Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Silver City via Legendary Chope's and a Special Rest Area

[2010 Out West Road Trip.  Travels with Carol.]

In March 2010, my mother, Carol, and I took a road trip from Missouri to New Mexico, in search of sun and warmth. Here is Day 10 of our road trip. 

Friday, 12 march 10 

Green chile stew. Credit: I Love New Mexico
We left Alamogordo for Chope's, a legendary hole-in-the-wall cafe/bar that is in the middle of nowhere. More specifically, about 15 miles south of Las Cruces. In La Mesa, in fact. There are many worshippers of Chope's chile rellenos, perhaps one of two signature dishes in NM (the other being green chile stew). Here is a loving review from Steve's Gastronomic Home Page. And below is a particularly reverent write-up from yelp reviewer, Marcos R:   
There are restaurants, and then there are shrines that serve food. Chope's is a shrine. Nay. A church. A church of food. A church where chile rellenos are the gospel, beer the Holy Water, menus the liturgy, and sopapillas the host. And I wish I could begin to speak of the glory of the red enchiladas, but I am a person of unclean lips, and unworthy to utter such great things.  
Here's the story. Chope's is family owned and run by the descendants of the original owners. The recipes are decades old, if not centuries. When you eat there, you are eating true southern New Mexico cuisine, made by mexican grandmas who tacitly whip up masterpieces of the mexican genre with one hand, while rocking their grandchildren to sleep in the other. (I've seen them do it with mine own two eyes).
Bottom line- If you don't like Chope's, you don't like mexican food. In fact, you don't even like food. You probably don't even like people. And guess what? it doesn't matter because people probably don't like you. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm very passionate about this place. And if you've been there, you probably are too.
1) Call to see when they are open and go for an earlier or later dinner to avoid the 1-2 hour wait.  
2) The drive to Chope's is scenic so on your way you must roll down your windows, wave your hands in the breeze, and enjoy life. This is a crucial step in the Chope's dining process.   
3) When you order, get a fried egg on your red enchiladas and make sure you get a green chile relleno. And no matter how stuffed you are, order sopapillas for desert.
The food is hot. The food is heavy. The food is holy. Amen. 

OK, I don't think I'd go quite as far as the above writer, but I did get the chile rellenos (without sauce) and they are damn good. Carol got the tamales, which I believe she thought were so-so.
From Chope's, we headed toward Silver City. BTW, we had two opportunities to whip by Las Cruces again, and we still weren't attracted. 
Somewhat northwest of Las Cruces, on I-10 and then later Highway 180, we saw large signs: "Warning - Dust storms," "Do not stop in travel lanes," and "Zero visibility." More on this later. 
Stopped at the Butterfield Trail Rest Area on Highway 180, about 1/2 an hour south of Silver City. This rest area is in a desolate place, but you could tell as soon as you drove onto the grounds that someone takes pride - even love - in caring for this rest area. Someone had created a walking path on the area's perimeter, outlined in stones painted white. Along the way chunks of prickly pear (red this time of year) stuck into the ground to start new growth. There were painstakingly-groomed shrubs, and small tableaus of artfully arranged desert specimens, such as ocotillo, prickly pear and agave. Some of the shrubs were shaped into topiary-like forms. I was so taken with the personal stamp on this rest area that I sought out "the guy" responsible for this site. He was in a truck with another person. His story:
Name is Jo Jo. He's worked at this rest area for 9 1/2 years; he requested this stop after serving at a rest area on I-10 for a number of years. And it's taken 9 1/2 years to get the rest area to its current point, and he still has numerous plans for improvement. To make it more beautiful. A Deming, NM, native, he's a self-identified loner who hunts rattlesnakes in the summer (and makes various items for sale from them), hunts in the nearby mountains on weekends, and raises king and bull snakes for sale. He releases one of his bull snakes at the rest area periodically to keep down the rodent population and to squeeze out rattlesnakes. He had quite a few stories to tell us.
I asked him about this dust storm business. He believes they're primarily a function of ranchers overgrazing the lands. This year, there was a 10-car pile-up close by the rest area, in which a woman was cut in half when her stopped vehicle, which she'd pulled off the road, was hit by another vehicle pulling off the road, etc. Dust storms are serious stuff in NM.


We arrived in Silver City shortly after leaving the rest area, and we were both delighted. Pretty little mining town, with multiple shops with character (and not the usual jumble of only antiques and collectibles). We're at the Palace Hotel in a two-room suite. Tons of light pours into the tall windows. Four-poster bed. Comfortable couch in the living room, with TV, microwave, and fridge. 

We walked about before dinner, then went into Diane's Parlor, where we each had a drink (mimosa for Carol and hibiscus for me), and enjoyed listening to a man playing acoustic guitar. Returned to our room, had our picnic dinners, and then I went around the corner to one of the many local coffee shops (the Javalina) to listen to a poetry reading by a couple from Minnesota. 
Saturday night, I'll go to a concert at the historic theater around the corner, and we'll both go to dinner at Diane's. 
At our last evening's walk-around in Silver City it seemed a mix of artistic and hippie ambiance.  Young men on skate boards streaking past us on the sidewalk politely muttering an "excuse me" to us, a very skinny woman with long straight gray hair, tanned and lined face, stopped and asked me how I was doing in a friendly manner and chatted a bit, signs written "no dogs" and once or twice "no loitering".  Lots of posted handwritten or commercially printed signs indicating past and future activities.  Mzuri was in heaven.  I nibbling on the fringes.  The Chope's dining experience was just one more unique happening to revel in and write about.  The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" comes to mind as you will see when Mzuri sends hers out on the airwaves.  Lunch is only served in a span of two hours and we were there a half-hour early.  The place filled up rapidly and there were a number of servers who worked efficiently, quietly, and expressionless.  Very large servings.  I ordered tamales which I had ordered at that strange and solitary place in Salt Flat where one person did everything, the daughter (may I say perhaps my age tho she was probably thirty) had lived there all of her life.  Her father was sheriff of this far-flung area where "arguments were settled by gun or knife" some years ago and when things became very serious the Texas Ranger had to be called in to prevent massive bloodshed.  All this was read from old and yellowed newspapers pinned to walls.  Tonight I plan to order something with mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese and a wilted lettuce salad with a Manhattan appetizer.
Carol waiting for Chope's to open


Well I guess the last Mexican restaurant wasn’t too traumatic for Grandmother then.

She laughed when I shared this email with her - she hadn't noticed it yet.
Today we've been picnicking, as we ate at restaurants twice yesterday.  Don't know if Mexican is back on the menu for the future.

Actually, the last Mexican restaurant we lunched at may have been my last or the choice I make looking for that special enjoyment most people seem to have.  The other day when we went to dinner I ordered something they called Momma's Meat Loaf that included mashed potatoes. The next day I made a sandwich for my lunch with meat loaf left over - really left over.  Kind of cleared my palate (of meatloaf anyway).

Mom:  your observation of Mzuri's experience relative to yours reminds me of the time (I love telling this story because it's so you) we were at a funeral along with Shilo Girl, and you leaned in and whispered sotto voce, "this is deadly".

LOL.  Sotto voce - when spoken by Carol (love you Mom) "sotto voce" really means a loud whisper that everyone, all the way up to the priest, can hear). And actually, trois entendre, ALLLLL over the place, it was deadly!

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