Truly outstanding restaurants, those which can legitimately be called institutions, maybe even legends–and there are very few of them–don’t just inspire return visits; they inspire pilgrimages. Chope’s is one such establishment. Hungry patrons line up half an hour before the restaurant opens just to ensure seating in the small house that constitutes one of the state’s best known and most beloved restaurants. While they wait, they swap stories about their favorite dining experiences at Chope’s, usually recounting in epiphany-like loving reverence, their first visit or favorite entree.
During our inaugural visit several years ago, we ran into a former Las Cruces resident now living in the nation’s capital. His near teary-eyed testimony about how much he missed Chope’s was more powerful than a Sunday sermon. When he kissed the hallowed ground in front of Chope’s, we knew he meant it. An elderly gentleman recounted the time Chope’s salsa was so hot it made him hiccup for three days. A middle-aged woman from Las Cruces rhapsodized about Chope’s chile rellenos, her testimony practically eliciting involuntary salivation in the impromptu audience of queued patrons. Chope’s has had a similar effect on most its guests for six generations.
Perhaps the consummate mom-and-pop operation, Chope’s had the most humble of beginnings. Nearly a century ago,–1915 to be precise–Longina Benavides began selling enchiladas to her neighbors in the farming community of La Mesa. A kerosene lantern hanging outside the front door of the circa 1850s family home signaled the availability of enchiladas just off the stove. When Longina’s son Jose inherited the home, he and his wife Lupe continued the family tradition of feeding their neighbors. They named the family business “Chope’s,” the nickname Jose’s father had given him.
Chope passed away in 1990, but his legacy lives on. So do stories of his decades-long run as Democratic precinct chairman for La Mesa. Savvy candidates knew that in order to carry the county, an endorsement from the popular restaurateur was a must. Chope was also a staunch advocate of higher education, his daughters and granddaughters all having attended New Mexico State University and all have or continue to work at the restaurant in one capacity or another. Chope’s remains an Aggie alumni favorite.
The glass-half-empty crowd will lament the “middle of nowhere” journey to Chope’s, a twenty-mile jaunt from Las Cruces along scenic Highway 28, taking virtually the same route Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate traveled in 1598. It’s a slow, meandering drive that might seem interminable if you’re famished. Others will enjoy the journey which bisects the historic village of Mesilla and the sprawling Stahmann Farms, the world’s largest family-owned pecan farm with some 180,000 trees producing between eight- and ten-million pounds of pecans per year. Tree limbs from both sides of the highway meet overhead, providing a shade tunnel that seems like something out of a fairy tale.
First-timers might be confused when they arrive at Chope’s. Their first inclination might be to enter the colorful building with the signage which reads “Chope’s Town Cafe” just above clusters of painted purple grapes on the vine. The grapes precede the slogan “You can’t miss with Italian Swiss Colony wines…vinos deliciosos.” That building houses Chope’s bar which is renown for its varied selection of adult beverages: imported beers, premium tequilas and pitchers of margaritas. The bar does offer the entire menu, but the restaurant is actually next door in the house in which Chope was born. The bar is favored by bikers as evidenced by bikes of all types parked in front of the complex.
The old house is charming in a homey “having all your relatives in your dining room for Christmas” sort of way. It’s perpetually crowded with seating in personal-space proximity. It’s not uncommon for diners in adjacent tables to continue the neighborly discourse they initiated when they stood together in line waiting for the restaurant to open. Until 2009, the walls on the dining rooms were adorned in faux wood paneling festooned with plaques and certificates. A make-over in 2009 has brought each of the three dining rooms into the twentieth-century. The walls are now painted in soft colors with several nichos indenting the wall, the perfect spot for art.
Above the door to the kitchen, which is adjacent to the main dining room, is a ceramic placard reading “Lupe’s Comedor.” To the right are portraits of Chope and Lupe (who still visits the kitchen on occasion to make sure her recipes are followed to the letter). Lupe’s Comedor is the domain of deliciousness in which the magic happens, where three tons of autumn-harvested Mesilla Valley chile are served to devoted diners. For the benefit of unacculturated visitors and tourists, the menu includes a small dictionary that defines traditional New Mexican food (interestingly, enchiladas are misspelled). The back of the menu regales guests with the history of Chope’s and of the Benavides family.
