The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Tex-Mex Restaurants
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.
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 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.
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.
9. Don Carlos
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt A huge lunch spread at Don Carlos comes cheap.
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.
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.