My friend Steve Coleman, owner of the well-written and impeccably researched Steve’s Food Blog has become quite a culinary anthropologist. Not only does he provide his readers with comprehensive reviews of restaurants throughout the fruited plain, he explores the genesis of the foods he writes about. One of his passions is to define what constitutes El Paso style Mexican cuisine–its provenance and the cultural role that cuisine has played over the generations. As he’s discovered, El Paso style Mexican style is still evolving and redefining itself. Some of that has occurred organically as other cultures have influenced dynamic changes. Evolution has also been forged by the rediscovery of ancient ingredients and cooking techniques, some of which may once have been traditional.
To Steve’s dismay, El Paso’s restaurant scene doesn’t seem to garner the type of adulation and respect accorded to more voguish and dynamic Texas cities such as Austin, Dallas and Houston. It’s disconcerting to him that even when El Paso restaurants and chefs are nominated for James Beard awards, those restaurants make it no further than the semi-finals. Steve has traveled extensively throughout Texas and is familiar with the culinary offerings at the chic, anointed cities. In his estimation, El Paso is being overlooked, maybe even disrespected. He’s frequently invited me to visit him in El Paso so he could introduce me to some of the foods that make the Sun City’s culinary scene formidable. We began planning my visit when we learned that two El Paso area chefs had been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Best Chef-Texas award.
The first restaurant on our agenda was the swanky ELEMI, described by The City Magazine as “at the heart of the El Paso downtown renaissance.” Steve regaled me with accounts of the area’s growth and change, a renovation that’s made the area an inviting hub of activity. As for the restaurant’s name, ELEMI is actually a conjunction formed from a term of endearment co-owner Krista Marentes has for her husband and the restaurant’s revered chef Emiliano. The Marentes’ goal is to “cultivate an eatery that could bridge the gap between traditional Mexican food and modern sensibilities.” It’s an exemplar of the type of evolution Steve and I discuss about Mexican cuisine.
I first became acquainted with ELEMI thanks to the premiere episode of Padma Lakshmi’s series “Taste the Nation,” on the Hulu streaming service. Taste the Nation is a travel and food docuseries that follows her on a journey across America to sample a diverse array of ethnic foods made by people like her, who came to this country as immigrants. Not only does Padma sample those foods, she spends time getting to know the people behind the food and the fascinating stories that made the people who they are — and the food what it is. At ELEMI, the Marentes showed Padma how to grind nixtamal into masa for homemade blue-corn tortillas. She also helped make ELEMI’s El Campesino tacos. The tacos are made with confit portobello mushrooms, grilled eggplant, avocado, queso and black beans in the blue-corn tortillas.
ELEMI was nothing like we expected. We were escorted past the bar made with large slabs of beetle kill pine (pinewood naturally stained blue by bark beetles) which our server told us was built by the chef himself. Obviously if he couldn’t make it as a chef, Chef Marentes would make a fantastic carpenter. Though not the restaurant’s cynosure, one eye-catching aspect of the restaurant is a large framed portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. That portrait is fitting in that Zapata was a champion of agrarianism, a social and political philosophy that stresses the primacy of family farming. Based on the compendium of ingredients, it’s likely Chef Marentes was inspired by Zapata. He may not have been as inspired by Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a smaller portrait of whom also hangs on a wall.
Our server was ambassadorial and knowledgeable about the restaurant’s menu and history. We connected immediately when he noticed the wallpaper on my iPhone screen which depicts our ginger dachshunds Tim and Callie. Our server has dachshunds, too, as well as a Yorkie. Quite naturally, I had to show off photos of our Lardycake, the most beautiful Yorkie ever conceived. Even when Steve (he’ll tell you it was me) spilled a glassful of jamaica agua fresca all over the floor, our server was cheerful and quick to clean up Steve’s (er…my) mess. The diners at our adjacent table weren’t impressed by my oafish display.
We were certainly impressed by the menu, a melange of mostly familiar ingredients employed in unusual combinations. Steve noted the fusion of traditional (including per-Colombian) and contemporary Mexican ingredients he had not previously experienced. To declare the menu “creative” is to undersell how inspired and innovative it is. This is a menu perhaps unlike any other in El Paso. Food selections rotate with seasons and availability of fresh ingredients. All tortillas for our tacos are made and cooked to order, always! ELEMI is a restaurant I would want to explore just to make sure I didn’t miss a thing.
Eight “botanas” (appetizers) festoon the menu. It would be easy to make an entire meal out of four or five botanas, but we limited ourselves to three so we could experience tacos. Texas Monthly confirms the wisdom of our decision: “With high-quality meats and fish, vegetables grown nearby, and house-made corn tortillas, Marentes serves outstanding made-to-order tacos.” Texas Monthly’s “Taco Editor” (where can I get a job like that?) Jose Ralat expounded further: “Like the Juárez tortillerias, Elemi uses the centuries-old practice of nixtamalization, in which corn is cooked, soaked, and ground into masa. The resulting corn tortillas are the foundation of the taco-focused restaurant, which has only eight tables inside, creating an irresistible intimacy.”
