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El Paso: Border city boom
Wednesday, 02 January 2013
El Paso’s downtown area is experiencing a surprising revitalization spearheaded by artists and musicians. The winter temperatures are nice, too
By T.J. English
Stop into any drinking establishment in downtown El Paso for more than 30 minutes, and it is likely that someone will offer to buy you a shot of tequila. My first free shot came at a legendary downtown cantina called The Tap, where a unique assortment of Chicanos, cowboys and local bohemians gather to drink, dance and listen to live music just blocks from the border with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
“You’re not from around here,” said Odalis, the Mexican cowboy who spotted me a shot of Don Julio añejo to go with my bottle of Lone Star beer. “No, I am not,” I said.
Odalis raised his glass, and we both toasted my visitor status by downing a shot of nectar from the cactus. It is not surprising that El Pasoans like Odalis view visitors as a welcome novelty. The city has received a bum rap in recent years because of its proximity to Juárez, locus for the narco war in Mexico. Even though narco violence in El Paso’s sister city across the border has diminished considerably in the past year, the lingering effect has not been good for the city’s image. This is particularly unfair given that El Paso, with a total of three homicides in 2012, is, in fact, one of the safest cities in the U.S.

ImageEl Paso is an especially wonderful destination during the winter months. With a median temperature around 60 degrees during December and January, the days can be almost balmy and the nights pleasant.

These days, downtown El Paso is where it’s happening. As the traditional tourist businesses of clothing and novelty stores have suffered due to the narco violence across the border, downtown El Paso has been revitalized by artists and musicians who have taken over lofts, clubs and parks. With an impressive collection of galleries, lounges and top-notch restaurants,  downtown is experiencing an improbable renaissance, making it one of the most vibrant nightlife destinations in the Southwest. And outsiders are definitely welcome.

Where to Stay:
DoubleTree by Hilton
600 N. El Paso, 915.532.8733

Where to Play:
Wyler Aerial Tramway
Albuquerque residents are rightfully proud of the Sandia Tram, but El Paso’s version is nothing to sneeze at, with a climb up the rugged Franklin Mountains to 5,632 feet and views of the city and adjacent Mexico.
Franklin Mountains State Park
1700 McKinley, 915.566.6622

Where to Eat/Drink:
A savory tapas-style menu boasts everything from pork confit to albondigas (ground beef filled with chorizo and manchego and stewed in a tomato broth). Aye aye aye.
115 Durango, Suite D, 915.533.8935

L & J Cafe
Classic borderland Mexican food is dished up at this El Paso institution, much as it was
when the joint
opened in 1927.
3622 E. Missouri, 915.566.8418

Tricky Falls
The Launchpad of El Paso, it’s a fine venue for live music.
209 S. El Paso, 915.351.9938

Soho Cocktail Lounge
An intimate, hip club atmosphere and a tasty food lineup of pizzas and paninis make this place a great downtown destination.
500 N. Oregon, 915.532.7646

The Tap Bar & Restaurant
Classic El Paso dive bar with good (and cheap) eats.
408 E San Antonio Ave., 915.532.1848

My own stay in El Paso began at the DoubleTree Hotel, located off highway 10, which separates downtown El Paso from the rest of the city. Part of the Hilton hotel chain, the DoubleTree was fully renovated four years ago and is today both comfortable and chic, with an excellent restaurant off the lobby and a rooftop lounge with expansive views of the city. From my room on the seventh floor, I could easily see across the border into Juárez. The other side of the building overlooks the Franklin Mountains, which, depending on the light and cloud formations moving through the area on any given day, provides a sometimes spectacular backdrop to downtown. A short drive to those mountains brings you to the tram, which offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding terrain.

On a two- or three-day stay, most everything you would want to do downtown is within walking distance of the DoubleTree hotel. The art museum and history museum, which details the historical circumstances that created this uniquely bi-national border city, are one block from the hotel.

ImageThe city’s downtown historic district is impressive, with a number of gorgeous art-deco buildings from early in the 20th century. The crown jewel is the Plaza Theatre, a landmark historic building that is arguably the most beautiful early-20th century theater still in operation. Built in 1929 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the building was lavishly renovated and, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2006, re-opened to the public. With over 2,000 seats, the Plaza easily accommodates traveling Broadway shows, full symphony concerts and a classics film festival that is one of the best in the U.S.

If you are visiting El Paso, get thee to the Plaza, no matter what event might be showing there. The building itself is the main draw. Once inside, make sure you wander all over the place, from the spectacular bar off the lobby to the elaborate restrooms to the balcony. Note the intricately painted ceilings, mosaic-tiled floors, posh carpeting and decorative wrought iron banisters that have brought this building renown as “the Showplace of the Southwest.”

There are many good places to eat downtown, ranging from rustic Mexican to nouvelle cuisine. One of the best is Tabla, located in the Union Plaza area, a recently renovated area downtown that was formerly comprised of warehouses and lofts, now turned into offices, restaurants, bars and loft-style living spaces. Tabla opened in 2011 with a Spanish-European menu and ambiance. Try the paella with a pitcher of Sangria and you’ll be ready for whatever the evening might bring.

For more rustic fare, try the L & J Café, an El Paso institution since 1927. The L & J is located outside of downtown, so you will need to drive, but it is not far and well worth the trip. The food is classic borderland Mexican, and the restaurant has not been changed much since it first opened. It is located across the street from the Concordia Cemetery, a historical landmark where many notables, including gunfighter John Wesley Harding, are buried.

Perhaps El Paso’s most notable entertainment feature is its eclectic music scene. There are a number of great venues downtown to see live music at ridiculously affordable prices. At a club called Tricky Falls, I saw Radio la Chusma, an infectious Mexican rasta band that has became well known throughout the Southwest. Two nights later, at an intimate club called the Soho Lounge, I saw Frontera Bugalú, a band that mixes cumbia, mambo, bachata and other Latin styles guaranteed to have the stiffest of gringos shaking their booties on the dance floor.

After the bands stop playing, you can end your evening with a cocktail at any number of unique downtown establishments, none more so than the San Carlos Building, formerly an auto garage, now a multi-functional bar and lounge with both indoor and outdoor drinking space. Like many El Paso establishments, the San Carlos is decorated with cactus and potted palm trees, and if you sit outside in the mild December breeze, looking up at the star-filled sky and bright moon, you may feel as though you have stumbled upon the perfect desert oasis.
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