The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Tex-Mex Restaurants

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Photo by Joe Stephens
No article on Tex-Mex is complete without a photo of the late, great Felix. It's in the city's bylaws.
It's been more than a century since the first Tex-Mex restaurant opened in Houston. George Caldwell brought The Original Mexican Restaurant to our city in 1907, influenced -- most agree -- by a restaurant of the same name in his hometown of San Antonio.

It would be another 20 years before Felix Mexican Restaurant opened on Lower Westheimer as one of the Tex-Mex restaurants that -- along with Ninfa's, Molina's and Leo's -- would define the genre in Houston. And it would take at least 40 more years before the cuisine had a definitive name: Tex-Mex, used to qualify a cuisine that neither purely Mexican nor purely Texan but an organic fusing of a blend of cultures throughout the region.

Diana Kennedy didn't see it that way, however, and the famous cookbook author dismissed Tex-Mex as Americanized Mexican food served at "so-called Mexican restaurants." This didn't sit well with Texans or Tejanos, who'd been serving what they simply referred to as "Mexican food" for decades.

"Texas-Mexican restaurant owners considered it an insult," wrote former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh in his introduction to a six-part series on the history of Tex-Mex in 2000. To this day, you can usually bet that if a Texan says, "Let's go out for Mexican," you know they're talking about Tex-Mex.

Although Leo's and Felix are both closed now, Ninfa's is still recognized as the birthplaces of fajitas and Molina's as the standard bearer for the classic Tex-Mex dish of cheese enchiladas topped with chili con carne. And although Kennedy was initially dismissive of the genre, Tex-Mex is now considered to be America's first regional cuisine -- beloved not just in Texas, but throughout the world.

It's fajitas and enchiladas dishes that continue to define Tex-Mex cuisine in Houston, as much as frozen margaritas in Dallas, or the way the puffy taco symbolizes Tex-Mex in San Antonio. In compiling this list, I wanted to spotlight the 10 restaurants in Houston that preserve the standards of these beloved dishes -- the fajitas, the cheese enchiladas, the chili con queso, the margarita -- and serve as cultural touchstones for the history of the cuisine itself.

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Photo by Troy Fields
Enchiladas montadas at La Fiesta.
Note: In order to be considered for this list, a restaurant must serve the Houston Tex-Mex trifecta of fajitas, enchiladas and margaritas.

Honorable mention:

El Tiempo, Guadalajara, Los Tios, Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, Irma's and Lankford Grocery (on enchilada days).

10. La Fiesta

From the outside, this Tex-Mex restaurant looks like another strip center sadsack at the corner of the Katy Freeway and Kirkwood. Inside, however, you'll find it consistently packed -- and somewhat of a neighborhood secret out in Memorial. La Fiesta (which first opened in 1972) used to have additional locations, but this is one of two left (and the better of the pair). Service is king here, and the waiters tend to remember you and your entire family after only one visit. Guacamole is made tableside and deftly seasoned, perfect for smearing on a hot flour tortilla with some equally well-seasoned beef fajitas. Cheese enchiladas are gooey and wonderful and covered with classic chili gravy.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
A huge lunch spread at Don Carlos comes cheap.
9. Don Carlos

There is absolutely nothing fancy about Don Carlos, and that's what I like about it. It's resolutely old-fashioned, from the Brandy Alexanders you can order after dinner to the friendly waitresses who seem to have been there for decades. The tart, sweet frozen margarita here is one of the best around; it's terrifically cheap and consistently good. Ditto the slim-cut but juicy beef and chicken fajitas, which are on special Mondays and Wednesdays. Cheese enchiladas come with a chili gravy that tastes homemade and queso is free alongside your chips and spicy red salsa. Like the Original Mexican Restaurant, the original Don Carlos on Harrisburg wasn't opened by Mexicans. Instead, it was opened by brothers Gerry and Christos Stathatos in 1986, and now features two other locations in Houston -- plus one in Waco.

