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Las Cruces: A slight return
Friday, 11 October 2013
ImageThis southern New Mexico city wears its history and friendliness on its sleeve

Story by Steven J. Westman
It was the winter of 1967 when my family was transferred from Albuquerque to Las Cruces. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it did not take long to fall in love with where we were.

We discovered the new flavors of this region’s New Mexican cooking, due in part to our new neighbors. Several families introduced us to many of the local eateries. Some of the names became fuzzy in my head as the years passed.

Daytrips were made to Old Mesilla, through the pecan orchards and chile fields of this agricultural part of the state. Gradually we found ourselves thinking the Organ Mountains might just be as beautiful as our beloved Sandias.

History was made our last summer there when the first man left dusty footprints on the moon. And history was made again when we packed up and moved back to Albuquerque just three months later — me having barely started 2nd grade. Over the years I have revisited “Cruces” with the same affection I had when I left as a kid.

In April of 1987 U2’s Joshua Tree concert was held at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, and a big group of friends headed down and lodged at the Hilton Hotel for the weekend. Many stories are still recounted by friends about our time there. Now, 26 years later, I enter the doors to the same building — now the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces. In 2006, Heritage Hotels and Resorts took over and it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation.

Even though there were fragments of memories of the old lobby, I was quite amazed by the luxurious transformation. A vast array of beautiful crosses and art work fill the senses. Garduno’s has taken over as the restaurant, and right next to it is awesome Azul Lounge.

The redo of the outdoor pool and gardens, is what wowed me the most. The feel of being at a lavish resort, resonates in this spot the best. The hotel sets up on a hill, on the east side of town, amid a lot of other businesses, but at the pool you feel hidden from it all.

I saw several dogs and learned that four-legged family members are welcome. Another aspect of a hotel that will always leave a lasting impression on me is an affable and friendly staff who are also full of recommendations and directions to true “local” places to check out.

Little did I know, many of the places would end up being flashbacks from my past.

Set in time
For hitting the town, I am a lover of maps, but in this day and age the smart phone has taken over in cities where I need to keep my eyes on the road and my hands behind the wheel.

I kept my dining experiences simple — nothing over the top or “fancy” — I wanted to be where the neighbors eat, where local fables unfold at the table next to you as everyone relishes yummy homestyle cooking.

First stop was El Sombrero Patio Cafe, a family-owned restaurant that has been around since 1956. On this trip it was my first flashback to having dined there as a kid.

I sat on the covered patio and struck up an instant camaraderie with my server Carl, formerly of Rio Rancho’s Turtle Mountain Brewing. He convinced me to order a plate of gorditas (as he swore you can’t find a good one in Albuquerque). I ended up thoroughly enjoying a combo plate featuring gorditas, a taco and a green enchilada paired with a cool michelada. I was a happy patron to say the least.

Next in line was Nellie’s Cafe, another longstanding family-run gem (est. in 1963). The memories of past meals here came flooding back. Breakfast was bustling, with chatter all around, and the slow turn on the ceiling fans above helped establish the atmosphere of a place set in time.

My server here was Josie, and with a smile she welcomed me back. She actually remembered me from the 1987 visit (honest and true). We realized we also went to Loma Heights Elementary in the same era, which made my ranch-style plate of eggs with meat, green chile and cheese all the more satisfying. I could have sat and sipped my coffee for hours. Breakfast and lunch, this place is a must.

Yet another surprise was winding up my evening at High Desert Brewing, a fairly hidden spot that I drove right past (thank you smart phone). High Desert features a cool patio filled with beer lovers and a warm inside space with a bar, which is where I perched myself on stool and took it all in.

High Desert started brewing in 1996; a year later they opened their brewpub. I had a pint of a seasonal Rye IPA (sublime!) followed by a Fresh Hop IPA, served with my green chile cheeseburger. I must say, the burger alone is worth going to this locale, and my bartender Luke took very good care of me.

For my coffee fix I was directed to Milagro Coffee y Espresso in a shopping center right across from the NMSU campus. This is a special and popular haunt for locally roasted coffee and some delish baked goods, with a crew behind the counter that’s not just easy on the eyes but friendly and knows how to whip up strong java. I’m now madly in love with the Atomic Brew — enough blasts of caffeine to keep you going through the rest of the day.

History on display

On most of my travels, I am somewhat a stickler for checking out the local history museums, of which Cruces has several well worth your time.

Down by the train tracks is the Las Cruces Railroad Museum inside the historic Santa Fe Railroad Depot — small in size but always a cool walk-through.

Close by on Main Street is one of the city’s oldest structures, a spectacular building on the National and State Registries of Historic Buildings that houses the Branigan Cultural Center. It’s the home of a permanent local history exhibit and changing cultural exhibits, as well as educational programs, classes, concerts and other special events. Please, please make a stop here.

Right next door is the Las Cruces Museum of Art, which boasts a wide variety 0f revolving contemporary exhibits. It’s a modern building with fab eye candy on the walls. 

Finally, I need to thank the staff at Branigan for nudging me to drive to the far east side of Cruces, where I discovered for the first time the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. Located on 47 acres, it is a sight to see, with a barn and orchards and steer roaming around. Walk the paths and interact with real farm life. 

Trips afield
There is also time for short little day trips during your stay in Cruces. Take Highway 28 south and pass through the more rural part of the town, where you see homesteads and farmland. Shadowy parts of the route are created by lush pecan orchards, specifically Stahmanns Estate Grown Pecans, which (to my dismay) no longer has shops open to the public.

Photo by Steven J. Westman
Trek about 16 miles further south, and find yourself in La Mesa, where you have to be sure to pull over for lunch or dinner at Chope’s Bar and Cafe. This infamous spot has a dining room and a separate bar. Please dine in the bar, as it’s the place to be. It has a dark and cool atmosphere that worked well with a cold beer and a bowl of chips and salsa while I waited for my Three Rellenos Plate smothered with queso and red chile. New Mexican food lovers will certainly be happy with Chope’s authenticity. I hope Liz will be taking care of you when you visit.

Heading back north to Las Cruces, curious travelers must drop into Old Mesilla for a peek at the village’s historic plaza. My main goal is always to visit Mesilla Book Center, perhaps one of my favorite shops ever. A woman by the name of Mary Bowlin used to be the owner, and I actually recall her guidance in this somewhat chaotic space lined with piles and piles of books. But when she knew what you were looking for, she would always find it. I still have several hardbacks my mom purchased for me back in the day. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bowlin is gone, but her daughter still runs the store — “local” at its very sweetest.

Heading back home, head swelling from memories from the past and new ones emblazoned in my mind, I took the long way (of course) through Hatch. More pecan orchards and all the fields of green chile let you know that wherever you decide to travel in this state, you can always find beauty in the landscape and the people who reside there. That is hopefully something you will flash back to often — with notions of returning again and again to discover more.

Where to stay:
Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces
705 S. Telshor, 575.522.4300

Where to eat:
El Sombrero
Patio Cafe
363 S. Espina, 575.524.9911

Nellie’s Cafe
1226 W. Hadley, 575.524.9882

High Desert Brewing Co.
1201 W. Hadley, 575.525.6752

Milagro Coffee y Espresso
1733 E. University,  575.532.1042

Chope’s Bar & Cafe
16145 S. Hwy 28, La Mesa, 575.233.3420

What to discover:
Las Cruces Railroad Museum
351 N. Mesilla
The Las Cruces Museum of Art
491 N. Main

New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
4100 Dripping Springs

Mesilla Book Center
On the Plaza, Mesilla, 505.526.6220

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