How to Spot a Genuine Tex-Mex Restaurant

Categories: How To

Photo by Troy Fields
El Gran Malo's rear wall, from local artist Kevin Hernandez. Now that's what we call a Tex-Mex mural.
Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty recently purchased a 1981 edition of The Genuine Texas Handbook, a guide to all things Texan. It's an often-tongue-in-cheek look at the people, places, outfits, songs, foods and more that made someone Texan 31 years ago. Incidentally, the book and I are the same age, so we'll be featuring excerpts from the handbook's food chapter (entitled, fittingly, "Love & Lard") over the next few weeks to see how Texas has changed during the course of this food writer's lifetime.

Rosemary Kent's book on how to be a Texan contains -- as you would guess -- many nifty how-to lists. Among those in "From Chuck Wagon to Cocina," the food section of the handbook, are lists on how to spot genuine barbecue joints, Tex-Mex restaurants and chicken-fried steak spots.

All of those how-to guides include "fly swatters" on the lists of things to look for in a legit establishment. But that's not all...

Photo by Troy Fields
No plaster bulls, but plenty of plastic bulls (and horses) on display at Los Corrales.
According to Kent, these are the necessary items you should find inside of any Tex-Mex joint worth its fajitas:

  • One or two serapes draped on chairs
  • Paintings on velvet of bullfighters, sequined sombreros, on the walls
  • Hot sauce and fresh tortilla chips brought to the table with the menu
  • Dishes named "Combination," "Regular," "Fiesta," or for a city or state in Mexico: "Saltillo," for instance
  • Mexican beers on the menu
  • Inexpensive prices
  • Cactus collection
  • Pralines wrapped in wax paper at the end of the meal
  • Shell no-pest strip
  • Red plastic roses and red plaster bulls
  • Fly swatter

While it's tough to argue with most of the items on the list (especially the dishes named after a city or state in Mexico), you could definitely argue that these definitive items are among the reasons that most Texans -- and certainly Houstonians -- are so tough-minded in their rigid definitions of what Tex-Mex (and, by our curious logic, Mexican food on the whole) should be now and forever.

The book is 30 years old, and almost all of these items -- sans the no-pest strips and fly swatters, thanks to rampant a/c -- hold true, although you generally have to pay for your pralines at the end of the meal now. We fear change when it comes to our Tex-Mex food.

Photo by The Rocketeer
Sometimes, if you're lucky, the mural is of an Aztec guitar player, as seen at Don Jose.
In fact, the only things I'd add to the list today would be:

  • Murals of Aztec scenes or cityscapes from places like Monterrey (if the mural is of Monterrey, it must include at least one soccer stadium)
  • Margaritas on the menu
  • Sizzling comals of meat and/or shrimp on at least half the occupied tables
  • Tiny abuelitas making tortillas (whether visible from the dining room or not)
  • Strolling mariachis playing "Guantanamera" for the 12th time that night even though it's a Cuban song
  • Bottles of Tapatio and/or Valentina hot sauce on the table

Do these things always have to define a good Tex-Mex restaurant? Absolutely not, nor should you judge a place by how many serapes it has hanging from the walls. But that doesn't mean most of us aren't doing it anyway.

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Location Info

El Gran Malo - CLOSED

2307 Ella, Houston, TX

Category: Music

Los Corrales

7515 Navigation Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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Alison Cook
Alison Cook

If anyone sees that bastard, tell him it was a false alarm but he still owes for the penicillin.


 No worries, you're golden. Even if your handle does remind me of an old MST3k (mystery science theater) some bad Japanese planet of the apes rip off.. Time of the apes, if memory serves. I'm strange about my tex-mex, do not like El Real, do not care for El Tiempo, or Cyclone Anayas, but I do like tealas (which most don't), el rey (which I know is as Cuban as it is tex-mex), I guess I just have an issue paying $20+ for skirt steak haha..


So so tired of these rants.  Move on.  No one forces you to eat at El Real.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

That was kind of the point of the post -- a wary glance thrown at a tongue-in-cheek book from the 80s, which still has a few interesting kernels of truth nevertheless.


Respectfully disagreed - by dive I did not mean the exterior or its cleanliness on the inside, I meant the food ... but I retract my harsh description.  I just don't care for their food as much as others do.

Alison Cook
Alison Cook

Agreed. Also, tell that SOB he still owes me money for the antibiotics.


 Which my suggestion is neither. May not look that nice on the outside, but what counts is the food, and the place is very clean/well cared for.

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