Growing up in rural Northern New Mexico, my siblings and I thought all Mexican food was the same–the way my mom, grandmothers and aunts prepared it (which is to say it was outstanding). At the time New Mexicans hadn’t universally acknowledged that the genesis of our cuisine wasn’t solely Mexico. Back then, only the most savvy culinary historians were crediting Spanish and Native ingredients and preparation techniques as differentiating factors that made New Mexican cuisine unique. It also wasn’t that long ago New Mexicans were spelling our official state vegetable as “chili.” No, that’s not an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s the way it was just a few decades ago when all three of my sisters matriculated at New Mexico State University.
We didn’t know what to think when they’d return home on long weekends and holidays and prepared these strange and different “Mexican” dishes. Sour cream enchiladas? Con queso made with muenster cheese? Green chile salsa? Rolled enchiladas? Gorditas? Those “Mexican” restaurants in Las Cruces were either revolutionizing Mexican food or they didn’t know what they were doing. It didn’t take long before we all embraced these new dishes and looked forward to sampling other delights from Southern New Mexico. Among my sisters’ favorite “Mexican” food restaurants were Chope’s in La Mesa, La Posta in Mesilla and Nopalito in Las Cruces. I won’t share which of my sisters also raved about a “fancy steak restaurant” called K-Bob’s. Suffice to say when you’re from Penasco, Furr’s Cafeteria is fine dining.
On the docket for family visits to Las Cruces were trips to these radical Mexican restaurants, all three of which we came to love as much for the assertiveness of their chile as for their quirkiness. At La Posta’s colorful lobby, for example, we gawked in wonder at the tropical birds and the state’s sole piranha. At Chope’s, we admired the pecan trees en route to the converted family restaurant. Nopalito had its own unique touches. It’s unlikely studying the history inscribed on the foyer walls will get you through History class at New Mexico State, but as a lifelong student of New Mexico history, it was quite intriguing to me.
Architecturally (ten bonus points if you know what a nave, narthex and transepts are), Nopalito is unlike any other “Mexican” restaurant in Las Cruces. That’s because it was built in 1920 and served as the Templo Bautista until outgrowing its location. By the way, vestiges of the church remain intact in what was the first Spanish Baptist church in Las Cruces. In 1970 when the church decided to move to a larger structure, Jose (J.R.) and Ernestina Gallegos saw it as providence. Not only had they met at the Baptist temple, it was literally “just around the corner” from their original Nopalito restaurant, a small adobe house they had converted to a restaurant and launched in 1964. (Note: It’s just coincidence, but Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque also got its start in 1964). From is start, Nopalito was a huge hit among diners jonesing for great “Mexican” cuisine.
Nopalito is situated on Mesquite Street over a segment of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior), the historic trail that ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe. In 1974, Nopalito expanded, launching a second restaurant at 2605 Missouri, also in Las Cruces. It was built by the Gallegos Construction Company. In 2010, the Gallegos family opened the Nopalito Galleria to showcase regional art and provide the community with cultural enrichment through that art. Nopalito, by the way, translates from Spanish to an edible branch of various cacti of the prickly pear cactus family; it is commonly used as a vegetable.
During our visit to El Paso in February, 2023, my friend Steve Coleman, owner of the highly regarded Steve’s Food Blog encouraged us to make a long overdue return visit to Nopalilo which has long been one of his favorite (and most highly rated) restaurants in Las Cruces. Steve has been visiting the original Nopalito since shortly after its launch in 1964. He’s nearly as familiar with the menu as Nopalito’s chefs. He contends that “the red enchiladas are on par with those in northern New Mexico, except for the fact that the ones here do not come with blue corn tortillas.” Obviously his recommendation carries a lot of weight with us.
I first took my Kim to Nopalito in 2004. By then she had lived in New Mexico for nine years and was very well acquainted with the cuisine of Northern New Mexico. She was surprised at just how different–and how similar–the “Mexican” food at Nopalito was from her New Mexican food favorites. By then, the Land of Enchantment had begun to assert itself as a state with its own unique cuisine. Not Tex-Mex, not Mexican, but New Mexican. Despite the signage in front of Nopalito proclaiming it a “Mexican” restaurant, she quickly discerned Nopalito was most assuredly a New Mexican restaurant.
As we pulled up to Nopalito nineteen years after my Kim’s first visit, we quickly noted that external signage still indicates the restaurant serves “Mexican Food.” I suspect diners know better. Nopalito remained much as we remembered it. The history lesson on the foyer appears as freshly painted as it had the last time we saw it. In addition to conventional restaurant chair seating, church-goers might opt to sit on one of the pews. Unlike church, you won’t get a sermon. You will, however, get very helpful service and recommendations if you want them. Waitstaff will replenish your coffee faithfully.
