Halfway between Las Cruces and El Paso along old Highway 28, Chope’s Bar & Cafe has welcomed family, neighbors, and strangers inside its doors for over a hundred years.

The drive itself is scenic as you pass through small communities separated by farmland and pecan orchards, so it’s a bit of a surprise to suddenly come upon a crowded dirt parking lot outside two unassuming buildings. The smoky scent of chile and the whiff of something fried wafting from a kitchen hard at work filling orders quickly clarifies the situation.

Chope’s sits in La Mesa, a colonia of Doña Ana County, and offers traditional New Mexican food out of the former home of Guadalupe and José “Chope” Benavides. And now, the long-standing restaurant is the proud employer of a James Beard Award semifinalist chef.

Top row, left to right: Cecilia Yañez, Amelia Rivas, Adelaida Lucero, and Margarita Martinez. Bottom row: José “Chope” Benavides and Guadalupe Benavides. Photo courtesy of Chope’s.

Like many families in the area, the Benavideses lived in La Mesa before New Mexico even became a state. Amelia Rivas, Chope’s eldest surviving daughter, explained that the family home turned restaurant was purchased from an Anglo family by her grandfather Margarito Benavides in the early 1900s.

The front room of the home was converted into a bar and the business began. Margarito’s wife, Longina Benavides, soon started selling enchiladas to farmers working in the area. “Maybe once a week, . . . she would put a lantern in front, they say, and she would sell enchiladas to whoever wanted,” Amelia said.

The couple continued with their business for many years, managing to make it through the Prohibition era by continuing to sell enchiladas as well as bootleg liquor from Ciudad Juárez. Amelia said she believes her family was one of the first to be issued a liquor license in the state of New Mexico after Prohibition ended.

The business morphed into Chope’s after Chope and his wife, “Lupe” Benavides, took over from his parents. They expanded the business by converting more rooms of the house into dining areas and adding items to the menu. The tradition of family running the business was instilled in the couple’s four daughters—Adelaida Lucero, Amelia Rivas, Cecilia Yañez, and Margarita Martinez. The three younger sisters all did their time in the restaurant, serving tables, bussing, and hosting. Adelaida, on the other hand, enjoyed working in the bar—ordering supplies, closing in the evenings, and serving the customers.

Left to right: José “Chope” Benavides, Guadalupe Benavides, Cecilia Yañez, Margarita Martinez, Amelia Rivas, and Josefina “Josie” Garcilazo (second from the right). Photo courtesy of Chope’s.

When the girls got older, Chope purchased the welding shop next door, moving the bar over so only the restaurant was run from the house, where the family still lived. “He didn’t want us to be talking like the men in the bar,” Cecilia laughed.

“When my dad died, the thing he told Adelaida was ‘Don’t run my customers away.’ Because she was very assertive, very strong, very aggressive,” Amelia said. Adelaida passed away at a young age, but today the three remaining sisters can often be found enjoying a bite to eat alongside their customers, chatting about their day.

Left to right: Margarita Martinez, Garcilazo, Cecilia Yañez, and Amelia Rivas. Photo by Leah Romero.

While community and a familial atmosphere is quintessential to Chope’s, the other major part of the restaurant’s success has been the recipes—traditional dishes established by Longina and Lupe and enhanced over the years by the chefs. Josefina “Josie” Garcilazo has worked in the historic restaurant for forty years, the longest of any employee, and is considered family. Margarita, the youngest of the sisters, explained that the families grew up together and Garcilazo’s children spent time working at the restaurant alongside the Benavides grandchildren.

Garcilazo started working all those years ago along with her mother-in-law, Cristina Garcilazo. The Garcilazos were originally from Mexico but moved to La Mesa to work for an area farmer. Looking to further support their family, both women found work at the nearby restaurant and learned the original recipes from Lupe. “My mother was a very good cook,” Amelia said. “She could cook Mexican and she could cook American.” Cecilia added that because their mother always had a “helper” or assistants in the kitchen, she did not teach her daughters to cook. Instead, Garcilazo has been responsible for the flavors of Chope’s all these years.

Garcilazo explained that she has experimented with spices and the cooking times over the years to perfect the recipes. “Todo los días se prepara fresco la comida,” Garcilazo said, emphasizing that the food is prepared fresh daily. She added that she always tastes the food, and if she likes it, then the customers are sure to like it too.

“I have yet to see her say, ‘I’m just going to throw something together today.’ Never,” Cecilia said.

Garcilazo in the kitchen at Chope’s. Photo by Leah Romero.

Garcilazo’s sense of taste leads her efforts in the kitchen. Margarita said the chef’s rice and red chile are the best in the area. The sisters all agreed that Garcilazo’s attention to detail is what keeps customers coming back—that and the frequent comment that the food at Chope’s tastes homemade.

Forty years into her career, Garcilazo is “semiretired,” coming in to work only five days a week rather than all day every day. In the past, there were days she didn’t leave the kitchen until 10 pm. Much of her time off now is spent looking after her great-grandchildren, who give her a thumbs-up when she cooks for them.

This year, Garcilazo received a national thumbs-up in the form of a nomination for Best Chef: Southwest in the prestigious James Beard Awards. While several chefs and restaurants from Albuquerque and Santa Fe were nominated for awards, she is the only chef nominated in southern New Mexico (and the first from the region to be nominated for the awards in some time). The longtime La Mesa chef was named a semifinalist in the awards—a happy surprise for her and her Chope’s family. She said she is muy contento about the nomination and never thought this would happen to her.

“I was very proud of her,” Cecilia said of the nomination, “and she deserves it. That’s how I feel.”

It is obvious that Garcilazo is the driving force behind the continued success of the restaurant. While she is in the kitchen, no plate leaves without her approval.

Red enchiladas with beef and an egg on top. Photo by Leah Romero.

Rellenos are one of the restaurant’s most requested dishes. Cecilia explained that her mother used to prepare only a dozen or so per week for customers, but now five hundred chiles are prepared to serve Thursday through Sunday. I for one am constantly on the hunt for the perfect relleno, and Chope’s remains at the top of my list. Their smothered stuffed green chiles consist of the perfect ratio of melted cheese to green chile sauce. And the fried batter covering the relleno itself is light, allowing the beefy pepper to shine through.

The red enchiladas are another in-demand dish, featuring fried rolled tortillas, cheese, and a blanket of red chile. Add an egg on top and you have the perfect southern New Mexico meal; add meat to the enchiladas to make it a bit more like the northern half of the state’s version of the dish. Red enchiladas were the favorite of Chope himself as well as his children. Cecilia told me a plate was made special for her father the day he passed away. It was his last request.

A meal in La Mesa is never complete without being asked if you have room for a fresh sopapilla. No matter if you’re stuffed or not, there’s always room for freshly made fry bread and honey. And as you head for the door, you’ll inevitably hear one of the sisters call out, “Come back and see us!”

Leah Romero

Leah Romero is a freelance writer based in southern New Mexico. She was born and raised in Las Cruces and is a staunch devotee of the Southwest.