At Elemi, fresh masa, avocado leaves, and agave are part of the mission and the menu.
Driving south to West Texas on I-10, the shrubby, sloped Franklin Mountains rise into view not long before the interstate curves east. As El Paso takes shape on the left, with its small, tidy downtown, grids of midcentury homes unfurling in front of sloped hills dotted with mansions, the dense expanse of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, rushes past on the right, a blur of colorful home facades and sprawling white manufacturing facilities in the shadow a mountain inscribed with “La Biblia es la verdad, leela (The Bible is truth, read it”). A rust-colored border fence cleaving the two cities traces my route for a few miles until I exit towards downtown El Paso, bound for the borderlands tacos, which honor the historic porousness of these sister cities, at Elemi restaurant.
Mexican influence runs deep in this Texas border city, a product of its significant Hispanic population (comprising some 83 percent), not to mention centuries of intermingling, trade and conflict among Indigenous, colonial Spanish and Anglo populations. El Paso was considered Nuevo Mexican territory until the Compromise of 1850 drew Texas’s current northern and western borders. You can taste what you might call the OG Mexican-American cuisine in the molten chile con queso at 95-year-old borderlands stalwart L & J Cafe, where simmering roasted green chiles and tomatoes infuse oozing Wisconsin muenster (no Velveeta, thank you very much!). It’s wrapped up with unctuous barbacoa in the hefty burrito at El Chuco Meat Market. It even winks slyly in the crisp-edged form of Elemi’s quesadilla gringa with pork al pastor, caramelized quesillo and grilled pineapple on a tortilla made from heritage maiz naal xoy whose edges hang off its earthenware plate.
But today, I’m here for the tacos.
As I take my seat in Elemi’s elemental dining room beneath a portrait of Mexican revolutionary and agrarian movement leader Emiliano Zapata, I’m reminded of something journalist and author Gregory McNamee said to me some months ago: “You can’t build a wall high enough to keep out tacos.” McNamee, who wrote Tortillas, Tiswin & T-Bones: A Food History of the Southwest, elaborated that however we may separate ourselves into tribes or seek to barricade the other, we’re always happy to share one another’s food.
“With everything going on with immigration, it’s been more separated; it’s gotten harder to cross over the border,” says Emiliano Marentes, chef and co-owner with wife Kristal of Elemi. “But El Paso is a tight-knit community, a little different than what you’d say the rest of Texas or any other city is like. We’re kind of all the same here, in a weird way — all related somehow. Everyone knows someone who knows someone.”
Like many El Pasoans, the Marenteses have family in Mexico. Their heritage comes alive when I take my first bite of one of Emiliano’s tacos, whose foundation is soft blue corn imported from Tlaxcala and Jocotitlán in Mexico. Toothsome yet supple with a gentle char from the griddle, the tortillas cradle succulent pato al pastor, comprising duck marinated for 24 hours with local chiles and herbs, cooked sous vide and mesquite grilled on Japanese griddles. The tortilla’s nutty sweetness counters the savory one-two punch of silky suadero and cilantro-speckled chorizo in the formidable campechano taco, dusted with chicharron crunchies.
Slow down, I tell myself. Savor it.
Contemplation of an Elemi taco begins with this tortilla, which was still in its raw masa state back when I placed my order. As Emiliano says, “it’s the freshest tortilla you’ll get unless Mom or Grandma is pressing them at home. It’s the best way to try a taco because you can’t mimic that freshness.”
The process of making the tortillas takes two days, starting from the moment the sacks of maíz arrive at the restaurant’s back door. The corn is cooked in water with calcium hydroxide, which turns it into an alkaline solution, breaking down the outer shell and allowing for absorption of nutrients like potassium and calcium. After cooling overnight, the corn is drained, hand-ground until smooth with two volcanic stones then formed into balls. At this point, the sole technological upgrade enters this centuries-old nixtamalization process: a pressing machine Emiliano brought from Mexico that cuts and flattens the tortillas simultaneously before lobbing them into the chef’s waiting hand.
You might think that fresh, traditionally made tortillas have always been easy to come by in these parts, but not so. As a teenager, Emiliano started working in a tortilleria — packing and distributing tortillas made from corn flour, or the starch derived from corn grain, to restaurants around the city. But on weekends and at family gatherings, he and his family ate blue-corn tortillas that relatives brought or that he and his mom picked up from Juárez — which ignited a dream to one day open a tortilleria of his own.