The first of our three botanas sports the name “Pepinos,” a term that translates from Spanish to “cucumbers.” In actuality, there was only one cucumber, but it was sliced so impossibly thin it reminded us of a fat apple that’s been peeled into just one long slice like a ribbon. The skill (and patience) to do that is remarkable. The menu indicated the Pepinos botana was vegan, but with one of the ingredients being “sal de hormigas chicatanas,” Steve pondered when and why hormigas chicatanas were classified as vegan. When we pointed it out to our server, he indicated the faux pas was caught after the menu had gone to print. Hormigas chicatanas, by the way, are a species of large flying ants considered a rare seasonal delicacy from Oaxaca.
Other ingredients used to create the Pepinos were lime, chile de arbol oil and roasted sesame seeds. I half expected the Pepinos to resemble cucumbers in the manner used at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Instead, the organic cucumber inherited the salty, smoky flavor of the “ant salt” and the lip-pursing sour qualities of the lime. We didn’t discern much of the chile de arbol oil, but maybe that’s because we can both eat lava and not be fazed. Because we didn’t finish the Pepinos, I took the remainder to our hotel room for Kim to enjoy. Not a fire-eater, she immediately discerned heat emanating from the chile de arbol.
We both enjoyed the Esquites (Mexican white corn, lime aioli, butter, queso cotija, chile pequin) much more. Esquites is a term for Mexican street corn served off the cob and in a cup, whereas elotes is Mexican street corn served on the cob. Our server told us Elemi uses only sourced corn from Mexican farms renowned for producing the best maize for corn tortillas. The esquites looked like a bowl of sunshine and indeed, they had the same effect a ray of sunshine has on a cat perched on a window. With just the right amount of creaminess from the butter and queso cotija paired with plenty of personality from the lime aioli and chile piquin, the esquites were a fabulous melange of ingredients and tastes that go so well together.
Our third botana was a unique take on quesabirria. When it was delivered to our table, I thought it was stuffed crepe. Quesabirria, as everyone in America now knows, is a portmanteau, a compound word joining queso (cheese) and birria, the traditional Mexican stew. Essentially quesabirria is. a beef birria taco with melted cheese, a sort of cross between a taco and a quesadilla. Typically quesabirria is served with a rich consomme. ELEMI’s version is mde with local black trumpet mushrooms, birria style mushroom broth, quesillo and avocado fanned out. This is wholly unlike any quesabirria either of us had ever experienced. In so many ways, it may have been better, especially if (like me) you’re a mycophile.
Our server told us the most popular of the seven tacos on the menu is the Campechano (suadero, chorizo verde, chicharron, pico de gallo). If you’re not acquainted with suadero, it’s confit native American beef as tender as my Kim’s heart. The suadero was moist and flavorful, inheriting porcine qualities from the chorizon and chicharron (ground up into a crispy topping similar to a crunchy streussel). The pico de gallo had a piquant personality but not so much that it didn’t allow other ingredients to shine. Chef Marentes’ reputation for blue corn tortillas non-pariel is well earned. The nixtamalized blue corn tortillas were superb, the perfect canvas for tacos that also earn accolades.
As is usually the case when visiting a new restaurant, my eyes train on dishes I haven’t previously experienced. The Conejito Pibil (achiote-citrus marinated rabbit, salsa xni pec, pickled red onions) jumped out at me. It’s been years since I’ve had rabbit, a protein some people won’t touch because bunnies are so cute. Rabbit has, in fact, been a very popular protein since pre-Colombian times..and it does not taste like chicken! As with the saudero, the conejito is absolutely tender with no hint of gaminess. Only enough red onions were presented to give the rabbit a contrasting flavor profile, but the star ingredient was the rabbit. Don’t hate me because I love rabbit. Try this taco and you might forget how cute bunnies are.
Only two desserts are on the menu. First is the arroz con leche Mexica (spiced coconut milk-chia pudding, pineapple-piloncillo, seasonal fruits, praline pecans, roasted coconut flakes). Had I worn my reading glasses and studied the composition of this dessert, it’s the one I would have ordered. Not that the chocolate tamale is any consolation prize. This tamale wasn’t wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. Instead, it was presented as a dark chocolate cake resembling a brownie topped with a single scoop of ice cream and a raspberry. It was a good dessert, but 20/20 hindsight tells me the arroz con leche would have been fabulous.
ELEMI is a small restaurant with limited seating. Reservations are definitely required. Should you find yourself in El Paso and you want to experience something a little different, let a James Beard best-chef nominee feed you.
313 North Kansas Street
El Paso, Texas
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MOST RECENT VISIT: 25 February 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pepinos, Esquites, Quesabirria, Campechano Taco, Conejito Pibil, Chocolate Tamale