Todo con Queso

Houston's 10 best 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.

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 was 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.

A huge lunch spread at Don Carlos comes cheap.
Katharine Shilcutt
A huge lunch spread at Don Carlos comes cheap.
Parts one and two of the three-part Mexico City plate at Molina's.
Katharine Shilcutt
Parts one and two of the three-part Mexico City plate at Molina's.

"Texas-Mexican restaurant owners considered it an insult," wrote former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh 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.

Note: In order to be considered for this list, a restaurant must serve the Houston Tex-Mex trifecta of fajitas, enchiladas and margaritas.

Honorable mention:

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

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.

8. Lupe Tortilla

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.

7. El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

The real draw of El Real isn't its late-night hours nor its cavernous dining room nor even its patio perched on a busy stretch of Westheimer: It's the fact that the restaurant — partly owned by Tex-Mex historian Robb Walsh — is committed to preserving the cuisine in both the dishes it serves and the memorabilia it houses in a mini-museum upstairs. This is your father's Tex-Mex, in the best possible way: Beans are made with lard, tortillas are made fresh in-house and cheese enchiladas are smothered in chunky, beefy chile con carne.

6. Lopez Mexican Restaurant

The cult of Lopez has strong, deep roots in southwest Houston, where the family-oriented Tex-Mex temple has been serving combo plates and queso since 1978. That's when Mexican immigrant Rodrigo Lopez — who first came to the United States in 1962 — opened the restaurant he still runs today with his wife Bertha, sons Jonathon, Jose and daughter Ana. What's so mesmerizing about Lopez is how the well-oiled machinery of the place can serve so many people in one evening while still turning out top-notch plates of enchiladas and tamales to every single diner. It will either make you avoid the restaurant at peak hours or seek it out to be a part of the fun, frenzied action.

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My Voice Nation Help

I have two questions: How did El Real make this list? I only went there once, not long after it opened. Perhaps things have changed for the better since then, but when I went, the food was bland and unmemorable. Maybe I should give El Real another shot, but there are too many other good places. Why bother?And speaking of better places, why didn't Spanish Flowers make the list? It's walking distance from Teotihuacan. How could you miss it, let alone not even mention it?