Tuesday, March 2, 2010

All It Took . . .

was one sentence in a brochure describing the Green Chile Cheese Wontons at Peppers Café to know that this was a must dining destination while we were in Las Cruces, NM.

Located in the historic Double Eagle restaurant (more on the Double Eagle tomorrow), Peppers is a Southwest casual café that sits in the middle of a fine dining restaurant. Peppers resides in what is called the Billy the Kid Patio, and what I call a central courtyard. Open to the elements until 1984, the patio is now covered with a space-age polymer that lets the sunlight come through but shields the room and its patrons from the desert sun.

In the center of the patio sits a carved stone fountain that is surrounded by four Cycad Palms, each valued at $5,000.00. This species of palm can be traced back to the time of the dinosaurs and can be found next to fossils. The patio also contained springler ferns, dieffenbachia, rubber plants, geraniums, and a large flowering bougainvillea.

The dark and uneven brick floor was installed sometime in the late 1850’s. The bricks were manufactured by a local kiln.

And on one wall is framed newel post (from the Gonzales home in Lincoln County) where Billy the Kid carved his name and the name of his girlfriend, Maria Gonzales.

Seating is at heavy pedestal tables with a finish that looks unfinished, and the light wood tables make the perfect backdrop for the brightly painted wooden chairs.

Add soft jazz playing in the background to the tinkling water from the fountain, and you have found a place to linger and relax. And so we did over a basket of brightly colored and warmed tortilla chips and a dish of somewhat mild salsa while we studied our menus.

From start to finish, the menu is intriguing. I am going to pass over the appetizers and desserts right now and give a few examples of other items listed.

If one wanted a salad, one might choose the Spinach House Salad (spinach leaves, red onion rings, sliced mushrooms, garlic croutons, and bacon crumbles served with Italian herb vinaigrette) or the Pineapple Pecan Chicken Salad Plate (chicken salad topped with pecans in a fresh pineapple quarter on mixed greens and garnished with fresh fruit and crackers) or the Chicken Avocado Salad (champagne poached and diced breast of chicken, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, crumbles of hickory smoked bacon and diced fresh tomato all topped by sliced avocado with a sweet and spicy chipotle-orange dressing).

In the mood for a sandwich? How about the World’s Largest Green Chile Cheeseburger--a twenty-ounce seasoned ground beef patty grilled and topped with roasted Hatch Green Chile, Mexican Ranchero cheese and a sprinkle of Pico De Gallo? Or The San Franciscan with hickory bacon, thin-sliced turkey breast, roasted green chile, avocado slices, tomato and Monterey jack on buttery grilled sourdough toast? Or Clubhouse De Mesilla--a grilled breast of chicken seasoned and served with “house” guacamole plus hickory bacon, lettuce, tomato with mayo on three layers of toasted wheat bread?

Not in the mood for a sandwich? How about the Salmon Crepes Supreme--champagne poached salmon and seasonings rolled into crepes, topped with parmesan sauce and served with the pasta of the day? Or the Columbia River Salmon--a grilled fresh fillet over a orange-chipotle chile sauce and served with pasta of the day?

But we decided to share three appetizers and one dessert. For appetizers we selected the Green Chile Cheese Wontons; the Chicken, Chile, and Cheese Egg Rolls; and the Fried Calamari. All were delicious and all were presented impeccably.

The five wontons were lightly fried, filled with cheese and green chiles and came with a pineapple and jalapeno dipping sauce. They were light and packed with plenty of spicy green chiles. The dipping sauce was a revelation to someone who usually doesn’t like fruit other than as a dessert. The cool and sweet fruit paired with the hot jalapenos and the hot green chiles in the wontons sent the taste buds humming. There is now a can of pineapple chunks in my pantry awaiting an opportunity for me to try duplicating this salsa.

The crispy egg rolls came with the same pineapple-jalapeno salsa and contained cubes of roasted chicken breast, three cheeses, and roasted Hatch green chilies. These were delicious, but for no reason I can determine, were probably my least favorite of the three.

The calamari was extraordinary. They were lightly dusted with a seasoned masa and sprinkled with a “secret” spice mix. Since leaving the friendly confines of the East Coast, I have learned to inquire about the size of a restaurant’s calamari. I like mine in rings no larger around than my little finger. These were just right and the order contained an almost equal mix of rings and tiny little whole squid. I love the fried tiny squid, but Chuck thinks that they too closely resembled fried spiders. So the whole squid were all mine. The calamari came with an intensely spicy dipping sauce that, after the first piece, we learned to use with discretion.

We made sure that we had left room for dessert and chose the Praline Santo Tomas—a parfait of vanilla bean ice cream and Kahlua-caramel sauce topped with pecan praline crumbles and cinnamon-sugar bunuelos. The contrast between the soft ice cream and the crunchy praline pieces and the crisp pastry strips was a thing of beauty.

Our lunch was so good that we vowed to return before leaving Las Cruces. So a few days later, we found ourselves back in the Billy the Kid Patio soaking up the ambience.

Appetizers and dessert were again the game plan. Chuck wanted his own order of the chile and cheese wontons so I ordered a “not to be shared” appetizer of my own—the Ceviche Mesilla. The menu indicates this is based on a recipe from Baja California with shrimp and white fish marinated in lime juice to “cook” the fish and seafood and is mixed with cucumbers, cilantro, jalapenos, and tomatoes. The lime marinade gives the ceviche a tart and slightly mouth puckering taste and would be very refreshing on a hot southern New Mexico day.

Our shared appetizer was the BBQ Chicken Breast Quesadilla with a desert honey-chipotle chile bbq sauce and three cheeses and served with a garlic-jalapeno salsa and sour cream. Now I am not a big quesadilla fan – they usually suffer from an excess of cheese. But the chicken to cheese ratio leaned heavily in favor of the chicken, and this quesadilla was far less heavy than most others. The quesadilla came with a garlic and jalapeno salsa that offset some of the sweetness of the bbq sauce.

Our dessert of the day was the house specialty—the Banana Enchiladas. These were two of the lightest crepes imaginable filled with banana slices, topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, and then dressed with a maple-caramel-butter pecan sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry. This was a dessert made to share.

We have always used Las Cruces as an overnight stop on our way to somewhere else. We’d pull into the park, leave the rig hitched to the truck, and pull out the next morning without venturing outside of the campground. No more. Instead of giving Peppers Café a traditional Addie rating, I am giving the café the highest rating possible. Peppers Café is worth unhitching for.

And there is an appetizer--the Smoked Salmon Guadalupe (seasoned sourdough bread toasted with parmesan cheeses, topped by sliced smoked salmon, capers, purple onions, garnished with sour cream) that has my name written all over it.

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