Facing east across the dusty lanes of North Nevada Avenue, one can almost imagine being in El Paso, Texas.
When Sandra and Paul Sherer relocated to Colorado Springs after seven years in the Texas border town, Sandra's hometown, they loved everything about their new surroundings. But none of the Mexican restaurants in town served El Paso-style Mexican food. So the busy couple went to work, just a little over a year ago, putting together a menu and a kitchen staff to reproduce the food they love.
The result is a comfortable little cantina in a building that has seen many incarnations over the last decade, most recently as the North End Spaghetti Factory. The Sherer's have changed the interior colors to soothing earth tones, with a hand-painted mural that stretches across the south wall stating their philosophy of living and dining: "Health, love and wealth -- and time enough to enjoy them ..."
Indeed, in Cafe El Paso, the Sherer's have made a place to eat and linger. The wrap-around bar is a comfortable place for a pre-dinner margarita or a casual dinner alone. A few tall bar tables stand nearest the kitchen, and the main dining room is a hodgepodge of linoleum-topped tables. On several occasions, I've seen large parties pull two or three tables together in the middle of the dining room and the serving crew seem equally at ease serving 12 or four.
El Paso cuisine is generally comparable to nortea or northern Mexican cooking of the state of Chihuahua, a simple cuisine relying on beans, tortillas and chilies, enhanced by the Texas cattle town's seriousness about beef. Sandra Sherer buys her chilies from Espanola, N.M., where she says she can get the largest variety of fresh peppers for her handmade sauces. The salsa is green, a pungent mix of tomatillos, onions and hot chilies. The enchilada sauce is brick-colored and smoky flavored. And the meat marinades for Cafe El Paso's fajitas and steaks, well, Sherer won't share the secrets of those sauces but they are divine meat tenderizers and flavor enhancers.
Which brings me to the steaks -- the best reason to venture to Cafe El Paso besides the friendly atmosphere and service.
The dinner menu features Ranchero Style Steaks, your choice of a 12-ounce T-bone ($16.95) or a 10-ounce rib-eye ($14.95), succulent and dripping with the chili-infused marinade, served with beans, Spanish rice, one cheese enchilada and a pile of shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. I've tried both steaks as well as the smaller, thinner Tampiquena Steak ($11.99 with an enchilada and guacamole) and found them uniformly tender, moist and delicious. They come topped with seeded, long strips of mild green chili.
The enchiladas are good too. I'm tired of Mexican restaurants that serve a puddled mass of overcooked tortillas with an indistinguishable filling and call it enchiladas. The tortillas here are not soaked to the point where they have no texture, the sauces are strongly flavored, and the fillings are simply what they say they are -- cheese, beef, chicken or sour cream. All plates come with three enchiladas and the prices range from $7.50 to $8.99 at dinner, $6 to $7.50 at lunch.
I haven't tried the green enchilada sauce yet, but the Chile Verde con Carne ($5.95) is superb. This is a rich green chili stew with chunks of potato and onion and, instead of shredded pork, cubed beef. The chili packs a nice heat -- just enough to loosen the sinuses.
The Tacos al Carbon ($9.89) are an attractive plate of marinated, grilled top sirloin served on a bed of bite-size soft corn tortillas with slices of green onion and avocado and a bowl of queso fundido, a creamy melted white cheddar sauce with chorizo and green chili. The meat was very tender and flavorful, but the cheese sauce had congealed to a big lump on the night I tried this dish.
Lunch specials change daily and at $7.25, served with a cup of tortilla soup or potato green chili, are a serious bargain. I tried Friday's special, Pancho's Poblanos, a huge poblano chili relleno stuffed with shredded chicken, peas, carrots, onions and corn and couldn't eat half of it, not to mention the side dishes of beans and rice. The relleno breading was not too thick but nice and crisp, and the poblano chili maintained all its flavor as well as its dark, glossy color.
I succumbed to dessert on two occasions -- flan ($4.25) both times. The first time, it was simply the best I've ever had, perfectly creamy with a strong vanilla flavor and a perfect caramel topping. The second time it was overcooked, but hey, I'm willing to give it a third chance. Or maybe I'll go for the Pastel de Tres Leches ($4.75), a moist cake topped with strawberries.
What else should you know about Cafe El Paso? There's a kids menu with everything from small Mexican combo plates to hot dogs. The margaritas are excellent and plentiful. You can get Huevos Rancheros or Chilaquiles (corn tortillas soaked in enchilada sauce with cheddar cheese and onions, topped with a fried egg) any time of the day. And breakfast is served on Sunday morning starting at 7:30. Your partner who doesn't like Mexican food can get a hamburger or a chicken sandwich at Cafe El Paso, for which they should be severely reprimanded.
After all, where else on the front range of the Rocky Mountains can you find a genuine piece of Old El Paso?