FeaturesG&G 2020

Gayest & Greatest 2020: Dining Out

Lena Cabrera, her son, and his husband serve up authentic Mexican food in Spring Branch.

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Tacos Doña Lena is the winner of this year’s Best Mexican Restaurant. Pictured are the shops owners Brian Ponce (l), Angel Cabrera, and Lena Cabrera (photo by Alex Rosa).

When a five-month-old taco shop beats out some of the most well-established institutions in Houston for the Best Mexican Restaurant award, there is something going on that you should know about. Fortunately, OutSmart readers were willing to share their secret about Tacos Doña Lena, so now the cat is out of the bag.

In a city brimming with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, it is hard to stand out. But this little Spring Branch taqueria does it with seductive aromas and a tidy, colorful interior that only hint at the dining experience that awaits. Authenticity is the key to these indulgences, and it’s evident from the first bite. 

Tucked into an ordinary strip center, the value offered here is remarkable; one wonders how fresh made-from-scratch fare, chock-full of meats and cheeses, can be sold at these prices. Tacos start at $2, gorditas at $4, and tortas at $7, and they’re available in plenty of vegan and vegetarian options.

How do they do it? Just ask owners Lena Cabrera, her son Angel Cabrera, and Angel’s husband, Brian Ponce. The Houston family has years of experience in selling tacos, a determination to succeed, and a work ethic that is a force of nature.

In 1992, 6-year-old Angel, his two younger sisters, and his mom left Mexico for the promise of a better life in Houston. “Life was very difficult for us in Mexico, and I wanted something better for our children,” Lena explains. “We were not sure what to expect when we arrived here. I was very frightened, but as I look back now, I see that is the very best decision I could have made. We love Houston.”

As a former street-taco vendor, Lena used her entrepreneurial spirit when the family arrived to set up a taco stand in their new apartment complex in Spring Branch. After only a few weeks, customers were standing in line.

“My mom sold handmade food from a stand in our complex for 25 years,” remembers Angel. “She served the sort of food you would find in a traditional village taco stand in Mexico. She worked extremely hard and was able to save up enough money to send me to college. I am so grateful for the opportunities she gave me.”

Angel, 35, and Brian, 34, have been married for two years, and are approaching a decade in their deeply committed, loving relationship. “We worked with one another for years waiting tables at Barnaby’s,” Brian says, “so we already knew we worked well together before opening our restaurant. We also learned a lot about the business there. Jeff Gale, the owner, is incredible. In fact, nearly everything about Barnaby’s serves as a role model for us.”

The family signed a lease for a brick-and-mortar location more than a year ago. It took time to open because they chose to self-finance the operation rather than take out a loan. “Loans cause us anxiety,” Angel explains with a smile.

Throughout those months, Lena continued to sell her fare full-time at the apartments while her son attended classes at the University of Houston, met with architects, vendors, and inspectors at the restaurant, and even waited tables at Barnaby’s every night.

“It was tough, but I knew that’s what it would take. So I put my head down and I did it,” he says.

Five months ago, the family finally opened Tacos Doña Lena with four employees: Lena, Angel, Brian, and a friend. Today, they have ten employees and continue to grow. Not bad for being in the middle of a pandemic.

“We are so grateful for the response we are getting, and our many return customers. Not only can we continue to grow, it means my mom can look forward to a comfortable retirement in the future,” Angel concluded. That’s what I want most for her.”

For more information on Tacos Doña Lena, visit facebook.com/tacosdonalena.