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Photo by ilovebutter
Chicken fajitas at Lupe Tortilla.
8. Lupe Tortilla

Lupe Tortilla gets a lot of flack for its child-friendly policies, but that may soon be a thing of the past: Many of the locations are removing the sandbox/ playground/ nightmare pit to make room for additional seating. The original location off Katy Freeway and Highway 6 is still my favorite, although the chain has now expanded to include a dozen spots in the greater Houston area. Fans of Lupe's swear by the lime-laced fajitas, and rightly so. Along with the stiff margaritas, they're some of the best and most consistent fajitas in Houston.

Location Info

La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant

11623 Katy, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant

416 N. 76th St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

1201 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Lopez Mexican Restaurant

11606 S. Wilcrest, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Spanish Village

4720 Almeda, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Molina's Cantina

7901 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Ninfa's

2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe

1511 Airline, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

La Mexicana

1018 Fairview, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
104 comments
Jrflanne
Jrflanne

Los Charros on Harrisburg. Guadelapana on Dunleavy. Casa Grande when the have cabrito. And +1 for Spanish Village. 

RebeccaS
RebeccaS

Cheese enchiladas should never be made with cheddar cheese. It's just wrong. the cheese needs to ooze out of the enchilada and that doesn't happen with cheddar cheese, which is just a gloppy mess. Thanks for keeping El Tiempo off the list. This place is way overrated, perhaps if they cut their menu down by 75% the place might make some good meals.  Their menu is way too big. One thing this article has proven is that we in Houston have very strong opinions about Tex Mex. I have never been to Don Carlos, but I'm looking forward to going there. Thanks for that one.

matt906
matt906

I'm still trying to figure out whether this is a joke.  @maipham: There was no stab taken.  These are so off base for a supposed food critique.  This reminds me of my former secretary who was laid off from a construction company.

geof
geof

this is the best laugh i've had in a while.  the blogger has zero understanding of tex mex.  el real? luckily i had my depends on.  ninfas has gone so downhill that even the staff admits times have become difficult.  i do like spanish villages cheese enchiladas but all the other restaurants are in the latest version of stuffwhitepeoplelike.com

chalupacabre
chalupacabre

Houston is not the town for Tex Mex. 1 place....San Antonio. And there is no best place in San Antonio, but it ain't on the riverwalk. Riverwalk TexMex food is for tourist,  you know, people from Houston. TexMex joints are divided by Parishes. Each Catholic Parish has it's 1 or 2 best joints, but you got to go to the West, South, and even East sides of town. Don't be scared, these people are very friendly. And order in Spanish. Don't order Fajitas. Order Gorditos, Tortas, Caldo, Menudo, Barbecoa or Cabrito (Sunday). Baracho beans only.  If it ain't like this, you might as well go to Taco Bell.

Craigley
Craigley

Lupe "MSG" Tortillas!  

blackrain35
blackrain35

Lupe Tortilla is overpriced and overrated. I would put Tia Marias and El Tiempo on Washington in my top 10.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

I don't know which I liked reading better: the post or the comments. @kshilcutt so commendable that you should take a stab at this and risk getting lambasted - people are so passionate about Tex-Mex! But that's a good thing. Lots of opinions = more places for me to try.

That being said, I am ever faithful: I live in Sugar Land and the only place I'll go for Tex-Mex out here is Lupita's on Highway 6. Formerly known as Pico de Gallo, this place is family owned -- you'll always see either Lupe, Jaime or Rico in the restaurant. My faves: fantastic hand made flour tortillas, kick-ass charro beans (served with salsa), some of the best fajitas in town, delicious enchiladas de faja (I get cravings for this), strong frozen margaritas -- all at family-owned restaurant prices (which means everyone can afford it). 

crzycicada
crzycicada

I'm with HotRodman.  Lupe Tortilla's is not a tex-mex restaurant.  Having no salsa disqualifies it for even being a restaurant.  I judge a tex-mex restaurant on their chips and salsa.  If they can't get the simplist thing like chips and salsa right, there's no hope for the rest of the menu.  For a place that has none, that rules the whole place and in tasting the food, it confirms it!

