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
Finalists: Tacos Doña Lena, Tortilla Joe’s, Traveler’s Table
Finalist: PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans
Best 24-Hour Restaurant
Katz’s Deli & Bar
Finalists: House of Pies, Whataburger
Finalists: Common Bond, Michael’s Cookie Jar, Sweets by Tony
The Pit Room
Finalists: Demeris Bar-B-Q, Pinkerton’s Barbecue, Truth BBQ
Finalists: Kenny & Ziggy’s, New York Deli & Coffee Shop
Best Food Truck
Finalists: The Waffle Bus, What A Taco
Finalists: Barnaby’s Cafe, Burger Joint, Lankford’s Grocery
Best Hot Dog
Good Dog Houston–Montrose
Bollo (tie), Pizza Birra Vino (tie)
Finalists: Pepperoni’s, Pink’s Pizza, Star Pizza
Finalists: Eugene’s, Pappadeaux, The Rouxpour
Best Steak House
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
Finalists: Miyako, Oishii, Osaka
Finalists: Korny Vibes, Soul Food Vegan
Finalists: Breakfast Klub, Tortilla Joe’s, Snooze
Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
Finalists: House of Blues, Phil and Derek’s, Traveler’s Table
Best Lunch Spot
Finalists: Barnaby’s Cafe, Jenni’s Noodle House, Tacos Doña Lena
Finalists: Chocolate Bar, Rita’s Italian Ice
Red Lion Pub
Best Central/South American
Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
Finalist: Cafe Piquet
Finalists: Ginger & Fork, Three Six Nine (3-6-9), The Rice Box
Finalists: Oishii, Roka Akor
Khun Kay Thai
Finalists: Morningside Thai, Thai Chef’s, Thai Spice
Finalists: Roostar, Thien An
Finalist: Just GRK
Tarka Indian Kitchen
Finalists: Khyber, Pondicheri
Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino (tie), Riva’s (tie)
Finalists: Carrabba’s, Maggiano’s
Best Mediterranean/Middle Eastern
Finalists: Aladin, La Fendee
Tacos Doña Lena
Finalists: El Tiempo Cantina, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Superica
Best Place for a Romantic Date
Finalists: Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Traveler’s Table
Best Place to Celebrate
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
Best Restaurant for Curbside Dining
Finalist: Hamburger Mary’s
Best Dining To-Go
Finalists: Chili’s, Tortilla Joe’s
Favorite Food Delivery
David Alcorta Catering
Finalists: Pepperoni’s, Tortilla Joe’s
Friendliest Restaurant Staff
Finalists: Barnaby’s, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Tortilla Joe’s
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.