Carlsbad Confidential

The Caverns may be the best-known attraction, but Carlsbad’s restaurants ice the cake.

The underground magnificence of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has always commanded respect and awe. Aboveground and a dozen miles from the park, the town of Carlsbad’s true small-town hospitality beckons with culinary delights that satisfy the appetites of Cavern ramblers, destination diners, and locals alike.

February’s mild here on the fringes of the Chihuahuan Desert, with spiky yuccas, ocotillos, and the occasional palm punctuating the scenery. The Pecos River meanders through the heart of town more or less parallel to Canal Street, the main thoroughfare.

Downtown is well kept, and sports a blend of New Mexico Pueblo-style façades and 20th-century architecture, in most cases in harmonious juxtaposition. And on Saturday mornings in the summer months, the grassy lawn of the Eddy County Courthouse hosts the local farmers’ market.

The Trinity Hotel

This treasure almost fell to the wrecking ball, the unfortunate fate of other 1890s-era buildings. The stately two-story structure, built from locally crafted brick, began life as a bank. When Del Balzano and his partners rescued it with the idea of creating a small upscale hotel, they knew the nine-room Trinity would have to attract a following among locals, as well as visitors, to thrive. The restaurant certainly filled the bill, attracting multitudes of townsfolk as well as hotel guests and other visitors for all three meals.

Even if you stay elsewhere, stop in for a bite and a look around the light-filled lobby, which also functions as a gift shop and boutique wine store. The adjoining restaurant, a deeply hued chamber with pressed-tin ceiling, russet walls, and thick drapes, creates a contrasting atmosphere for dining. Guests of the hotel get to take part in late-afternoon wine tastings at the bar, a handsome 15-foot expanse of wood along the side of the dining room. Check out Del’s Balzano Vineyards/Spirits of Seven Rivers wines, or those from Luna Rossa Winery, whose owner, Paolo D’Andrea, helped Balzano develop his own vineyards and wine-making style.

In the evening, chef Luis Martinez executes pastas and other Italian classics with skill and flair. Spaghetti topped with two hefty meatballs and marinara may be elementary, but the chef’s mastery of it has most tables ordering at least one plate. However, don’t overlook the lemony chicken piccata, the lasagna, or the standout: Chicken Bolloco, fettucine with a green-chile–infused Alfredo sauce.

The hotel’s rooms envelop guests in sophisticated comfort, with cream walls and dark putty woodwork and carpeting. Wine chillers are standard amenities. The staff is small-town helpful—when the receptionist discovered that the desk was out of stamps for my postcard, she grabbed her purse and gave me one from her own stash (201 S. Canal St.; 575-234-9891; thetrinityhotel.com).

The Stock Exchange

Chef-owner Kevin Zink could be wowing audiences in Santa Fe—or his former home of Houston—but Carlsbad is where his wife chose to set up her medical practice. The restaurant is kitty-corner from the Trinity Hotel, and built of the same local brick. However, when the bricks began to break down, stucco was plastered over the façade like cake frosting. The capacious dining room once housed the fire station and city hall.

When Zink arrived in 2003, some locals scoffed at his idea of serving duck and spicy grits to a meat-and-potatoes audience. He’s having the last laugh, and he’s having it with a roomful of enthusiastic diners every evening. Zink and crew host wine and beer dinners, hold gratis cooking classes, and vary the menu frequently and generally have a merry time. Entrées run the gamut from tortilla-crusted chicken over cabbage pico de gallo to shrimp étouffée. It’s worth a detour from anywhere in the state to have a side of Zink’s green-chile grits (220 W. Fox St.; 575-725-5444; thestockexchangenm.com).

YellowBrix

This yellow brick bungalow just down the street from the Trinity dates to 1928 and, like the nearby hotel, has been remodeled with a good eye toward design. Owners Barbara and Dan Rempel initially envisioned an urban-style coffee shop for the space. Their customers kept wanting more, so the Rempels recently moved the coffee-and-pastries part of their operation into Little Brix, once the home’s garage. Their coffee roaster, the only one in this part of the state, now sits in a sliver of an outbuilding called Baby Brix. The main bungalow serves good lunches of the soup-and-sandwich variety (try the Cubano with the addition of a big slab of green chile). Chef Robert Berrera goes more high-end for evening meals, with dishes like salmon topped with a pomegranate beurre blanc. Since the word brix refers to the measurement of sugar content in wine grapes, you might guess, rightly, that these folks know their wines, too (201 N. Canal St.; 575-941-2749; yellowbrixrestaurant.com).

Pecos River Café

This made-over Pizza Hut is the liveliest place in town at 6:20 on a weekday morning. Like a number of restaurants in Carlsbad, the café is open only for breakfast and lunch, weekdays. Baking sheets full of glazed, still-warm cinnamon rolls cover much of the kitchen at this early hour. It makes sense to share one, to save room for the Mexican and New Mexican takes on eggs: huevos rancheros or a hefty breakfast burrito (409 S. Canal St.; 575-887-8882).

Other Local Favorites

For barbecue, folks fall into one of two camps: Danny’s Place (902 S. Canal St.; 575-885-8739; dannysbbq.com), or Red Chimney Pit Bar-B-Que (817 N. Canal St.; 575-885-8744; redchimneypitbarbque.com). The No Whiner Diner, a popular choice for meatloaf and fruit cobbler, sits on the grounds of the Stagecoach Inn (1801 S. Canal St.; 575-234-2815; nowhinerdiner.com).