Fresh corn tortillas were a delicacy in El Paso native Kristal’s house, too — “something we’d have if we crossed over to Juárez or visited my grandmother,” she says. For her, daily life tasted more like the supple flour tortillas that envelop chile colorado con carne at L & J Cafe, or that she would make with her mom on weekends.
The couple met in 2006 while working at the same casino; Kristal as a bartender, Emiliano as a line cook. “Even then, I remember I only wanted him to make my food,” Kristal says. “He had that touch, that talent.”
Emiliano went on to head up the kitchen of the Hoppy Monk, a craft beer pub that originated in El Paso in 2010 and later expanded to San Antonio. As he worked up to the executive chef level, he grew more interested in learning about real regional Mexican food.
“I started to see how a grandmother making mole has the same level of respect and some of the same habits of a French chef making sauce, which works well together if you’re trying to elevate a cuisine,” he says. “Always wanting to do tortilleria, I wondered how do I put that passion of mine into what I already do as a chef? That’s how Elemi came to be.”
They’d been living in San Antonio, but wanted to go home to open Elemi, so named for “El Emi,” Kristal’s nickname for Emiliano. It took roughly three years to secure a corn importer. The couple likewise sought out independent, regional suppliers of everything from chiles, brisket and beans to specialty items like cacahuazintle (heirloom white maiz), Oaxacan hormigas chicatanas (flying ants) and verdolagas (purslane). They built a portfolio of all agave spirits from small-batch distilleries in Jalisco, Oaxaca and Chihuahua, who are as focused on producing excellent spirits as they are “preserving the plants and cultivating the desert,” Emiliano says. Elemi debuted in late 2018, aiming to bring El Pasoans a new dimension of borderlands food beyond the Tex-Mex cooking found everywhere.
“What would you call our cuisine here?” Emiliano muses as much to himself as to me. “Some say it’s Mexican food. I would say it’s kind of our own little border cuisine — a meld of cultures that (make up) the northern part of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.”
The small storefront quickly amassed a following, booking up reservations almost nightly. Their success has no doubt been buoyed by a front-of-house staff whose enthusiasm and pride seems to ignite from within when they suggest you add avocado salsa and queso fresco to your carnitas taco (as they like to do); or when you request a digestif-worthy sipper after dinner, and they wax poetic on the floral, creamy and rich Alipus San Andres espadín mezcal.
“I think they see our passion and how hard we work,” Kristal says. “There’s also a genuine sense of pride that comes with learning about these ingredients, like, ‘Hey, these are your ancestors.’ They end up loving it. This is what they came from, even if it’s not their culture; it’s part of who they are growing up in El Paso.”
For both, Elemi’s achievements belong to their hometown, which lost some 120 businesses in the first four months of the pandemic alone after years of ascent. Even amid ongoing food product inflation and labor shortages, newcomers like the Mexican family-owned Flautas Originales and Puerto Rican pastry shop Bee’s Pastry Cafe are finding a way. They join L&J Café, where Kristal has eaten since childhood. Piedmont Café, an all-day, veg-friendly restaurant, casts a wide net for culinary inspiration, offering golden pad Thai with pistachio alongside matcha buckwheat pancakes with housemade grenadine, posole in guajillo broth with nixtamal, and a shredded-duck confit sandwich slathered with green goddess. One Grub, a community diner, is El Paso’s first 100 percent plant-based food business. It operates on a pay-it-forward model that allows volunteers to help work on the organization’s gardens in return for a prepared meal. Said delights might include roasted jackfruit and nopal tostadas with crema and guacamole, everything bagels layered with carrot lox and homemade cultured cashew cream cheese, and seitan migas with tofu scramble and shredded tortillas.
This growing list of restaurants together with Elemi are defining El Paso’s cuisine. For their part, the Marenteses stick to their roots; Emiliano’s mom continues to cross the border to retrieve boxes of avocado leaves for Elemi’s aromatic black beans despite ever-tightening border restrictions.
“Our success has reinforced the idea that we didn’t have to leave El Paso to do this kind of restaurant,” Kristal says. “We should bring everything back to our city.”