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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In Photos: Trompos de Mexico

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Photo by Troy Fields
Pasquale tended trompos in Mexico for 40 years and was retired before Taqueria La Macro brought him in to tend to their own.
In this week's cafe review of Northside restaurant Taqueria La Macro, which specializes in tacos de trompo, we take a brief look at the history of the trompo itself, which I was excited to find in Houston proper:

And sure enough, sitting right there in the open kitchen surrounded by sanitation-mainting Plexiglass walls, was a trompo. Strips of ruddy, achiote-colored pork shaped like a child's toy top (for which it's named) are pressed onto a vertical spit and rotate slowly, cooking the meat gently as it trundles along its rotation. On top, a whole pineapple with its spiny skin removed drips down onto the pork while it cooks, keeping the meat moist and flavoring it with the sweet juice.

The meat is served on everything from taquizas -- small, street-style tacos on corn tortillas -- to cheeseburgers.

So what exactly is trompo?

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How Influential Was Houston In the Development of Mexican Food In the U.S.?

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Photo by mollyblock
The last Felix Mexican Restaurant closed in 2008.
Not influential enough, it would seem.

At our sister paper in Orange County, "Ask A Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano has compiled a list of the "most influential cities in the development of Mexican food in the United States." Spoiler alert: Dallas and San Antonio are on there, but not Houston.

While Arellano has compelling cases for both Dallas and San Antonio's inclusion on his list, I'll just leave Houston's defense in the capable hands of Tex-Mex expert Robb Walsh. In his feature "Combination Plates," Walsh wrote of Houston restaurateur Felix Tijerina:

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Machaca Fresh from the Source: Los Corrales

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Photos by Troy Fields
See more of Los Corrales' tiny dining room and kitchen in our slideshow.
If you've ever enjoyed machacado con huevo for breakfast in Houston, you've probably had machaca from Los Corrales. The family-run factory in the East End has been producing only two products since 1990: dried beef and shredded dried beef, both interchangeably referred to as machaca.

Los Corrales distributes its dried beef throughout the state, although it's primarily found in Houston. And although you can pick up a few packets of the stuff yourself at stores like Mi Tienda or La Michoacan, it's more fun to eat it straight from the source.

Like a butcher shop with a burger joint attached to it, Los Corrales -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- has a tiny restaurant add-on where you can eat its machaca in a variety of dishes: machacado con huevo, of course, but also classics like aporreado and caldo norteño.

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Operation "No Tacos" - ¡Si Se Pudo!

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photos by Marco Torres
Hello, gorgeous!
They said it couldn't be done. But "they" were wrong. I made it. And now, ten pounds lighter, I'm back and hungry as ever.

Thinking back, the premise was so simple. Can a Houstonian go 30 days without Mexican food? The simple answer is "yes, of course!" But the reality was anything but simple, especially for me. You know that thing when your subconscious picks up on an object or idea, then all of a sudden you see that object or idea in everything, everywhere? For the month of November, tacos ruled everything around me. It was my forbidden fruit in this urban Garden of Eden called Houston.

My #30DaysNoTacos challenge was never intended to be an exercise in discovering new restaurants or cuisines. Nor was it intended to prove the unhealthiness of Mexican food. It was simply an interesting gastronomical experiment. The reactions that I received from my friends, family, and strangers ranged from support ("you can do it, Marco! Just a few more days!") to outrage ("how dare you turn your back on the most holy and noble taco!"). All of the comments and support made this craziness worth the suffering.

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Operation "No Tacos" Progress Report: Taco Torture

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Photos by Marco Torres
Mexico City Tacos 2009, a.k.a. The Photo That Haunts My Dreams
It's been 15 days since I started this challenge.

Fifteen. Long. Days.

But I'm hanging in there! People still think I'm crazy, and I partly agree, but the truth is... my mind was made up to take on this challenge even before I pitched the story to Eating Our Words. I've written roughly 30 blog posts for The Houston Press, but the "Operation: No Tacos" post has received more comments than any of my other posts combined. You guys sure do love your tacos.

Most people start their day with a healthy breakfast. I normally don't eat breakfast during the week, although I do serve myself a bowl of cereal on occasion. That changes on the weekend though. On Saturday and Sunday, I'm ready for barbacoa tacos or a nice, big, spicy bowl of menudo. These last two weekends have certainly been tests of my self-restraint.

To beat the hungry crowds, I usually take an early lunch at 11 a.m. I don't cook very much at home anymore, so there are no leftovers for me to pack. Yet avoiding Mexican food at lunch has been relatively easy, especially after finding the gem called Medley's Cafe. I've eaten lunch there at least three times this month. The burgers, kabobs, and gyros are excellent. Great food at a low price.


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Operation "No Tacos" - A 30 Day Challenge

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Portrait of a Taco Enthusiast as A Young Man
​That's me up there with my dad, eating a plate full of tacos, the happiest 4-year-old ever. It was there in that one-bedroom duplex in the East End where my love of tacos and all things Mexican originated. Menudo for breakfast? Yes, please. Tamales for lunch? Of course! What about dinner? Yep, you guessed it... tacos!

Even now, 27 years later, in this great city with a million and one restaurants serving a wide spectrum of international and American cuisine, I still find myself eating Mexican food at least five times a week. You know you live in Houston when three of your top five places to eat are taco trucks.

Well, there must have been something in the salsa as I ate dinner at Tacos Tierra Caliente last week, because it was there that I pondered the following:

As a Houstonian, how difficult would it be to survive a full month without eating Mexican food? What if that Houstonian was also of Mexican descent, like me?

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Photos from Laredo Taqueria

The Laredo Taqueria location on Cavalcade is the subject of this week's Café review. Here are some photos of our last breakfast outing there.

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These four tacos are stuffed with calabacitas con puerco, huevos con chorizo, huevos con nopales and barbacoa. They cost $2 each.

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Oaxaca Meat Market in Dickinson

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Photos by J.C. Reid
Oaxaca Meat Market
FM 517 in Dickinson, Texas is an unremarkable stretch of country road that's the main gateway to San Leon, Texas, and the legendary Gilhooley's Oyster Bar. Oysters lovers from around the world have made the pilgrimage down FM 517 to the little oyster shack on Galveston Bay.

But nearby, other culinary delights await. Lining the route are barbecue and seafood joints, along with small restaurants that reflect the changing demographics of the area. Evidence of the influx of Hispanic residents is everywhere, with one of the best examples being the Oaxaca Meat Market in Dickinson.

Sitting side-by-side with Ronnie's Hog Heaven Ice House ("Boobies make me smile!") in a gritty strip center at the intersection of FM 517 and Dickinson Avenue, Oaxaca is a deli, meat market and convenience store featuring products from its namesake Oaxaca region of Mexico.

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Hamburguesa Estilo Monterrey

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What exactly is a hamburguesa estilo Monterrey? I visited the Hamburguesas Del Rio location at Avenida Constitucion 1121 Pte. Centro in Monterrey, Mexico to seek the definitive answer to that question. I had long assumed that the term described a specific Mexican-style set of garnishes, namely the shredded lettuce, chopped onion, sliced tomato, hamburger patty, slice of ham and avocado architecture seen in the photo.

But I was wrong. A couple of bites revealed that there was something altogether different about the hamburger patty itself. So I asked the man with the spatula, the intrepid hamburguesero, what went into the meat mix. Migas (bread crumbs), huevos (eggs), and garlic salt were among the ingredients he listed. I have since found recipes online that include those items as well as salsa Ingles (Worcestershire), soy sauce, and other seasonings.

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