I almost kissed our waitress when she ferried over a basket of chips and two salsas. The green chile salsa, served heated, is a Nopalito standard. It’s not especially piquant, but it’s got a freshly roasted flavor. It’s so good, beyond sampling the other salsa, you might focus solely on the green chile salsa. My friend Steve notes “Salsa is usually an appetizer but here I find myself continuing to eat it throughout the meal until it is totally consumed (it is a good thing that the chips are worthy of such as good salsa as well).” He’s not kidding. The green chile salsa is addictive. It pairs well with chips that appear to be homemade. These chips have a pronounced corn flavor. They’re thick and crispy, the type of chips that allow for scooping Gil-sized portions of salsa.
Despite the salsa, I remembered having really liked Nopalito’s unique con queso. Unlike most con queso which tends to be a mix of green chile, evaporated milk and Monterrey or Cheddar (or even (Heaven forbid) Velveeta), Nopalito’s version is akin to a bowl of green chile blanketed by a molten sheet of Muenster cheese. Yes, Muenster! I’ve long contended that Las Cruces area New Mexican restaurants serve the very best con queso in the state. If you need proof, visit Nopalito and La Posta. I’ve established just how good the green chile salsa is. The con queso may be even better. As with the salsa, the green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it’s delicious…and Muenster, with its Swiss cheese-like flavor, makes for a surprisingly good change.
As if a bowl of Nopalito’s superb con queso isn’t enough, the accompanying chips also include a large baked corn tortilla fashioned into a “bowl” into which refried beans topped with shredded cheese are nestled. The refried beans are of Mary & Tito’s quality which means they rank with the very best in the state. This is a sentiment shared by my friend Steve. As with all truly great refried beans, these have the look, smell, and taste of homemade refried beans. That likely means lard was used in their preparation. At any regard, a bowl of these beans are a must during any visit to Nopalito.
In his review, Steve rhapsodizes poetic about the red chile enchiladas: “The Red Enchiladas are ones that I would rate as among the best in New Mexico, at least in terms of the chile. I think this chile has the minimum amount of additives for a true chile flavor, and Nopalito left me with one of the most pleasant chile aftertastes in my mouth that I have ever experienced.” Nopalito is a rarity in that it serves enchiladas either rolled or stacked. It’s your preference. They’re served with both beans and rice. “The Works” is an enchilada with red and green chile, sour cream and a fried egg and beef or chicken. Enchiladas are available with cheese, beef or chicken.
My choice (of course) was for stacked enchiladas, the way most Northern New Mexicans prepare them at home. I asked for both red and green chile and was surprised that our server referred to that choice as “Christmas.” Years ago, that term wasn’t as common in Southern New Mexico as it was up North (at least that was my experience). These enchiladas were superb, easily among the very best in the state. As Steve proclaims, the red chile left me with “one of the most pleasant chile aftertastes in my mouth that I have ever experienced.” That aftertaste wasn’t necessarily resultant from piquancy. It was on account of the earthy, sweet, almost fruity flavor, a harmony of flavors in my mouth. A fried egg (over easy) was creamy and smooth with the yolk’s runniness lending a pleasant mouthfeel. There was enough chile to cover the refried beans, but if I were a smarter person I would have opted for a second serving of beans and no rice (not that it was bad).
My Kim may be the most unlucky person in New Mexico. A recent prescription change has made anything stronger than ketchup too piquant for her to enjoy. Thankfully most New Mexican restaurants do offer some entrees sans chile. One of Nopalito’s offerings with no chile is the flauta plate (your choice of beef or chicken, avocado or (and) sour cream). Flautas, which translate from Spanish to flutes, are made from tortillas that are filled then rolled up and fried. The result: a long, thin, flute-shaped roll that’s extra-crispy and bursting with a savory, spiced filling. They’re not as common in Northern New Mexico as they are in the Las Cruces area. Maybe they should be. They’re especially good when dipped into the creamy, rich guacamole.
Desserts include a scoop of ice cream, fried ice cream or sopaipillas (plain or cinnamon). The sopapiillas are classic, deep-fried deliciousness. Puffed up like a golden pillow, they form a perfect repository for honey. Thankfully Nopalito serves the real thing not honey-flavored syrup.
Nopalito ranks with the very best New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. Outstanding red and green chile are two of the main reasons, but frankly, there isn’t anything at Nopalito you won’t love.
310 South Mesquite
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 27 February 2023
1st VISIT: 7 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pork Chops, Sour Cream Enchiladas, Ground Beef Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips, Con Queso and Chips, Flautas, Sopaipillas