ELEMI uses heirloom varieties of native maíz for their tortillas, and serves a range of thoughtfully crafted tacos. (Photo courtesy Kristal Marentes)

A small restaurant in Downtown El Paso is making big waves in the culinary community: ELEMI’s head chef, 39-year-old El Paso native Emiliano Marentes, has been named a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award in the “Outstanding Chef” category.

“It floored me completely,” Marentes said of his nomination. He found out Wednesday morning while shopping for items for the restaurant, after receiving a congratulatory text from fellow restaurateur and native El Pasoan Rico Torres, whose San Antonio restaurant Mixtli is a semifinalist in the “Outstanding Restaurant” category.

Upon looking up the list of nominees online and seeing his name, tears came to Marentes’ eyes. For the culinary community, the recognition is akin to an Oscar nomination in film or a Pulitzer nomination in media, he said. The winners of the award will be announced in June.

“El Paso’s only had like two nominations, and (they were) for super fine-dining restaurants,” Marentes said. “So I would never imagine that this guy with the little independent restaurant would ever be nominated.”

The achievement follows other national recognition for ELEMI, including a feature on the Hulu television series “Taste the Nation,” hosted by Padma Lakshmi.

ELEMI head chef Emiliano Marentes. (Courtesy Joel Salcido)

ELEMI has been an independent operation from the beginning. Marentes opened the taqueria in 2019 with his wife, Kristal, without the backing or support of any investors. Their singular focus was to offer simple dishes of the highest quality.

“Something simple is not as easy as you would expect,” Marentes said. “If I give you a taco with two ingredients, with a tortilla and a topping, those two things need to be at their very best at the time I serve them to you, so that’s the way I approach things.”

Recognition by the James Beard Foundation is meaningful not just for ELEMI, but for the El Paso culinary scene as a whole, Marentes said. Talented chefs from El Paso often leave for other cities to start their restaurants, because El Paso has been “overlooked” as a hub for exemplary dining, he said. The 2021 winner of Top Chef, Gabe Erales, is also from El Paso. He is the executive chef of Comedor Restaurant in Austin.

But Marentes said that trend is going to change.

“I feel El Paso still is on the cusp of experiencing this explosion of growth,” he said. With the James Beard recognition, chefs “who have been thinking about maybe coming back to the city, now they could say ‘Ok I could see this happening.’”

Cover photo: ELEMI uses heirloom varieties of native maíz for their tortillas, and serves a range of thoughtfully crafted tacos. (Photo courtesy Kristal Marentes)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.