Best New Restaurant or Food Concept

Dumpling Dudez
Finalists: Tacos Doña Lena, Tortilla Joe’s, Traveler’s Table

Best Cafe

Barnaby’s Cafe
Finalist: PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans

Best 24-Hour Restaurant

Katz’s Deli & Bar
Finalists: House of Pies, Whataburger

Best Bakery

Dessert Gallery
Finalists: Common Bond, Michael’s Cookie Jar, Sweets by Tony

Best Barbecue

The Pit Room
Finalists: Demeris Bar-B-Q, Pinkerton’s Barbecue, Truth BBQ

Best Deli

Katz’s Deli
Finalists: Kenny & Ziggy’s, New York Deli & Coffee Shop

Best Food Truck

Stuff’d WIngs
Finalists: The Waffle Bus, What A Taco

Best Dumplings

Dumpling Dudez

Best Hamburger

Hamburger Mary’s
Finalists: Barnaby’s Cafe, Burger Joint, Lankford’s Grocery 

Best Hot Dog

Good Dog Houston–Montrose

Best Pizza

Bollo (tie), Pizza Birra Vino (tie)
Finalists: Pepperoni’s, Pink’s Pizza, Star Pizza

Best Seafood

Truluck’s
Finalists: Eugene’s, Pappadeaux, The Rouxpour

Best Steak House

B&B Butchers
Finalists: Morton’s Steak House, Pappas Bros., Perry’s Steakhouse

Best Steak Night at a Bar

Free Grillin’ at George 
Finalists: BUDDY’S, Neon Boots, Pearl Bar 

Best Sushi

AKA Sushi
Finalists: Miyako, Oishii, Osaka

Best Vegetarian/Vegan

Verdine
Finalists: Korny Vibes, Soul Food Vegan

Best Breakfast

Baby Barnaby’s
Finalists: Breakfast Klub, Tortilla Joe’s, Snooze

Best Brunch

Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
Finalists: House of Blues, Phil and Derek’s, Traveler’s Table

Best Lunch Spot

Urban Eats
Finalists: Barnaby’s Cafe, Jenni’s Noodle House, Tacos Doña Lena

Best Dessert

Dessert Gallery
Finalists: Chocolate Bar, Rita’s Italian Ice

Best British

Red Lion Pub

Best Cajun

BB’s Tex-Orleans

Best Central/South American

Gloria’s Latin Cuisine

Best Cuban

El Rey
Finalist: Cafe Piquet

Best Chinese

Cafe Ginger
Finalists: Ginger & Fork, Three Six Nine (3-6-9), The Rice Box

Best Japanese

Uchi
Finalists: Oishii, Roka Akor

Best Thai

Khun Kay Thai
Finalists: Morningside Thai, Thai Chef’s, Thai Spice

Best Vietnamese

Mai’s Restaurant
Finalists: Roostar, Thien An

Best French

Artisans Restaurant

Best Greek

Niko Niko’s
Finalist: Just GRK

Best Indian

Tarka Indian Kitchen
Finalists: Khyber, Pondicheri

Best Italian

Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino (tie), Riva’s (tie)
Finalists: Carrabba’s, Maggiano’s

Best Mediterranean/Middle Eastern

Fadi’s
Finalists: Aladin, La Fendee

Best Mexican

Tacos Doña Lena
Finalists: El Tiempo Cantina, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Superica

Best Place for a Romantic Date

Rainbow Lodge
Finalists: Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Traveler’s Table

Best Place to Celebrate

Hamburger Mary’s
Finalists: Dumpling Dudez, Present Company

Best Restaurant for Cheap Eats

Jenni’s Noodle House
Finalists: Barnaby’s, Raising Cane’s, Urban Eats

Best Restaurant for Elegant Dining

Brennan’s of Houston
Finalists: Perry’s Steakhouse, Traveler’s Table

Best Restaurant for Outdoor Dining

Postino Montrose
Finalist: Lucille’s

Best Restaurant for Curbside Dining

Tortilla Joe’s
Finalist: Hamburger Mary’s

Best Dining To-Go

Barnaby’s Cafe
Finalists: Chili’s, Tortilla Joe’s

Favorite Food Delivery

David Alcorta Catering
Finalists: Pepperoni’s, Tortilla Joe’s

Friendliest Restaurant Staff

Hamburger Mary’s
Finalists: Barnaby’s, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Tortilla Joe’s

This article appears in the October 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Kim Hogstrom

Kim Hogstrom is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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