Friday, February 28, 2014

A Walk Around Mesilla

We must have made about half a dozen trips between Phoenix and San Antonio or between Albuquerque and San Antonio over the past five years.
One of our overnight stops is in Las Cruces, NM. On this current cross-Southwest trip, we stayed for a couple of days. Here was another chance to spend a little time in Mesilla, the historic part of the city.
Basilica of San Albino, originally built of adobe in 1855, rebuilt to its present structure in 1906

After past visits to this historic section, we have written about the role of Mesilla in the history of the Southwest--from the Gadsden Purchase, to the Civil War, to the Butterfield Stage Coach Trail, to the trial of Billy the Kid, to being a lively social center in the 1880s.

So, on this visit, I just walked around the square and some nearby blocks to photograph the structures and activity of the area--and anything that caught my eye.

“Many of Mesilla's population of nearly 2,200 residents are direct descendents of Mesilla's early settlers…(and) have retained many of the ‘hearty folk’ qualities of the original founders.

Scenes (above and below) from the early set-up of the semi-weekly Farmers and Crafts Market on the Square

“Mesilla has a rich and diverse heritage with the integration of Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American cultures. Perhaps the greatest import of the past history is the physical character of the community itself. The traditional adobe structures and architectural features modified through time because of style and technology still remain as a reminder of the long and significant history of the town” (

"In 1881, the railroad bypassed Mesilla in favor of Las Cruces, four miles to the northeast. With this event, the county seat was moved to Las Cruces and Mesilla's importance was soon dimmed by its neighbor. As a result, Mesilla has experienced little growth until recently, and so, has retained much of its original nineteenth century character.

"Citizens of Mesilla, wanting to retain the character of the original town, enacted a historic zoning ordinance to promote the preservation of this lovely old town" (

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Imagine My Surprise

…when I found a pizzeria in the Number Four spot on Trip Advisor’s list of best restaurants in Las Cruces, NM. And imagine my surprise when I found these magic words written on the menu: “Due to the extreme temperatures in our oven, the crust will take on a charred appearance – this is the sign of a correctly baked pizza and should not be thought of as burned…” This we need to check out—Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana.
“Until recently, Las Cruces was home to mostly bad locally produced pizza…. But now Las Crucens enjoy several good choices, including a new small chain, Red Brick; pizza with a New York attitude at Eddie's Done Deal Pizza; and, best of the best, Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana, which finally gives one reason to go downtown.
“Located and nicely remodeled into the Popular Dry Goods store, one of the last to go belly-up in downtown, Zeffiro has struck a chord with many Las Crucens. Owner Gary Ebert (Ed. Note: along with his wife Anne Marie) and his very attentive and efficient staff serve up gourmet-style pizza on hand-tossed crusts...” (
“When Gary Ebert relocated his family from Boise, Idaho to Las Cruces,...southern New Mexico seemed like the perfect place to grow his business. ‘Las Cruces is a very unpretentious place. What you see is what you get. The people are friendly. There is a lot of diversity here, but people don't call it diversity, they call it just getting along,’ said Ebert.
“Ebert took the risk and opened Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana in the heat of the recession. ‘We thought we'd have 30 to 40 customers, our first day we had 150 customers. We had waiting lines out the door. We were totally unprepared for it quite honestly,’ said Ebert” (

As Ebert explains, “I…fell in love with bread when traveling in France and Italy—so much so that in 1991 I quit my Law practice and attended the International Baking & Pastry Institute at Johnson and Wales University, graduating in 1993 with a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts.
My real education had just begun—in 1993 I opened Zeppole Baking Co. in Boise, Idaho—over the next 13 years I honed my skills as a baker, producing countless loaves of crusty Artisan bread. The bakery grew and prospered to the point that I was spending more time as a manager than as a baker, leading to my decision in 2006 to sell the bakery and search for a community to start a small ‘hands on’ bakery once again.

“I also developed a strong interest and passion for traditional Naples style pizza. Real Naples style pizza crust requires the same attention to detail and craftsmanship as artisan breads, so it seemed natural to combine an artisan bread bakery in conjunction with a traditional pizzeria. Thus, the decision to launch the Popular Artisan Bread Bakery and Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana.

The name selected by a business should reflect the philosophy and underlying commitment of the business. We chose the name ‘Zeffiro’ for the pizzeria based upon one of its meanings in Italian—‘something of fine value’ to reflect our commitment to serving the finest Neopolitan style pizza possible” (
And given his background as a bread baker, Ebert is passionate about his pizza dough. “Pizza dough is the most overlooked item in modern pizza preparation, often viewed as a mere base for toppings. In many chain pizzerias the dough is purchased from a factory in frozen dough balls containing a wide variety of chemical additives, dough conditioners, preservatives, enricheners, etc.

