Alibi V.21 No.32 • Aug 9-15, 2012 

Have Fork, Will Travel

Las Vegas, New Mexico

The Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas, NM
The Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas, NM
Mina Yamashita

The first time I drove through Las Vegas, I had no idea what lay hidden beyond the freeway exits. I remember a Chinese restaurant along the main gas/food drag, and any number of New Mexican restaurants and familiar fast foods. But I’ve since embarked down the side streets to get a closer look at what was once a boomtown. It’s a nice outing just 125 miles from Burque, through verdant hills and open grasslands.

Las Vegas had its heyday with the railroads, and, in the mid-19th century, it was one of the biggest cities in the Southwest. The nearby Montezuma Castle was once a luxury hotel and spa built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. For 30 years it’s housed the American campus for the United World College founded by the late Armand Hammer—yes, the baking soda guy. It’s one of 12 international schools on four continents.

Few people know that the material used to grind the lenses for the original Hubble space telescopes came from this resourceful city. Las Vegas is home to New Mexico Highlands University’s main campus.

The city offers satisfying homestyle dining for its 14,000 residents. Some friends suggested I try Travelers Café for its wonderful pastries and home cooked meals, but I’ll have to save that for the next trip. You can visit Travelers on Facebook for a glimpse of its delectable salted caramel mocha cupcakes.

Charlie’s Spic and Span Bakery and Café

715 Douglas • (505) 426-1921

Mina Yamashita

Charlie’s is a stone’s throw from the Plaza and from New Mexico Highlands. It’s no wonder the place is packed. Breakfast aromas greeted us as we entered the restaurant, and I immediately noticed a familiar machine near the checkout counter: A hardworking cook fed little balls of dough into the hopper as fast as she could, making endless batches of fresh tortillas.

While the tortilla machine and fast service are reminiscent of the Frontier, there are no lines at Charlie's. Servers took our orders table-side. I shared a BLT with avocado and cheese on whole-wheat toast with a side of crispy, golden fries.

Traditional New Mexican chile dishes are plentiful here. Menudo, posole, enchiladas, green chile stew, and all of the basic diner dishes and burgers you could ask for are on the ample menu. You could easily eat breakfast, lunch or dinner for less than $10. The bakery offers a variety of cakes, pies and pastries. We made sure to grab a couple of homemade cookies for the road.

The Plaza Hotel

230 Plaza • (505) 425-3591

Mina Yamashita

I arrived at The Plaza Hotel in time for lunch with friends attending a writer’s workshop. We dined at the hotel’s Landmark Grill, where I had remembered having lunch years ago, before the latest remodel. The 120 year-old building has since expanded with added detailing in keeping with its historic past. With 71 rooms fully booked for two weddings and our workshop, the staff had their hands full.

The menu offers traditional New Mexican staples such as blue corn chicken enchiladas loaded with beans and rice. A friend’s Cobb salad held its own with crispy bacon, salad greens and lots of extras, including plentiful avocado slices and blue cheese crumbles. The veggie burger was tempting, but I chose the signature green chile cheeseburger with a side of creamy coleslaw.

Mina Yamashita

At the close of the workshop, we stopped off at Byron T’s Saloon, named after a distinguished former owner of the hotel. It’s a place where you can kick back with your favorite spirits and a late-night snack. This time I chowed down on a barbecue pork slider, slathered in more of that creamy coleslaw, with a pile of fries. I enjoyed a taste of the green chile stew, and while I liked the heat, it might not have enough kick for diehard chile lovers.

And in case you feel a slight frisson during your visit, a sweater won’t help. It seems Byron T. Mills, who died in 1947 at the nearby Elks Lodge, is indelibly attached to the hotel he grew to love. Distressed lodgers, particularly single women and traveling salesmen, have reported his hijinks in their rooms, notably room 310. The unruffled staff assures their guests that Mr. Mills, who has been known to disturb and rearrange their belongings, is otherwise harmless. Fine—as long as he doesn’t mess with my fries.