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A chalkboard sign in Las Cruces advertises an Elvis happy hour starting precisely at 5:43, but the board lists no finishing time; there’s just an empty space next to the dash. Apparently Elvis’ happy hour is like his lifeit lasts indefinitely.
Or at least until the baseball game starts. At three minutes past 7, eight minutes after my arrival, film footage of the King playing silently on a TV above the bar gives way to an Orioles shellacking; soon, Presley will the leave the building entirely as his music is nudged aside by some Stevie Ray Vaughan. It all strikes me as a little disrespectful, but the waitress assures me that “Elvis understands.”
Las Cruces is that rarity, a truly slack enclave that takes pride in its indifference. The Elvis incident almost prompts me to cry foul, but it seems Las Cruces is used to having its advertising challenged. On the menu, which is bound in two New Mexico license plates, Las Cruces claims its flour tortillas come from Roberto’s, in the restaurant’s namesake city. “Call ’em if you don’t believe us,” the menu dares. Roberto’s’ finest will come with any soup or stew order, “unless we forgetor maybe you want something else. Just ask. We’re easy!”
Las Cruces is a proud ambassador of New Mexico and its cuisine; there is Las Cruces tourist info on every table, and the cook even attended Las Cruces High School. I can’t vouch for the regional authenticity of the restaurant’s interior, though I can say it’s something to see. Looking the way the Sanford and Son pad might if it were cleaned up and decorated by a folksy graffiti artist, Las Cruces radiates a ramshackle chic. None of the chairs match, and the benches look to be salvaged from an old commuter bus. All the tabletops are Formica, but each is a different pattern. The ceiling lights are covered with cotton to look like clouds, muting their glow to a candlelight dim. Painted on one wall is the rear of a big blue sedan; its tail lights are real and lit up. It’s shocking that such a fantastical atmosphere is housed in a basement restaurant I had assumed was out of business after walking right past it countless times. The menu acknowledges the otherworldly vibe but assures, “This is for real.”
Perhaps, though I’m not convinced that some of Las Cruces’ dishes actually exist. The kitchen seems to be terminally out of both the posole and green chile stew. It’s a shame, because the one stew I do try, the caldillootherwise known as the “poor man’s (or woman’s) stew”is a delight: ground beef and stewed vegetables in a mild broth and available by the vat. The tortilla chips definitely exist, though that’s not entirely a good thing. The multicolored chips are dull, stale, and neither warm nor salty; they’re saved, however, by a lively salsa teeming with fresh chunks of onion, tomato, and peppers. The guacamole is also good, deceptively hot and redolent of chiles. On one visit, I’m nursing what we’ll call a sour stomach and try the jalapeño fritters only because a friend insists. It ain’t health food, but the peppers, filled with cheese and cooked brown, turn out to be remarkably sweet (unlike the chile rellenos, a similar-looking dish that could conceivably be used as an instrument of torture) and are complemented by a dip made of yogurt, sour cream, honey, and red chiles. I’ve added the fritters to my list of addictions.
All the mainstaysenchiladas, burritos, and tacosare available with beef, chicken, or vegetable stuffing. The vegetarian is a favorite, because the zucchini isn’t cooked so much that it gets squishy; the slices are a firm, invigorating vehicle for the hot mixture of spices. Las Cruces offers both green and red sauces. If you get the green, I recommend ordering it mild; the hot, as the menu says of another dish, could “strip the paint from a ’57 Chevy hood.” If you’re partial to the red, however, hot is the only way to go; the flavor of the thin condiment all but disappears in its mild version.
As far as I can tell, what distinguishes Las Cruces’ New Mexican cuisine from other strains of Southwestern food is its construction. The enchiladas and tacos are prepared two ways: the former either rolled or stacked pancake-style, the latter rolled or folded. I must say that the stacked chicken enchiladas take me no place different from where the rolled ones do. But in a restaurant where live musicians comment between songs on conversations they overhear while playing, logic gets you nowhere at all.
On one visit to Las Cruces, I take a seat alone next to a silver Christmas tree and three scrappy-looking guys with beards arguing over the “bottom line.” I’m distracted, tripped out slightly by the lighting and a book I’ve been reading. The waitress tells me the kitchen is out of the first few things I try to order. She asks me if there’ll be anyone joining me. There won’t be, but I answer, “Yes. She’s already here.” The waitress sets down two license-plate menus without batting an eye.
Las Cruces, 1526 U St. NW. (202) 328-3153.
We considered several other restaurants before my friend and I decided on Pizza de Résistance, a stylish but not-too-expensive Italian joint in Courthouse Plaza. I’m most impressed by the rolling chairs that look like something out of the Jetsons, but as my friend claimed, the marinara is pretty much the shit. Great sauce, cooked just right to coax the flavor from its ingredients, is of little use on its own, however. The cheese in the smoked-mozzarella calzone is hard, and the pesto in the middle is cold to the touch. We should have asked them to cook it.
Pizza de Résistance, 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. (703) 351-5680.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.