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‘Nighttime would find me at Rosa’s Cantina’
By Tom Adkinson

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me at Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl


EL PASO, Texas – Marty Robbins wrote those lines, and there’s a solid chance you know the rest of the lyrics to his epic song simply titled “El Paso.”

It’s the lilting western tale about a hot-headed Anglo cowboy, the murder he committed in a fit of jealousy, his escape into the badlands of New Mexico and his ill-fated return to see Felina.

You know the last line, too: “One little kiss, and Felina, goodbye.”

rosas cantina el paso tx
“Unassuming” describes the exterior of Rosa’s Cantina, a beer joint known around the world; image by Tom Adkinson.

There really is a Rosa’s Cantina on the dusty western edge of El Paso. Whether it actually played a role in the writing of the song is uncertain. You can find multiple anecdotes connecting Robbins to this one-level beer joint/restaurant, some with a surprising amount of detail, but most with little attribution.

Did a tired and hungry Robbins really wheel into the gravel parking lot during a long drive from Nashville to Phoenix in 1957 and find inspiration for the ballad – even though the joint was closed and he didn’t get a meal?

Maybe, but that’s immaterial.

rosas cantina el paso tx
Decorations inside Rosa’s Cantina are typical Texas roadhouse – beer signs, a serape-covered window and a TV; image by Tom Adkinson.

What’s certain, according to a biography of the Grand Ole Opry member, is that Robbins did make that drive, and he said the idea for “El Paso” came to him as he passed through town. The seed planted in El Paso sprouted in the arid badlands of New Mexico, and Robbins kept writing. By the time he got to Phoenix, it was complete.

“El Paso” was released in 1960, and its length of almost five minutes drove radio programmers nuts because it was twice the length of anything else they aired. Lengthy or not, it flew up both the rock and country music charts and won a Grammy Award in 1961. Plenty of acts covered the song, including the Grateful Dead.

As the song exploded and eventually developed unending worldwide fame, Rosa’s Cantina largely shrugged. There was beer to sell and enchiladas to serve. The owners and the largely blue-collar patrons may not have been oblivious to the song on the radio, but their desire for a cold longneck and more salsa for the enchiladas was more important.

  rosas cantina tex mex
Food at Rosa’s Cantina includes a variety of traditional Tex-Mex items in the “Felina’s Mexican Food” section; Image by Tom Adkinson.

It’s pretty much the same way today. Yes, the menu does offer traditional choices under “Felina’s Mexican Food” and three varieties of “Marty Robbins Burgers,” but the place is decidedly un-touristy. It doesn’t even have a website.

The décor, if that word applies to roadside joints such as Rosa’s, is totally Texas. There is a smattering of tables, a substantial horseshoe-shaped bar, a modern jukebox on the wall, a framed Lone Star flag and lots of signs.

In addition to beer brand signs (Shiner, Corona, Budweiser, Coors), there are ones for the University of Texas Longhorns, the Texas Tech Red Raiders, the University of Texas El Paso Miners and the New Mexico State Aggies. Don’t forget the El Paso Chihuahuas, the local minor league baseball team.

rosas cantina el paso tx
The sign along the roadside is the flashiest aspect of Rosa’s Cantina on the west side of El Paso; image by Tom Adkinson.

The only conspicuous acknowledgement to “El Paso” is a shadow box of the early owners and an 8 x 10 publicity photo of Robbins – that and a sign-in book with comments from visitors across America and countries around the world.

Almost hidden in the clutter is a poster promoting $1.75 Lone Star beers “all day, every day.” I sensed that management wasn’t hiding the fact but that everybody already knew the price.

Menu prices are modest, and the daily specials (chicken mole on Wednesday, pork with red chile on Friday, for example) are $9.99, including a small soup and iced tea.

rosas cantina el paso tx
A framed photo of original cantina owners Anita and Beto Zubia is near a publicity photo of Marty Robbins; image by Tom Adkinson.

The lunch crowd on the Friday I enjoyed the pork with red chile (and bypassed the iced tea for a cheap Lone Star) was a mixed bag.

Two older businessmen were there wearing coats and ties and would have looked slightly out of place anywhere in El Paso, where neckties are rare. One guy in faded blue jeans was at the bar, and a chatty table of nine appeared to be celebrating someone’s job promotion – or perhaps just the fact it was Friday.

And then there was the 20-something woman gussied up in a fashion catalog western skirt and cowboy hat.

She probably was the one who put some money in the TouchTunes jukebox so we could listen to “Amarillo by Morning,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and, yes, “El Paso.”

One story I read about Rosa’s advised not to play “El Paso” because it irritates the regulars, but the waitress working the whole room disputed that.

“Nope,” she said. “It ticks off one old woman, but she’s a pill about ‘most everything.”


Trip-planning resources: VisitElPaso.com

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at CornersOfTheCountry.com.)

Published April 3, 2020













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