HotRodman
HotRodman

I'm speechless that Lupe's at #8 is even on the list... just ordinary Tex-Mex and nothing special!  I'll visit Escalante's or even Los Cucos before Lupe Tortilla's...  El Tiempo should be in the top 5!

Lily
Lily

Teotehuican is AMAZING. glad it made the list!

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

I've been an adamant supporter of The Original Ninfa's for, well, ever.  I went there as a child on Sundays after church and have been back year after year, astounded by how consistently good the food is.  With that said, I took my family there this past March.  5 entrees in all, and with the exception of the chicken fajitas, it was one of the worst Tex Mex meals I've had in general, much less in Houston.  Something has changed there, and I hope they rectify it, especially with El Tiempo building a location next door.  


Oh, and LOL at La Mexicana being #1.  Have you had their fajitas?  Worse than most taquerias.  Pappasitos fajitas, and quite frankly, everything else is heads and shoulders above La Mexicana.

abigail33
abigail33

Before Molina's closed on Hwy 6, that was my favorite. Now I head to Larry's, which has an equally rich history.

Tracey Yost
Tracey Yost

I'm a Houston ex-pat, living in Northern California. The "Mexican" food here is bland and dry. I've given up on trying to find anything resembling the delicious, decadent food I enjoyed in Texas. The Enchiladas Taylor and frozen margaritas at Spanish Village were my favorite indulgences ... this article makes me homesick and hungry. VIVA LA TEX-MEX!

johnnybench
johnnybench topcommenter

The three times I've had non-breakfast meals at La Mexicana have been mediocre, but maybe it was just bad luck.

For the Northwesterners out there, Don Jose on Antoine and Pinemont is my platonic ideal of a neighborhood tex-mex joint.  Excellent service as well.  

Heather Mireles
Heather Mireles

So nice to see so many places I love to eat at and I was especially surprised to see La Fiesta. They have some great people and really good food. My boyfriend and I eat there at least once a week.

someguy
someguy

Barcenas at Almeda-Genoa and Monroe (near Hobby) is my personal favorite restaurant, bar none. Los Tios at Beechnut and 610 is also a great near-loop place.

Joshua Justice
Joshua Justice

Calling Ninfas on Navigation boring is a quick sign that you don't know what you're talking about

thehype
thehype

can the author of this post express an opinion that is not parroted from or buttressed by Rob Walsh? also: the fact that she had never eaten at Spanish Village until a year or so ago invalidates the whole exercise.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Great list, so glad the overpriced guano that is El Tiempo isn't anywhere on this list.. Love los dos amigos too.

FenderFan
FenderFan

Love La Mexicana, but its a Taqueria, not Tex Mex. 

Ellen Rice
Ellen Rice

When I came to Houston as a child (1960s) to visit my grandparents, my two favorite Tex-Mex places were the original Felix (thanks for the great picture!) and El Patio in the once beautiful (now raped and degraded) art deco West Grey Shopping Center. There just aren't places that make Tex-Mex like they did any more. And to the johnny-come-latelys round abouts...."fajits" don't have a bloomin' thing to do with genuine Tex-Mex cooking.

Stephanie Davis
Stephanie Davis

Fav place to eat for years was Juanita's off Louetta. Best family hole in the wall!

Loona_c
Loona_c

Ixnay on Spanish Village.  I know people rave about it but I was very disappointed.  Food was overpriced, chips were thick and not flavorful and margarita was expensive for the size and bitter.

Kinda feel the same way about Molina's.  Loved it many years ago, but was disappointed at the new location on Bellaire.  Just meh.  Noisy and yuppified as well.

