Sunday, September 27, 2015

Driving down to Chope's on Route 28

Forty-five years ago I first motorcycled down Highway 28 to Chope's, in La Mesa. The food and mood in Chope's were welcoming. The drive was delightful too, a gently-curving country road – with a sudden coolness when the motorcycle passed through irrigated fields, and the pungent scent of onions growing.

Nowadays, we don't make that drive often enough – and not on the motorcycle recently. Together, the drive and Chope's are something special we share with close friends and family when they visit.
Sometimes we pause in Mesilla. Sometimes we just meander down through San Miguel (resolving to attend its next fiesta!) and Stahman farms, mesmerized by the trees flashing by. One of my best-selling images is of those trees in late afternoon, reflected in the surface of the flood-irriagion water. Whatever I may think about water conservation and the arcane rules that govern water rights in New Mexico, those pecan orchards are sometimes extraordinarily beautiful. So are the distant Organs rising up beyond green fields.

Yeah, plenty of houses stand where just fields were; but I'm reassured by how little some of the villages along Route 28 appear to have changed. I'm sure they have changed. Surely faster transportation routes have killed off some local markets and services, as I watched happen up by Garfield and Derry; but the villages seem quiet and familiar, without neon lights or advertising or significant traffic. Sometimes if we are early we simply wander around La Mesa and the area, photographing adobe homes, rusted cars, green fields, and what-not, bathed in the rich light of the setting sun.

Chope's is what a lot of historic restaurants might wish they were, or pretend to be – and perhaps could be if they were still run by family and if their size and locations discouraged expansion. Bigger is not always better. Whether by choice or happenstance, Chope's smaller size not only reinforces the home-like feel of the place but helps maintain the quality of the food. And there's something in being faithful to your origins.

Chope's is a family place. One evening when we were there with my sister and brother-in-law, Cecilia, one of the daughters who runs the place, noticed my camera and hauled me into the big room where the many descendants of Chope's widow Lupe, the matriarch, were celebrating Lupe's 94th or 95th birthday. I was delighted to help, delighted to be a
small part of the event for a moment. The other day when we sat in that room with two old friends, facing the portraits of Chope and Lupe, I recalled her birthday. I also noticed the subtle, mischievous grin on Chope's face, and the warmth of Lupe's eyes.

The food is very, very good. And to my taste. It seems true to the local style, but extremely well done. You also get a lot on your plate. “I suspect about half of this will be going home with us in a box,” our friend Jim said last week, eyeing what seemed a mountainous serving. Quite soon his plate was about as empty as a plate can get. In between we'd talked (in a full room that wasn't too loud), consumed a pitcher of margaritas (never a hindrance to a good evening), and devoured our food. And asked the waitress, for the second time this month, the Spanish for “smothered in” a point that had troubled us ordering chile relleño burritos recently in a small restaurant in Palomas. (Bañado, of course.)

We drove home through dark fields, under a sky is rippled with clouds. Just one more shining moment in a place we love.
On the Road to Chope's
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 27 September.]

[Las Cruces has no shortage of wonderful, small Mexican Restaurants.   Nellie's is one of the oldest; La Ñueva Nueva Casita and Nopalito's are also good, both on Mesquite St..  (One friend swears by the former, and one by the latter, so I get to each regularly.)  One of my strong favorites, a bit different from local tradition but really great, mixing wonderful taste with maybe an extra emphasis on healthy ingredients, is Habañeros.  We loved it when it was in a tiny ex-drive-in spot on Solano, then heard that it had moved; and when we finally got over to the new location one night, we found that it was in a great location that we'd really enjoyed when another restaurant was there, an old house that friends of mine actually lived in forty years ago.  Tornillo between Amador and Lohman.  Great food, friendly chef, and a pleasant place, still divided into several rooms, which somehow enhances the experience.  Habañeros Fresh Mex.]

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