All stories about Las Vegas, New Mexico, must begin with a clarification: this is not the sin city of Nevada, but rather the often-overlooked gem in northern New Mexico, famous, if at all, for playing some other town on the silver screen. Its character is homegrown and genuine, a pronounced difference from the other Las Vegas. You will find no casinos, no gaudy stage shows, and no Elvis impersonators here. What you will find are welcoming faces, great food, and a surprisingly familiar backdrop for some historic films.
Prior to this August getaway, the little I knew of Las Vegas—beyond the gas station just off I-25—extended to the existence of The Skillet on Twelfth Street. Pulling into town at lunchtime on a Friday, I knew this would be my first stop. I was greeted with a wide smile from a counterman singing along to a Violent Femmes song playing over the PA. Old-timers wearing baseball hats sipped bottled beer. Metal sculptures, plants, and water features widened the outdoor walls of the patio. A cat lounged nearby (a sure sign of a quality place). After perusing the menu, I went for the beef barbacoa bowl, brimming with brisket and fresh jalapeños. Then I sampled bites of the Townie Taco and the vegetarian buffalo cauliflower variety. The venue’s spicy food and snappy service made for a fine welcome to Las Vegas.
Next, I headed to the Castañeda to check in. This recently restored nineteenth-century hotel was built as the first trackside Harvey House and later served as the Communist occupation’s headquarters in the Cold War classic Red Dawn. My actual key (not keycard) opened an elegant and quiet room, revived with period antiques, overlooking the train tracks. Of particular note were the immaculate wooden floors that invited bare feet to linger.
But linger I did not. Once reshod, I headed down Railroad Street and up Lincoln past the enormous cowgirl mural that still proclaims “Calumet Says Howdy,” from the fictional Colorado town created for Red Dawn, just to have a look around town. Downtown Las Vegas is easy to walk. The scale is human and the cars (the few that were about) are limited to fifteen or twenty miles per hour in many places. I could have made it to the plaza in a leisurely twenty minutes if I weren’t distracted by the open door of Gallery Onesixsix on Bridge Street and the exhibit of ink drawings by Wovoka Trudell that filled the storefront space.
It was an unexpected treat on a stretch of street with a smattering of art galleries and antique shops that held no hint of the pretension sometimes found in similar parts of Santa Fe or Taos.
Evening brings two options to movie fans in Las Vegas. For the pedestrian, there is the fifty-seat Indigo Theatre a few steps down from the art gallery. For the driver, there is the Fort Union Drive-In just up Seventh Street, a few minutes from downtown. Red Dawn fans will instantly recognize the place as the site of the film’s reeducation camp, where Harry Dean Stanton appeals to his sons to be avenged. Gone are the Soviet propaganda films and barbed wire, in favor of current double features and a snack bar.
A light rain and a lack of interest in seeing the latest Space Jam movie drew me back to the Castañeda, where I ventured to the wraparound patio for a distinctive chile relleno and a glass of red wine from their ample bottle shop, which also serves as the restaurant’s wine stockpile. Afterward, I stopped for a nightcap at the hotel’s small but active bar, where the bartender shared stories of the hotel hosting Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders reunion and poured a tasty rye old fashioned.
I turned the topic to ghosts and was treated to several convincing tales of encounters at the hotel. To be on the safe side, I inquired at the front desk on my way up to my room as to what I should do if I encountered one in the night. Without missing a beat, the night clerk assured me that if I called down to the front desk, they would send someone up to shoo the ghosts away, a level of service found only at your finer haunted establishments.
A specter-free night turned to morning, and a short walk brought me to Charlie’s Spic and Span on Douglas Street for breakfast. Tin ceilings, Formica table tops, and a large painting of the girl covered in whipped cream from Herb Albert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights set the mood. For me, carne adovada and eggs were in order, but others may steer toward the in-house bakery options. On my way out, I picked up a couple of pastries to share back at home. Reports were favorable from those who later inhaled the enormous cream puffs.
Walking back to the hotel, I stumbled into a small farmers market. There were a dozen or so vendors, a guy playing guitar through a little PA, and the obligatory crew of little kids dancing around. One woman was selling Seckel pears from her hundred-year-old tree, an offer I couldn’t pass up, and a sack of these made their way home with me.
For much of the rest of the morning, I found myself at Storrie Lake, just a few minutes outside of town. There is no swimming, but five dollars will get you all the wading and stone skipping you like in the lake’s clear water. In New Mexico, time on a lake, especially one not jammed with Jet Skis and overflowing family reunions, is a rare treat.
Before leaving town, I checked out the Plaza Hotel, situated (as the name suggests) right off Old Town Plaza Park. From the thoughtfully annotated menu, I ordered the keto-friendly portobello panini, and moments later I was eating lunch on the sidewalk, ten feet from the place where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper introduced the world to the crime of parading without a license in Easy Rider. With no scofflaw hippies in sight, I finished my meal and began the two-hour drive back to Albuquerque, with plans for a return trip already underway.
Clarke Condé is a veteran food photographer and writer based in Albuquerque with a strong preference for red chile, keto-friendly beverages, and natural lighting. Find him on Instagram @clarkehere.