At Zeffiro we bring the same care to our pizza dough that we do to our Artisan Breads. Our dough is made from only four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. The dough receives a lengthy fermentation over 24 hours giving a flavor and complexity of texture that is impossible to achieve with modern day shortcuts. Our dough is made daily and is never frozen—as a result, some days we may simply run out of dough…” (
We arrived at about 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, one hour before the restaurant would be closing to reopen at 5:00 p.m. Our server later told us that this hiatus allowed the staff to freshly prep what was needed for the evening service so that all customers would be assured of receiving only the freshest of product. The restaurant was nearly full, but we still could have taken a table on the wrap-around open air porch (the temp was in the mid-70’s with almost no humidity). Instead, we opted to sit inside where we could observe the action. And lucky for us, we were seated right next to the open kitchen and could watch all of the action.
As soon as we were seated, we were presented with a basket of Gary Ebert’s ciabatta along with a small plate of finely chopped fresh garlic.
Using the dispenser on each table, you pour some excellent olive oil over the garlic, and if you want an additional kick, add some hot pepper flakes to the mix. Dip the bread in the garlic oil and be transported to Tuscany. And I purchased two loaves to take home with us.

While the menu includes salads, pastas, and sandwiches, the primary focus is on the pizza. And the menu offers a number of intriguing choices: the Rustica with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, fresh mushrooms, sliced black olives, and fresh rosemary; the Pesto Bianco with basil pesto, mozzarella cheese, Parmigiano cheese, and garlic; Lemon/Asparagus with olive oil, garlic, mozzarella cheese, paper-thin sliced fresh lemons, fresh asparagus spears and red onions with prosciutto and pecorino Romano cheese added after baking; Potato Rosemary with thin sliced Yukon Gold potatoes, fresh rosemary, feta cheese, prosciutto, olive oil, and garlic; and more.
But we stayed true to our pizza ritual. We first ordered Zeffiro’s version of the Margherita.
When the server brought this to the table, I remarked that one sign of a serious pizza maker is the addition of the basil after the pie comes out of the oven.

The crust was excellent—thin, but flavorful, like fine bread. The sauce was light and not sweet. And the pie held just the right amount of cheese.
(We decided that, with owners as serious about their pizzas as Gary and Anne Marie Ebert, we would not alter their standard, so we did not order light cheese.)

We finished the Margherita and were ready to order our second pizza. And here I should note that not all pizzerias are so accommodating. They want you to order and get out. They need to turn those tables so want to speed you on your way. Anyway, we debated between another Margherita with the addition of Italian sausage or the Prosciutto (tomato Sauce, mozzarella cheese, basil, and prosciutto) and finally went with the latter.
I was initially surprised to see that the prosciutto had been fired with the pizza and was concerned that the meat would be overly dry and tough. But the short cooking time prevented that from being a problem and the baking intensified the flavor and saltiness of the meat.

What a surprise Zeffiro’s proved to be. My advice to the Ebert’s—open a pizzeria in Albuquerque, where there is a desperate need.

And our rating—5.0 Addies, of course.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Surprise Food in Cajun Country

It was late July of last year. We were in Lafayette, LA, and were making a weekly stop at Rouse's supermarket for groceries.

We parked the truck at some distance (as is my usual practice) from the entrance. Upon exiting, we were met with an aroma that was not common to the area, yet was not unknown to us.

It didn't take long to locate the origin of the aroma (the smoke rising from the revolving basket) and the objects being roasted (the semi-trailer parked nearby with the words "HATCH CHILES" painted on its side left no doubt). Rouse's was roasting the king of chiles--the green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico.

Ahhh. If only we had had more freezer space....

Which brings us to our recent visit to the "Chile Capital of the World." Located off Interstate 25, between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences, the Village of Hatch has experienced steady but moderate growth. In 2007, the town population registered a little over 1,600 people.
West Hall Street, Hatch, NM

Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a two-day celebration of the world-famous crop. The festival attracts over 30,000 visitors from all over the United States, including such notables as the Food Network and the BBC.
West Hall Street, Hatch, NM

The scenes pictured below show men working with dried red chiles. These chiles are woven into hanging bunches or bagged for shipment.
But, returning to Lafayette, it is the aroma from the revolving propane roasting basket that draws the crowds.
When the chiles are roasted (the skin is blistered and mostly blackened), the chiles then are put in plastic bags.
A short drive home with one of these bags filled with chiles just out of the roaster is just enough time for the skin to further loosen.
Scraping off the skin and removing the seeds prepares the chiles for vacuum sealing and freezing.

And year-round enjoyment.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We’re in Las Cruces

…for a few days and have plans to drive to Hatch—“The Chile Capital of the World”—for lunch at Sparky’s. Fortunately, I had done some advanced research, so we weren’t in the position of these reviewers posting on “In Hatch for lunch and Sparky’s (tripadvisor no. 1 choice) was closed…,” “We stopped in Hatch to have competitor's food—they were closed that day…,” “Happened to be passing through town in the middle of the week when Sparky's was closed…,” and “Wanted to try Sparky’s but they were closed….”

