plate were quite good, especially the rolled red enchilada and the rich, buttery guacamole salad.
Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, vows for La Posta’s carne adovada, declaring that few restaurants in the Land of Enchantment prepare it as well. My Kim, another avowed adovada lover, concurs with Larry. Unlike some restaurants whose portions of carne adovada are chintzy, La Posta is very generous, serving enough for two people or two meals. Each tender tendril of chile marinated pork is absolutely mouth-watering. The carne is hardly standard in its size and composition. Some chunks are bite-sized only if you have the requisite large-sized mouth of a politician. Others are dainty and fine. The chile has just a bit more bite than some carne adovada which tends to be on the mild side.
Sopaipillas, served with real honey, are outstanding, not to be missed! They’re big and puffy enough for children to call them “sofa pillows.” As good as they are, savvy diners will destroy their diets and have not only the sopaipillas, but the empanadas, too: apple, cherry, apricot or mincemeat turnovers served hot with ice cream. The dough is a little thick on the edges, but you can get around that by cutting the empadas in half and eating from the middle out.
La Posta de Mesilla is much more than a community fixture. It’s become a national landmark on a historically significant complex that has served as a hotel, winery, stable, blacksmith shops and way station. More importantly, since 1939 it’s become an internationally recognized “must stop” site for New Mexican food fanatics. The nay-sayers who decry it as a “tourist trap.” Well, they don’t have to visit.
La Posta De Mesilla
2410 Calle de San Albino
Mesilla, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Salsa, Chile Con Queso, Cherry and Apple Empanadas, Carne Adovada, Specialty of La Posta, tacos