No Spanish Flower(s)?



Annie Gonzales-brown
Annie Gonzales-brown

This is a crap list! El Real....really? Ninfa's... Boring. Maybe it is because I am from the real northside......

Timidstrudel
Timidstrudel

La Mexicana? Unfortunately, if you don't order the ribeye fajitas, what you get is an inedible, unidentifiable meat. It was deep-fried instead of grilled, chopped into tiny pieces and smelled like canned dog food.

It was the first time I've had a plate of sizzling meat in front of me and chose to make tacos from just the sides.

thequesoqueen
thequesoqueen

I finally tried the food at Last Concert Cafe and was so pleasantly surprised. With the plethora of tex mex joints in Houston, I understand why it's not on the list, but I'm taking all my out of town friends there from now on. It's like this giant secret! What do y'all think? 

jimbo1126
jimbo1126

Lopez over Sylvia's? I'd reverse the two. And I wouldn't have La Mexicana in this list at all, let alone at #1. Otherwise, great list, and I'm getting hungry!

texmex01
texmex01 topcommenter

I grew up going to Leo's on Shepherd (his son was my coach at St Anns), and Molinas, and then of course Felix, so I know how hard it is to narrow down a list like this!

I still love Molina's, ad have a special place in my heart for El Real's Enchiladas, but I also like to venture out to Lopez, or Larry's from time to time.....

Believe it or not, Cafe Adobe used to have pretty good food until Beau Theriot sold it years ago and it went downhill very fast....

Azteca, went there twice, and that was one too many.....

TexMex is comfort food, not everyone is going to agree on, so go wherever makes you full and happy!


Elizabeth Winkelmeyer Payne
Elizabeth Winkelmeyer Payne

My only disagreement is with the El Real on Westheimer. It was perhaps the single worst dining experience that my husband and I have ever had ~ we very nearly got up and left, mid-meal, and two tables next to us did. I've seen multiple other 1-star reviews on Yelp that mimic our experience exactly, sadly. I'm looking forward to checking out the rest of the list, though ~ thanks! :)

HotRodman
HotRodman

@chalupacabre 

Thank you for your insights in San Antone!  I know we all appreciate it and quite sure that the Houston Press will contact you when they do a best in San Antone article...  

birdmanalcatraz
birdmanalcatraz

@Mai Pham @kshilcutt Good comment, and will have to try Lupita's, wondering if that's over near Keeper's Sushi. (That said, not 'that being said', unless you want to sound puffed up as Fatty)


FRL713
FRL713

@FattyFatBastard I agree on Ninfa's, my two recent visits have been subpar.  Everything seemed off from the food to the service.  I hope they get things corrected, because there is now credible competition right next door.

abigail33
abigail33

@FattyFatBastard  I'm of similar mind as church-going Fatty; Original Ninfa's has fallen short of  its polysymphonic PR machine. It's very expensive and not very great. Above average to be sure, but overwrought in the end, suffering from a bad case trying too hard, which is that group's trademark.

waltonS
waltonS

@abigail33  I think Molina's still has a location or two in Houston. 

Juantwo3
Juantwo3

@thehype citing the person who has arguably written more about the history of Tex-Mex than anyone in the world seems to me the proper way to write an article.  Then again, I'm not whining about a listicle on the internet like a bitch am I?

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

@ashleyfarve Absolutely agree.  If you are going to include fajitas as one of the criteria, La Mexicana shouldn't even be in the top 10.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

@thequesoqueen Having lived across the street the past 3 years, LCC has lost most of it's appeal. I actually ate lunch there Tuesday.  Not bad...but not even approaching #9 Don Carlos, which I ate the day before.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

@jimbo1126 Only problem with Sylvia's is their prices are nearing outrageous these days, every time I go in the prices have changed and gone up. Outside of that their food is great, I just can't justify $30-35 lunches when it's only 2 people..

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