Written by Rob McCorkle
Conical Picacho Peak dominates the skyline in the western reaches of our high desert city that boasts a population of more than 100,000 people as it expands ever eastward. Most recent commercial and residential development has occurred on the East Mesa that is chock full of stores, restaurants and bars. Along with a revived downtown scene, it’s where Las Crucens and out-of-towners go to shop and have fun. But there’s a sleeping entertainment giant awakening along West Picacho Avenue between Motel Boulevard and Interstate 10.
It’s now quite feasible to spend an afternoon along this still sparsely developed east-west thoroughfare that crosses the Rio Grande — dining, sampling craft brews, wine and margaritas, and enjoying a scenic stroll along the river. Figuring a full stomach would be a prudent move for an afternoon of bar hopping, I stopped in for a late lunch at Le Rendez-vous Café Et French Pastries, located in a strip center at the corner of Motel Boulevard and West Picacho. French-born chef-owner Thierry Marceaux offers an eclectic menu that blends his mom’s French country-style dishes with Louisiana cooking. (Confession: As a graduate of Louisiana State University, I’m a sucker for Thierry’s authentic crawfish etoufee when it’s the Friday daily special.)
The culinary school graduate, who once ran a restaurant/bakery in New Orleans’ Northshore community, brings decades of experience as an executive pastry chef at world-class hotels in Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas to Las Cruces’ restaurant scene dominated by dozens of Mexican food restaurants. As much as I love the ubiquitous chile-infused Mexican eateries here, an occasional quality meal at Le Rendez-vous is a delightful deviation from the norm. On this particular Friday, I eschewed the daily special (poached salmon) for a sinful monster Le Croque Monsieur sandwich on French bread made with a ham, swiss and tomatoes, slathered in the chef’s béchamel sauce. Ooo la la, indeed! As I prepared to leave, Thierry’s wife, Jung Sook, boxed up several eye-pleasing pastries prepared by the Frenchman daily to enjoy later. Louisiana’s loss after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 convinced Marceaux and his young family to head west has proven southern New Mexico’s gain. His decision to open a low-key but classy restaurant in 2008 in a somewhat remote location has proven prophetic as new businesses open nearby along West Picacho.
I head west, crossing the Rio Grande, where families are enjoying a picnic or stroll in La Llarona Park and continue another couple of miles to Picacho Peak Brewing Company. Established in 2015, the craft brewery features a recently opened taproom at the rear of Grapevine Center with more than a dozen of their own specialty brews that run the gamut from lagers and green chile amber to stouts and IPAs. From the back porch, whose two exterior garage doors can be opened during cooler months, patrons can enjoy a stellar view of the brewery’s namesake mountain. Still full from lunch, I chose the Peak Lite cream ale while watching sports on three flat-screen TVs on a quiet afternoon.
I could walk across the avenue to West Picacho’s newest establishment, the Elephant Ranch Bar. Dillon Nunn’s brainchild occupies a cluster of old adobe buildings at the former location of Guacamole’s, a former Mexican food restaurant. The quirky watering hole debuted in June and is open Friday through Sunday. Belly up to the bar for a brew, wine or margarita or sit at one of the picnic tables lining the walls. Seating also is available outside near two kiva fireplaces on the patio or at tables on the shady back lawn that reveals a distant view of the Organ Mountains.
I sipped a smooth Santa Fe Nut Brown, one of half dozen beers on tap, while admiring an old Pepsi machine and several neon signs that reminded me of the antique-filled interior of his parents’ iconic hamburger and barbeque joint, Sparky’s, in Hatch. Elephant Ranch is simply unlike any other bar in Las Cruces. Definitely not a sports or fern bar, Dillon’s creation exudes a hip vibe without pretentiousness. The owner says he’s been told it’s like a bar in Old Mexico. He sees the property, which once operated in the early 1900s as a gas station and motor court, as more of a “blank canvas” than a bar to do with as he pleases.
“If you’re sitting here drinking a Dos Equis or margarita and I told you the beach is out back about 100 yards away, you might believe it,” the 28-year-old says, cracking a grin. “We really just wanted this to be a bar that we would want to drink at.”
Dillon sells more margaritas – made with fresh-squeezed limes and 100 percent blue agave Olmeca Altos reposado tequila – than anything else. Patrons can grab street tacos and other Mexican fare from the Tacos Romero food truck parked out back during bar hours. Future plans include possibly renovating the old motor court at the rear of the property to rent rooms through Air BnB. I contemplate that possibility while seated at a table on the lawn fronting the ramshackle rooms, sipping a margarita and wondering what Dillon cooks on the giant barbecue pit mounted on a nearby trailer.
As pleasant as it is, I have one more stop on this Picacho Avenue odyssey as the afternoon wanes. The latest addition to the city’s craft brewery scene occupies a former ice plant built in 1959 that sat vacant for years just a block or two from Le Rendez-vous Café. Ice Box Brewing Company features concrete floors, exposed ductwork, an outdoor patio and up-close view of the brewing equipment. Head brewer Garrett Denmark moved over from Spotted Dog Brewery at the beginning of 2019 to work his magic with grains, hops and fruit. Local wines from Rio Grande Winery and St. Clair, as well as sodas, also are available.
Icebox taps eight core beers and a handful of seasonal specialties, such as Icebox Grapefruit Gose and Icebox Apple Beer. As a tribute to a beloved local brewer who succumbed to cancer, I opted for a pint of Dave’s Bitchin Belgian, a mellow amber with 5 percent ABV and 25 IBUs. Hunger pangs can be cured with a visit outside to the Ruby Soho food truck featuring wings, nachos, pulled pork and a green chile or chorizo burger. But on this summer day, my stomach tells me to head on home and conclude my party on Picacho.