LA MESA – Driving scenic New Mexico Highway 28 has long been a favorite day trip for Doña Ana County residents and visitors. Pecan tree branches arch over the roadway until the scenery gives way to historic farming communities.
For over 100 years, people driving the highway have pulled over at Chope’s Bar and Café in La Mesa for a plate of enchiladas or chile rellenos or something cold to drink.
This historic location — which was serving food to passersby before New Mexico even became a state — has stayed open through two World Wars, a Depression, a cultural revolution, more wars, a recession and a digital revolution. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced Chope’s to close its doors — but not for good.
Now that more residents are vaccinated, the three sisters who own the place feel its safer to reopen, albeit slowly, meaning residents and guests will once again get to stop in to one the area’s most venerated culinary and cultural institutions.
Restaurant owners Amelia Rivas, 83, Cecilia Yañez, 76, and Margarita Martinez, 74 — daughters of José “Chope” Benavides — made the decision early on in the pandemic to remain fully closed. While other businesses offered customers the option of picking up food for take-out, they chose to keep their kitchen closed.
“I think our main concern was everybody’s health and especially the sister’s health because we all have underlying conditions,” Yañez said. “And also it’s been depressing because we don’t get to see all the people we used to see at the restaurant and all the families and friends and we’ve missed out on a lot of say, weddings, graduations, get togethers, at the restaurant.”
The bar, which is in a building separate from the restaurant, will be the first to reopen from noon to 11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8. Going forward, operating days will be Thursdays through Saturdays.
The restaurant will open later, as former employees return and safety guidelines are implemented into the day-to-day running of the business. Rivas said reopening has been difficult, like starting all over again.
Chope’s originated in 1909 in Longina Benavides’ house. Her son, Chope, and wife Guadalupe later took over the business and expanded the bar. The couple’s late eldest daughter, Adelaida Lucero, took particular interest in the bar.
“She liked the people, although she was very tough on the people. My dad used to tell her, ‘be careful with my customers,’ because she was tough,” Martinez laughed.
But the building has always remained the family home. It is where the four sisters were born and raised and worked. And where their community of customers have gathered over the years. The sisters have seen about three generations of customers come and go, Yañez said.
And now customers will see the managing of the café and bar change hands as the sisters pass the day-to-day operations over to their children. Between the three there are eight children who Rivas said all decided they want to see the legacy of Chope’s continue.
Their collective 16 grandchildren are also not strangers to the family business. Martinez said all of them have worked in the café before, so they will be ready for the next passing of the torch.
However, the sisters will not be far. They said they plan to be there to welcome back customers while the operations remain in capable hands. In their newfound free time, they said they look forward to worrying less about the business and spending more time with each of their grandchildren.
“They’re my life,” Martinez said of her family.
“Even if we’re wandering or moving or at home, I feel that part of my heart is still here, and it always will be,” Yañez said.
The reopening date for the café will be announced at a later date. The sisters just ask that the community is patient and stop in when their doors reopen.