It’s a Mexican Food World
And we love it!
by Marene Gustin
Photos by Yvonne Feece
You can’t swing a rainbow flag in this city without hitting some kind of Mexican-inspired food: from taco trucks and Tex-Mex joints on almost every corner to the high-end Mexican restaurants, Mexican Gulf seafood eateries, and even Cal-Mex fish taco places.
Mexican cuisine has been creeping north since the 1880s. From chili con carne to enchiladas and fusion tacos, Americans, and particularly Texans, love the flavors from south of the border. A century after the first tastes of Mexico appeared in this country, salsa is now more popular than ketchup. Food may be Mexico’s greatest import to our nation.
According to b4ueat.com, Houston sports more than a thousand restaurants classified as Mexican, not including the aforementioned food trucks.
And some date backs decades, like the Molina’s Cantina franchise, now run by the third generation of Molinas, and the Laurenzo family that included the legendary Mama Ninfa who put fajitas on the food map in Texas. With a five-decade history, the Laurenzos are still grilling fajitas and more at their El Tiempo chain. The family no longer owns the original Ninfa’s on Navigation, but they’ve decided to head back to their old neighborhood with a new El Tiempo opening next year.
And then there’s Cafe Adobe, for three decades a standard-bearer of big margaritas and even bigger combo plates where Montrose and River Oaks residents flock. Known for a crowded dinner scene, great patios, strong drinks, as well as the famous two-plate Adobe Dinner combo meal, lovers of the cafe were shocked last month when CEO Bob Borochoff announced the original site on Westheimer Road across from St. Anne’s Church had been sold and will be torn down next year to make way for another luxury apartment complex.
Borochoff says he’s currently negotiating for a new location in the same area.
“Hopefully we can reopen almost immediately,” he says. “We have some very loyal customers who have made it apparent they want us to stay in the same area, so I am trying to do that. We’ll keep the same menu, and we’ll try to keep the same charm as the original.”
El Real Tex-Mex is a relatively new kid on the block, yet steeped in Texas history. Opened to rave reviews in 2011, the joint venture between chef Bryan Caswell, Bill Floyd, and food author Robb Walsh in the old Tower Theater in Montrose is a throwback to vintage Tex-Mex. If you grew up eating enchiladas with fried eggs, San Antonio-style puffy tacos and Frito pies, you’ll love this place that cooks with real lard rendered right in the kitchen.
El Real is also a mini-museum of vintage Tex-Mex memorabilia, with advertisements and menus from days gone by
when you could get an enchilada dinner for a buck and they sold tamales in cans. The eatery also has some of the original hand-painted chairs from the defunct Felix Mexican Restaurant that had a 60-year run just down the street before closing in 2008. Hey, maybe they’ll pick up some stuff from Cafe Adobe to add to their collection.
And let’s not forget Tila’s Restaurante & Bar, the place to head to for Mexican food on the edge of River Oaks. It features great food, a fabulous patio, and a quirky sense of humor found in the tag line “If Cheech Marin and Frida Kahlo ever had a daughter, she’d probably grow up to open a place like Tila’s.”
Can you say, “Brie cheese and pear quesadillas, roasted corn on the cob slathered in house butter and seasoned with chile salt, and real Mexican Caesar salad (no anchovies!)”? Yeah, we thought you could.
Tila Hidalgo-Leach is always on hand to greet guests, and the servers are friendly and fast. They have a lunch special for under $10 and a mouth-watering weekend brunch.
Hugo’s has made a splash during the last decade with its upscale interior-Mexican cuisine by chef Hugo Ortega, a James Beard-nominated chef and recent author of a cookbook on Mexican street food. Hugo’s is in a fabulous 1925 building and features excellent food, lots of tequilas, and one of the best Sunday brunches in town. You really need to check it out if you haven’t been there yet.
And then there are the new kids in town: Gloria’s Restaurant & Bar, Pepper Jack’s Mexican Grill & Cantina, and Cuchara.
Gloria’s Restaurant & Bar is a Dallas-based chain that took over the old Ruby Tequila’s spot on Louisiana Street in Midtown for their first Houston location. And while they’ve kept the horseshoe-shaped bar and nice patio, they’ve added salsa dancing on weekends with live bands, which has been a huge draw. Almost as popular is the company’s famous black bean dip that arrives tableside with the chips and salsa (the sauce, not the music) as soon as you sit down.
You can get your basic Tex-Mex and Margarita fix here, but the real draw is the authentic Salvadoran dishes.
“The husband-and-wife owners, Gloria and Jose Fuentes, are both from El Salvador,” says manager Moises Hermosilla. “So we are very proud to serve that kind of food—it’s the key that sets us apart from other Mexican restaurants in town.
The fried plantains with black beans and sour cream, and the pupusas—handmade corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork, or both—are popular dishes at this four-month-old restaurant that should be the first of several Gloria’s locations in Houston.
Downtown lost a Mexican restaurant earlier this year when Cabo closed, but now there’s a replacement: Pepper Jack’s Mexican Grill & Cantina. Described as “a traditional Mexican fusion of American dishes with a Southwestern flare,” the food here runs the gamut from Tex-Mex to ribs, catfish, and burgers. The two-level building has been spruced up since its Cabo days, and they’ve added big-screen TVs and live music.
“We spent three months on the menu,” says co-owner Merg Meraia. “If we were going to do this, I wanted to make sure we had the food that the people wanted. So we have chicken tamales and fish tacos, but we also have the catfish, which is very popular, and our Juicy Jack Burger on a Slow Dough Bread Co. pretzel bun.
And I guarantee the Buffalo wings are not like any you’ve had before.” To illustrate the point, Meraia says he had a customer from Buffalo, New York (the hometown of Buffalo wings) come in and try them. “He leaned back, closed his eyes, and said he would put our wings up against Buffalo’s any time,” he says.
Not in the mood for the southern hospitality and good eats at Pepper Jack’s? Then try the refined Mexico City bistro food at Montrose’s new Cuchara, a beautiful, sleek eatery designed by Jim Herd’s Collaborative Projects. The food here is sublime, starting with the three types of salsa they serve, including a tomatillo with peanuts. The entrées are reasonably priced and authentic Mexican food, from the pork mole verde with corn puree to the cheese-stuffed cactus.
And they have an impressive cocktail menu designed by former Anvil mix master Chris Frankel.
Yep, Houston has just about any type of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Salvadorian food you can imagine—so eat up!
Marene Gustin also writes about holiday gifts in this issue of OutSmart magazine.