September 9, 2010

Where to eat in Carlsbad, New Mexico

Hermana and I drove down to Carlsbad, NM to visit our Mother recently. We spent all of our time eating out, then napping and then trying to decide which restaurant to devote our attention to next. We made some surprisingly new finds and repeated old best ones—people in Carlsbad have some clever dining options now that have not always been there.

Our first night we went to the No Whiner Diner. The name by itself is enough to turn me off, but the food is actually very fresh and appealing with a diner sort of aspect, lots of options (including great salads for dieters), even though they don’t serve liquor. The thing about Carlsbad according to my cousin is that the townspeople fall into two groups: those that drink and those that oppose drinking. Every restaurant in Carlsbad has to decide which group they plan to appeal to because teetotalers and lushes avoid each other’s restaurants on principle.

The next morning as my sister and I walked down the hall to my Mother's room, we sadly discovered our Mother’s dining companion fallen on the floor in her room with a badly broken knee; she was taken off to Lubbock for surgery that couldn't be done in Carlsbad. That sort of dampened our mood to eat breakfast in the independent care dining room that day, so we hustled off to the Blue House Bakery and Cafe, a darling coffee shop and bakery with amazing artwork, excellent food and a convivial atmosphere on North Canyon Road. My sister parked in front of the vacant lot next door to the Blue House and pointed out to me that this was where my Mother had first lived as a child. Two Cyprus trees had overgrown either side of a single concrete step which was all that remained of where the house had stood, and the vacant lot next to that was where a beloved family pet, Star Puppy, was buried. I always asked my Mother to tell me Star Puppy stories over and over again when I was little.

Best place to meet and mingle with friendly locals--a must do!

That evening we had reservations at the Stock Exchange Steakhouse, one of the more pricey places. I wish they would put a new front door on the restaurant; the existing one is plywood painted a flat black and kind of sets the tone for the poor interior design in the restaurant. The facility is owned by a caterer and the food is imaginative and unique, even though the menu is somewhat limited. All of us were impressed with the fine food (and me the wine list); the desserts were exceptional. The dining furniture is beautiful, but although the restaurant is expensively decorated it is a claustrophobic space inside. A beautiful old bar dominates the end of the room, but has been effaced by the black ceiling and dark red-brown walls that take over the room and press you down. I believe they had the best food, but the interior made all of us very uncomfortable.

Thursday came and lunch was held at The Little Teapot, a very girlie spot in an old Carlsbad house, cater-corner from the Blue House. Inside the home was decorated with ladies hats, teapots and floral china, and a beautiful framed wedding dress from the ‘50s complete with pearls, handbag and photo of the bride and groom. The groom’s dinner jacket was framed on the other wall. The food was fresh and not too much, and all the meals were served on beautiful pieces of mismatched china. It was a cute place and was popular enough that a children’s birthday party was underway upstairs.

For dinner we drove 30 minutes distant to Artesia to an Italian restaurant called Piccolino which got good reviews on Trip Advisor. It turned out to be sort of your red-checkered tablecloth kind of Italian restaurant and didn’t make any claims to being fancy, though it was housed in a cute old brick building and was attractive inside. The portions were quite generous and the menu very comprehensive. I would definitely go back again. I wondered who the Italian counterpart of the establishment was since the staff seemed all to be of Mexican descent though giving the impression of being part of a large family who owned it. There were lots of unique menu items that hinted at a very Italian cook. Artesia is an oil-and-gas town, a tiny town of about 15,000 but embellished with some very impressive large-scale bronze sculptures of horsemen and cattle along the main street and highway through town.

Bronze sculpture, El Vaquero, in downtown Artesia

The next day, Friday, was our last day to enjoy each other’s company as Hermana and I would leave bright and early the next morning to catch up with Esperando in the Albuquerque Airport. I can never understand how times flies by so quickly. I convinced Hermana that we had to go to San Jose, the Mexican part of Carlsbad, to eat at Rojas Mexican Grill and Restaurant, the best Mexican restaurant in town. Their red chile sauce for chips and for enchiladas is fabulous, hot and spicy. The Mexican American citizens of Carlsbad lay claim to many generations of residence here all the way back to the Spanish occupation of Mexico; they are not ‘wetbacks’.

Our last night’s dinner was saved for the Trinity Grill and Hotel. This historic property was constructed in 1892 as the First National Bank. It once served as home to the first newspaper and headquarters of the Carlsbad Irrigation District where my grandfather had his office as Project Manager of the U.S. Reclamation Project. For my Mother, my sister and me, it evokes nostalgia of times past and some emotional claim that we have on Carlsbad as our birthplace. However it is also a wonderful place to eat, full of light and elegant interior spaces. The food is always good, the Maitre D’ knows my Mother and delights in escorting her to a table, and somehow it just always feels like home.

The old bank building these days houses Trinity, a B&B and hotel.