The epitome of excellence and perhaps best use of a long green chile anywhere is in the form of a chile relleno from Chope’s which doesn’t use the benign Poblano as many other restaurants do. The chile is stuffed (though not so much that it puffs up) with a mild white cheese, lightly breaded in an eggy flour batter and fried to a crisp. The chile rellenos, and there may be none better anywhere in New Mexico, are available as an a la carte item or in quantities of three. Unlike some chile rellenos throughout New Mexico, these are not smothered in chile or melted cheese. That’s the way it should be–let the rellenos speak for themselves. The restaurant’s motto “stuff it,” by the way, relates to the relleno and does not, as some might suspect, reflect Chope’s sentiment toward Republicans.
The salsa is liquefied fire. It is easily the most incendiary item on the menu and it’s complementary. if you happen to be there when the restaurant opens up, you might espy the wait staff ensuring each table has chips and salsa. The chips are thick and low in salt. They’re formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa though if you’re not a fire-eater, you’ll likely just dip the tip of the chip into the salsa. It’ll still bite you back. Aside from its potent piquancy, it’s a very flavorful salsa, showcasing the melding of ingredients in perfect proportion to one another.
To mollify your scorched tongue, you might want to order the chile con queso, another Chope’s menu item which might be the very best in New Mexico. It’s an unconventional con queso, the antithesis of the melted glop some restaurants try to pass off as con queso. It’s more akin to a green chile stew, with or without meat, topped with a melting white cheese…and it is absolutely fabulous. Instead of chips, the con queso is accompanied by four flour tortillas, each about five-inches in diameter and about an eighth of an inch thick, not the paper-thin abomination inferior restaurants serve. Use the tortillas to scoop up the con queso and you’ll be amazed at the magnificent marriage of green chile and cheese.
Combination platters will allow you to maximize your adventure in taste. My favorite is combination plate number four: two enchiladas, one taco, one chile relleno, beans and rice. Of course, I order this platter “Christmas style,” with both red and green chile. The green chile is usually slightly more piquant than the red. The green chile is perfectly roasted and evinces just why chile is considered a fruit and not a vegetable. Amidst the glorious piquancy, you can taste a succulent sweetness and best of all, it’s not pureed; it’s chopped into small bits. The red chile is a deep red, wholly unlike most of the red chile served in restaurants throughout northern New Mexico. The color and flavor are reminiscent of a good chile Caribe (concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency) though I have not been able to discern any of the usual pod remnants.
The enchiladas are among the very best in New Mexico. They’re rolled, not stacked, and engorged with cheese then topped with a blend of perfectly melted white and Cheddar cheeses. The enchiladas are so good, in fact, that a fried egg is wholly unnecessary. I’ve always contented that southern New Mexico makes better enchiladas than my beloved north and Chope’s validates that opinion. Tacos are also terrific, made with well-seasoned ground beef enveloped by soft corn tortillas and accompanied by lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Though combination plate number four includes a taco, it’s advisable to order at least one a la carte taco. To say they’re fabulous is an understatement. Both beans and rice are also ridiculously good. The rice is fluffy and light, wholly unlike the clumpy, liquefied rice some restaurants serve. The beans are refried and topped with that wonderful white cheese Chope’s uses so well.
For chile-phobic diners, Chope’s has a unique offering all will love called tapatias, a crispy fried tostada topped with shredded lettuce, white cheese and a vegetable medley (corn, peas, carrots), the type of which grade school students throughout America leave on their plates. This is an amazing entree, both for its simplicity and for its deliciousness. The secret has got to be sauteing the meat and the vegetables (definitely not from a can, but likely the frozen variety) together. The shredded lettuce is made creamy with a dollop or two of mayonnaise and is used as the topper for this wonderful surprise. The challenge is in keeping the tostada intact because the toppings are generous.
My friend Steve Coleman of Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page says, “at Chope’s you enter the realm of world-class roadfood.” What a perfect assessment! Chope’s is not a pretentious gourmet restaurant, but it has won over the hearts and appetites of diners from throughout the world who recognize it for what it is–New Mexican home cooking as good as it can possibly be. I rate it as highly as Mary & Tito’s, the James Beard award-winning treasure in Albuquerque and long, my very favorite restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. That’s my paean to a Land of Enchantment gem in little La Mesa!
La Mesa, NM
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Chile Rellenos, Tacos, Con Queso, Tapatio