So our fallback position was to eat at The Pepper Pot, a small restaurant that had been featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and one that we visited in March of 2010.
The two things I remember about The Pepper Pot were the staff seemed to personally know about ninety percent of the diners and that the red salsa was outrageously good.

“Located in a converted residence, the Pepper Pot still resembles a family home, the give-away that it’s a business being prominent signage on a concrete plant stand. Homey exterior implements such as an old-fashioned push mower and a miniature John Deere tractor adorn the lawn.
"When you step into the restaurant and seat yourself in one of the dining room’s sixteen tables, you might notice that the ambiance is laden with Catholic symbols.
Even the flowers painted above the arched doorways resemble the roses on Juan Diego’s tilma…” (Ed. Note: A tilma is a mantle or cloak and Juan Diego’s is thought to depict Our Lady of Guadalupe.)
“… The Pepper Pot is owned and operated by sisters Melva Aguirre and Rosaria Varela who prepare all dishes from scratch. Their restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch. Their chile is obtained locally from the Lytle family, generations of which have farmed in the Hatch Valley since the late 1800s. Jim Lytle, the patriarch of the family, developed the fabled Big Jim chile pepper which is featured prominently on Pepper Pot’s cuisine” (

On the front porch sits a Corona decorated high top with four stools (although I don’t think that the café serves alcohol) and an assortment of household items.
To say that the interior décor is eclectic is understating things. Just inside the front doors is a massive display of crucifixes and as you look at them you see a very large American flag decorating almost all of one wall.
The front hall also contains a weathered bench,
and an equally weathered china cabinet containing miniatures (mostly of Disney characters) sits in one corner of the main dining room.
“What is conspicuously absent is any mention or memorabilia of arguably the restaurant’s most famous visitor. In August, 2008, the Travel Channel’s indefatigable host Anthony Bourdain dined at the Pepper Pot during a filming of his No Reservations show. His dining companions were Judd Nordyke (mayor of Hatch) and his lovely better half Marcia (coordinator of the Hatch Chile Festival), who schooled Bourdain on the fine points of red and green chile. Bourdain declared Pepper Pot’s enchiladas ‘the best red enchiladas of his life’” (

Some things haven’t changed since our visit four years ago. The restaurant was almost empty, but those dining seem to be known by all of the staff. A party of three entered, and the one waitress on duty hugged each member of the party. And the three of them all placed their orders before taking their seats. And later a woman from the kitchen came out to another table and engaged in a lengthy conversation with two women on the proper cooking of chiles.
Another thing that hadn’t changed was the awesome salsa. While most of the components had been finely minced, there were still enough chunks to keep it from resembling spicy V-8. And it was hot! Chuck would dip his chip in and then let most of the salsa run off the chip. I went all in with big scoops.
This was so good that I bought a sixteen-ounce cup to take home.

On our previous visit, we ordered enchiladas and a chile relleno for me. We found the food good but not spectacular. Would anything change this time?

Chuck ordered the beef fajitas that came with rice, beans, and guacamole and only one flour tortilla for wrapping.
I found the beef on his plate disappointing. It seemed to be straight out beef strips sautéed with some onions and peppers. I am accustomed to the meat being marinated and then cooked on a very hot surface so that the marinade browns and almost caramelized—the Maillard reaction at work.

I ordered the day’s special—the pork carnitas tacos. Again, what I got wasn’t what I was expecting.
While I have had carnitas in which the meat is in cubes or is shredded as were these, I thought the purpose was to achieve a crust on the meat—almost like bark on pulled pork. This just seemed to be shredded pork, and pork that wasn’t really seasoned.

Fortunately, the plate came with a small cup of minced cilantro, onion, and lettuce, and I added a cup of chopped roasted Hatch green chiles. These, along with the guacamole from Chuck’s plate, helped immensely.

The beans were a combination of whole and mashed and had a smoky meaty undertone. The rice was better than average and seemed to have a distinct lime flavor. I know that there is a commercial Mexican seasoning—Tajin Clasico Seasoning—that contains lime and I wonder if this was used here.

We finished with an order of sopapillas that were good but—like those at Garcia’s—not as good as Cecelia’s Café’s.
Legend* has it that W.C. Fields has written on his tombstone “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” I can’t help but rewrite this as “All things considered, I’d rather be at Sparky’s” and can only award 3.0 Addies.
*“…this is not Fields’ ACTUAL epitaph, as many people believe, but a joke he made over two decades before he actually passed away. In a 1925 article in Vanity Fair, Fields made a joke about what he would like his epitaph to be, and that’s what he came up with, once again a joke about Philadelphia” (

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.