09 October 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to El Paso?"

My latest "Who Goes There?" column for Eater, seeing what's behind a Houston Street sign I've passed by for decades.

I'm not sure why El Paso's bisected focus of Spanish and Mexican food strikes me as odd. It's a natural, given the historical connection between the two counties. Still you don't see the combination that often. Then again, you also don't see sleepy, old-fashioned restaurants holding their ground on West Houston, the division line between the nighttime trolling grounds of the Village and SoHo.

El Paso used to be on Greenwich Avenue, but its been in its low-ceilinged basement space 134 W. Houston since 1983; banners still advertise the lobster specials commemorating its 25th anniversary there in 2008. There's a big, ol' square sign outside, bright as day, but it doesn't seem to attract much action.

The place is owned by Pedro Rama and his brother, who look very similar, down to their formal neckties and middle-aged paunches. They hover about the tables and small bar silently with a kind of grandfatherly concern, or fuss over a small wooden dresser where they prepare the bills by hand. Getting information out of them isn't easy. (They either have little English or don't care to show it off.) What sort is the house salsa? "Very good." Who dines at El Paso. "All kinds," though no tourists. On the night I went, not many kinds were there. Two middle-aged, portly, bespectacled men in beards who could have been brothers or partners; two middle-aged women with straight blonde, shoulder-length hair who could have been sisters or partners; and a birthday party in back.

It was firmly established, however, that the Spanish side of the menu is slightly more popular than the Mexican. But I've had my fill of Spanish fare lately, so I ordered the two enchiladas with taco, which came utterly smothered in cheese and was the Mexican equivalent of comfort food and very filling. A giant bottle of "Conquistador Tequila" behind the bar led me to forgo a margarita in favor of a Dos Equis. The prices are cheap, and El Paso is also open for lunch.

Like a good parent, Rama doesn't seem to want to favor one culture over the other. Both chips and bread come to every table. The dark decor is full of Don Quixote images and Picasso-like oils, but the music played was mariachi. The model ship behind glass set into the wall? Cort├ęs'?
—Brooks of Sheffield


Conrad said...

I ate here for the first time a couple of months ago. Stuck to the Spanish side of the menu (with sangria) and it was very good and not very expensive. Great service, too.

Carol Gardens said...

This was a hangout for comedy writers during the 1988 Writers Guild Strike. Mostly because it was cheap and they didn't care if a bunch twenty plus rowdy loudmouths took over the place for the entire afternoon. Fun times. I haven't been back since.

Adam said...

Good to see old family run places holding their own against big chains.

mingusal said...

It's interesting to me that there were once so many of these dark, cave-like Spanish restaurants in the city. There are still several hold-overs standing from that era, but there were once dozens of them on side streets all over Manhattan south of 42nd St. Many more than I've ever seen in any other city.

I've observed that some of them seem to have branched out to Mexican food as tastes changed. I wonder though what accounts for the remarkable one-time popularity of Spanish food and restaurants in NYC.