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Borderland is a word that you hear a lot in El Paso, a sprawling West Texas city situated at the boundary between Mexico and the United States. The borderland region is symbolically defined by a hotly-contested crossing from El Paso into metropolitan Ciudad Juarez, but in reality these two cities have been intertwined both culturally and historically throughout the ages. Ideas and people flow continuously back and forth here. In fact, before the pandemic, crossing the Texas border was a fairly simple process for Americans who enjoyed visiting Mexico for a meal.
Despite the controversies within borderland politics, one El Paso chef makes it his mission to branch the divide. Chef Oscar Herrera is a dual Mexican and American citizen whose food has long been critically acclaimed in Mexico. So, when Herrera decided to open a new restaurant—Taft-Diaz in El Paso—he chose the name to honor the first state visit between an American and Mexican president. Taft-Diaz is located inside the Stanton House, a boutique hotel in the thriving section of El Paso’s historic downtown. Open for three meals each day, seven days a week, guests can order from the small plates menu to sample the breadth of Herrera’s borderland cooking.
Photo Credit Renee Sklarew
Some worthy examples include shrimp tacos accompanied by huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on organic corn and tastes like a velvety mushroom. A “green salad” at Taft-Diaz that consists of a charred corn tortilla topped with heirloom greens, cactus, and dollops of avocado cilantro foam. A pork confit taco gains considerable heat from Colorado chilis is balanced by a smoky bean puree. For entrees, the grilled ribeye with chayote, short rib flautas, and to round out the meal, pecan truffle with sotol or tarta Santiaga (almond bread, apricot ice cream, and turmeric milk cream). Most epic of all is the taco alcacholfa, a corn tortilla topped with fried artichokes and epazote aioli. Herrera says diners should expect to see new additions every season, as his ideas are constantly evolving.
Herrera is intentional about bridging the gap between his two home countries. The Taft-Diaz story harkens back to an era of cooperation—when, in 1909, William Howard Taft was sworn in as the 27th President of the United States and suggested a summit on trade with Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in El Paso. Diaz accepted the invitation, and since both leaders were bilingual, there was no need for an interpreter. The meeting on October 16, 1909 began at El Paso’s Chamber of Commerce building and ended with a multi-cultural feast at the Mexican Custom House in Ciudad Juarez.
Photo Credit: Reneee Sklarew
To Herrera, the event signifies his belief that “great things flourish when we welcome others at the table.” The chef continues this tradition by hosting culinary teams from south of the border for Taft-Diaz’s Kitchen Takeover Experiences.
South of the Border
Chef Herrera began his culinary journey in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in 2011, at a time when the community was striving to overcome a plague of cartel violence. Prior to that year, it was not considered safe for residents to dine out downtown at night, but Herrera’s restaurant Maria Chuchena helped his fellow citizens reclaim their streets. The chef explains his daring move as a desire to have a place to celebrate life again, and he offered his five-star dining experience as motivation. The calming in the region also helped draw more Americans over the Paso El Norte Bridge to dine.
At Maria Chuchena, Herrera cooks mostly ingredients made and grown in Chihuahua, the northern Mexican region that sits just below the Texas border. Chihuahua has a rugged landscape and is known for its prosperous ranches, so Herrera’s cooking emphasizes char-grilled meats, smoky cheeses, sour chilis, and the occasional spicy grasshopper. Just two years after it debuted, Maria Chuchena was ranked among the best 150 restaurants in Mexico.
Herrera opened his next outpost inside a historic hacienda in Ciudad Juarez, naming it Flor de Nogal for the walnut trees surrounding the property. This destination restaurant offers dinner under the stars, and in 2017 was named one of the top 120 restaurants in Mexico by Culinaria Mexicana.
Not content to win awards for himself, Herrera co-founded the Cook Instituto Culinario, a culinary school in Ciudad Juarez offering degrees for aspiring chefs. Despite the success of these bold projects, Herrera remains modest and focuses his efforts on educating people in Mexico and Texas on borderland cuisine. “Perhaps because it is so far from central Mexico, Ciudad Juárez still does not stand out as a gastronomic epicenter,” he says. “But we are bringing the flavors of Chihuahua to all those who wish to try them.”
Visiting the Borderland
The city of El Paso is evolving and has become West Texas’ culture capital. Along with vibrant street art and pretty urban parks, El Pasoans are treated to first-run Broadway performances at their historic Plaza Theatre and can view traditional and modern art at the El Paso Museum of Art. An ideal way to understand the history and heritage of the city is by visiting three beautiful adobe churches on the Historic Mission Trail, each with a unique story to tell.
Restaurants like Taft-Diaz are symbolic of El Paso’s emergence as an up-and-coming tourist destination. The city’s renaissance is seen in the modern office buildings, designer boot makers, and luxury hotels. A new streetcar that’s painted pastel blue transports commuters around town, with stops at Southwest University Park, home of the El Paso Chihuahuas, and the University of Texas El Paso.
A wall may separate Mexico and the United States, but the exchange of ideas continues to flow. Francisco Barrio, mayor of Ciudad Juarez, addressed the issue in October of 2019, explaining, “With family members often living on both sides of the border, going back and forth to shop, have a meal, or run a business, there is a synthesis of two strong yet very different cultures.” He adds, “Here we are, sitting at the center of that much contested region, where two nations have been rubbing shoulders for centuries, at times with difficulty, but usually in a warm and cautious embrace.”
At El Paso’s Taft-Diaz, Chef Oscar Herrera offers a delicious taste of that embrace.
Plan A Trip
Taft-Diaz is a fine dining restaurant in the Stanton House. It’s open for breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour, and dinner, offering lots of opportunities to sample Herrera’s groundbreaking gastronomy.
At Cattleman’s Steakhouse rustle up some Texas barbeque at Indian Cliffs Ranch. The Ranch boasts a zoo, playground, and hayrides into the desert where several Western movies were filmed.
Head to La Malinche for traditional Mexican food. This iconic eatery is on North Mesa Street across from San Jacinto Plaza. The lunch special includes soup, rice and a hearty main course.
Coffee Box, located near the San Jacinto Plaza, is a funky coffee bar serving custom drinks and homemade pastries.
L&J Café is an El Paso landmark. The family-owned eatery has served authentic Mexican food and drink since 1927, and is famous for its divine margaritas.
Hotel Indigo El Paso is a great option in downtown El Paso. Among its charms is a lovely pool and outdoor bar.
A note about visiting Ciudad Juarez:
During the coronavirus, crossings are limited to essential travel, but before the pandemic, tourists could easily cross into Mexico by foot. By car tends to be more complicated with longer wait times, and it’s best to seek out escorted travel. Check the Visit El Paso website for more information. Ciudad Juarez features several tourist attractions for the leisure traveler, including historic cathedrals, an outdoor market, notable archaeological sites, eco-parks and the powdery-white sand banks known as the Samalayuca Dunes. Check with the U.S. Department of State for current travel advisories.