America’s oldest and longest continuously used “highway,” El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, (Spanish for the Royal Road of the Interior Land) includes a 404 mile stretch that bisects much of the Land of Enchantment from south to north. A large portion of that stretch is barren and desolate, one especially treacherous and dry section even designated by the Spanish conquistadores as the Jornada del Muerto, Spanish for “route of the dead man.” For nearly 400 years–from 1598 (more than two decades before the Mayflower’s storied landing) to 1882–El Camino Real served as both a trade route and as the route taken by settlers and conquerors alike.
For four centuries, thousands of intrepid Spanish and Mexican colonists, conquering warriors and evangelizing Franciscan priests and friars alike traversed the 1,600 mile route from Mexico City as far as San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, many founding and settling villages along the route. The direct descendants of these bold-spirited pioneers can be found living in those villages and cities today. Vestiges of the unique culture, language, music, legends and faith founded by their ancestors exist into the 21st century.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate, who today is both revered and reviled, led the very first expedition of colonists into New Mexico. Not far from the terminus of the Jornada del Muerto, Oñate’s party was aided by the Piro-speaking people of the Teypana Pueblo. Oñate named the site Socorro, Spanish for “to give succor” or “to give aid.” Socorro is today New Mexico’s second oldest inhabited community, a city proudly linked to its storied past and historical traditions while at the cutting edge of 21st century technologies.
For years Socorro has been regarded as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else. Tourists have long stopped in Socorro to refuel en route to El Bosque del Apache, Magdalena, the Very Large Array (VLA) and other points north, south, east and west of the city. Socorro has been making a concerted effort to change the perception of Socorro as solely a city on the way elsewhere by showcasing all that is available–for locals and tourists alike–in this city of approximately 9,000 residents.
Leading that charge is the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce which wisely secured the services of my friend Susan Wisdom as their web designer. Susan has not only made the Chamber’s Web site the online home for all of its members, she has created a valuable resource for all prospective visitors. A longtime Socorro resident, Susan has the ambassadorial qualities needed by a city aspiring to attract visitors and keep locals informed. She’s personable, effusive…and she really knows the area’s restaurants.
Perhaps her favorite is the aptly named El Camino Family Restaurant, a true New Mexico culinary classic which opened in the early summer of 1963. El Camino is a city institution, the perennial choice for best coffee shop and best breakfast in annual newspaper contests voted on by Socorro residents. It has long been a haven for New Mexico Institute of Technology students who drink pots of the restaurant’s coffee as they study into the wee hours. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day and serves breakfast at all hours.
Breakfast is what Susan knows best though she’s intimately acquainted with the entire menu, having designed it herself for family friend and restaurant owner Mehrdad Moradi. It’s a comprehensive menu serving traditional American and Mexican food, sandwiches, burgers, steaks, seafood, appetizers and even an omelet named for Susan. That omelet is called the “SW Omelet,” which diners assume stands for “Southwest.” Instead, “SW” stands for Susan’s initials, representing “Susan Wisdom.” Susan special ordered this omelet so often, the restaurant put it on the menu.
Our inaugural visit to El Camino was at the wee hour of 8AM for the breakfast segment of a “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” article for New Mexico Magazine. At that unholy hour, the restaurant’s coffee, an invigorating blend with a fragrant aroma, really hits the spot. You can smell that coffee and other breakfast dishes as you approach the timeworn, but very clean restaurant. The signage, a prominent beacon on heavily trafficked California Avenue, is the original sign though an angry hailstorm (hail which grew to three-inches in diameter and struck the ground at speeds approaching 100MPH) destroyed a portion of it (since restored).
The restaurant is bustling with activity in the early morning when the clinking of spoons against ceramic cups is punctuated by an enthusiastic wait staff’s cheerful greetings. The menu, a six-page compendium of deliciousness, is delivered with your first cup of coffee. Though I studied the menu at length, there was really only one choice for breakfast–the SW Omelet. The restaurant’s omelets are made with three eggs and are served with hash browns and toast. Cheese can be added to any omelet for a pittance.
The SW Omelet is engorged with sausage, cheese and mushrooms then topped with green chili (sic). It’s no wonder this is my friend Susan’s favorite breakfast entree. It’s certainly all that eggs are cracked up to be! The SW Omelet is an excellent early morning picker-upper with a green chile that is more flavorful that it is piquant. Almost resembling a “gravy,” the chile is ladled on generously atop the folded eggs. Flecks of mushroom, sausage and green chile are seen on that “gravy,” an elixir you’ll want topping everything on your plate. It’s what’s for breakfast in Socorro.
If a traditional American breakfast is more your early morning speed or you just want to load up on carbs for a busy day, the #6 has your name written all over it. This behemoth breakfast features two eggs any style served with hash browns, three French toast and your choice of ham, bacon or sausage. The slab of ham occupies about half the plate. It has a sweet, smoky flavor that proves an excellent contrast to the thick, sweet French toast. The eggs, prepared over easy, are quite good though they would have been even better with the restaurant’s green chile.
Intrepid diners no longer have to contend with the hardships faced by early settlers and explorers traveling the Camino Real and travelers today have several reasons to visit Socorro. In fact, it’s worth getting there early in the morning so you can have the city’s very best breakfast at El Camino Family Restaurant.
El Camino Family Restaurant
707 California Avenue, NW
Socorro, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: SW Omelet, French Toast