In the boom-and-bust world of borderland restaurants, one tenacious kitchen in El Paso has used a bold, original menu to establish itself as the vanguard of regional cuisine: Ruli’s International Kitchen.
The raucous gourmet dive that has built a zealous following of El Paso foodies still revels in its reputation as a culinary trailblazer even after more than a decade of opening its doors.
At the helm of this family-owned business is Raul Gonzalez, a 47-year-old former realtor with a degree in finance from UTEP, and a culinary education that goes back to boyhood, stretching from the diners and aromatic street stands of the U.S.-Mexico border to the seafood coasts of the Americas.
“I was born in Chihuahua, but my family moved to Ecuador when I was six weeks old,” Gonzalez said while seated amid the hubbub of his Westside eatery. “As I grew, that’s where I learned to eat real food – smoked oysters, sardines, octopus. My father was always looking for good food, and he introduced me to everything he found.”
Gonzalez drew from those experiences – and his time helping with family restaurants in the Mexican regions of Parral and Torreon – to expand on his inquisitive palate once arriving to El Paso. Here, he saw an array of cultures, and fell in love with how each contributed unique flavors to the region’s culinary landscape.
“The cocina chucena, that’s my thing. It’s about the border, it’s about the ingredients, and it’s about the cultures found along the border,” he said, adding that a mix of international influences converged here to create a dynamic metropolis.
That’s the complexity of El Paso and its food and what drives Ruli’s philosophy.
“Some people say they’re going to open a Mexican restaurant. Or they say they’re going to open a Spanish restaurant, or an Italian restaurant, or a French restaurant. I’m like, ‘Why not open an El Paso restaurant?’”
That, along with operating with the idea that he’s in the hospitality business, is responsible for his success – including the opening of an Eastside restaurant, Benny Franks, in the far Eastside on Zaragoza, he said.
Ruli’s is also close to unveiling a new menu, which Gonzalez said will highlight a corn-based cuisine, and will also feature a first-time tribute to his own guilty pleasure.
“We’re going to be making some damn good tacos,” he said.
Paying proper tribute to El Paso’s food history means embracing the flavors from around the world that have been established in this town – including the Chinese railroad workers who in the 1800s brought in Soy Sauce, which locals used for the now-infamous chiles toreados; the maquila industry in the 1980s that brought in Japanese executives who heralded the border’s sushi craze; and the influential Middle Eastern families who built a network of their restaurants in El Paso for multiple generations.
The connection his food has to the land is also imporant: Head chef Mateo Herrera is a Mescalero Apache who is versed in the many techniques for cooking native produce, including corn – the most ancient ingredient of the cuisine of the region.
The menu features as many locally grown products as city code will allow.
“We’re not a health food restaurant, but a lot of our dishes are healthy because we use whole food, organic ingredients, chicken with no hormones or antibiotics. We let our flavors speak for themselves,” said Gonzalez. “That connection people will feel with our food, that’s something they won’t feel at a chain restaurant, or a fast food place.”