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Doña Tere Mexican Restaurant

The best bet at Doña Tere is to order giant tamales — of whatever variety.
Troy Fields

The bright red hot sauce that they smother the fried eggs with at Doña Tere Mexican Restaurant on Beechnut looked like your average ordinary ranchero sauce. I was hungry, so I took an extra big bite. The wave of molten heat moving south down my gullet widened my eyes way better than the coffee.

Served beside some creamy refried beans, the huevos rancheros looked familiar but tasted foreign. The owners are from Mexico City, and they do things a little differently. If you're accustomed to Tex-Mex, there are a couple of other points of departure that you should be aware of if you visit Doña Tere. For example, instead of flour or corn tortillas, Doña Tere serves a basket of baguette slices with their Mexican breakfasts. Don't knock it until you've tried it. Refried beans and French bread is a marriage made in...Mexico City?

Another oddity is that while Doña Tere has a breakfast menu, they don't open until nine-thirty. And don't bother arriving at opening time, because they won't have any coffee ready until closer to ten. I'd say it's more of an almuerzo (early lunch) than a desayuno (breakfast).

The coffee is scented with cinnamon and made in a giant percolator. They also serve the pre-­Hispanic sweetened corn drink called atole along with the chocolate version that is known as champurrado. Drinking the thick corny gruel is a fascinating culinary experience, but it's definitely an acquired taste.

I also sampled the chilaquiles on the breakfast menu, which were made with tortillas and tart tomatillo sauce topped with bland Mexican white cheese. Honestly, they were a little dull, especially compared to the sensational tamales I got on the side.

The Oaxaqueño was my favorite; it was a giant chicken tamal in a banana leaf with so much creamy masa that I could have made a meal of it. The Costeño, another giant banana leaf tamal stuffed with chicken, onions and a tomato sauce, was also good, but not as impressive as the Oaxaqueño. These deep-in-the-heart-of-Mexico tamales aren't like the petite tubes of meat and masa we call tamales in Texas. And they aren't cheap either — the Oaxaqueño and Costeño go for $2.85 each.

Doña Tere Mexican Restaurant is part of the Doña Tere tamal empire. So predictably enough, the best things to eat here are tamales and other things that are made out of masa (corn dough). They have sopes (discs of masa), huaraches (shoe sole-shaped masa ovals) and chalupas (masa boats) on the appetizer menu, all served with a rotating selection of toppings. I had the sopes covered with refried beans, green sauce and strips of bright-red, grilled, marinated chicken for lunch one day. They were terrific.

There are only eight tables in the cheerful little restaurant, each covered with a bright, plastic floral-patterned tablecloth. Mexican cut-paper pennants flutter from the rafters. The menu hangs above the front counter, which has been painted bright blue and yellow. You walk up to the register to order and to pay. Next to the register, there's a refrigerated display case full of Mexican soft drinks and mineral waters.

The owner of the place is a handsome Mexican guy who stops by every table to chat. I complimented him on the sopes. "This is the only truly authentic Mexican restaurant in Houston," he told me. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard that since I started this job.

The first time I set out to review Doña Tere Mexican Restaurant on Beechnut, I was distracted by a carnicería in the same shopping center called Supermercado Teloloapan.

Inside the spotlessly clean market, I found a taquería with a steam table and some shiny stainless-steel counters with stools where you can sit down and eat. They were having a special on the lunch plate. It included two meats, rice, refried beans and four fresh cooked handmade tortillas. Regularly $4.99, it was on sale for $2.99.

It was too good a deal to resist. I skipped my plans to eat at Doña Tere and got some excellent carnitas in green sauce and spicy pork al pastor at the meat market. When the owner of Doña Tere started talking about having the only authentic Mexican restaurant in town, I wanted to walk him over to the carnicería next door.

One evening, when we went to Doña Tere for dinner, a basket of fried tortilla chips and a bowl of hot sauce were brought to our table while we looked at the menu. The chips were so hard, I carried them back to the counter and told the proprietor they were too stale to eat.

"That's because we fry our own chips," he said. "We don't buy tortilla chips in plastic bags."

"When did you fry them, yesterday?" I asked.

"No, early this morning," he said.

"Well maybe you ought to buy the kind in the plastic bags, so people would be able to eat them," I said. But his English wasn't good enough to pick up on my sarcasm.

"No, no, everything in this restaurant is natural and homemade," he said ­earnestly.

His heart was in the right place, but his ideas about food were different from mine. In fact, the worst things I ate at Doña Tere were the items that the owner held in the highest esteem.

At lunch one day, I took his advice and ordered something the menu called the molcajete mixto. The other items on the menu were followed by an English explanation in parentheses. After the molcajete mixto it read: "No translation, just eat it!!" So I tried it.

A molcajete is a Mexican three-legged stone grinding bowl. The entrée consisted of a heated molcajete filled with meats that had been grilled or braised served with various sauces. If I remember the assemblage correctly, there were some beef strips in a dark chile sauce, some Mexican chorizo sausage, some green onions and some chicken, along with some melted cheese and a piece of cleaned and cooked prickly pear cactus pad. These were served with warm tortillas.

The meats were excellent. But my dining companion was mystified when she tried to make some tacos out of it. There were no beans, no lettuce, tomatoes or guacamole served alongside. Aside from the cactus and cheese, there was nothing to put on the taco but meat and salsa. I am afraid that the average American finds something indecent about eating a pile of meat without any vegetables.

The most expensive thing served at Doña Tere was a chile en nogada, a skinned poblano pepper stuffed with a ground beef and pine nut picadillo and covered with a cream sauce. The owner highly recommended it. When I ordered it, he delivered it to my table along with the story of its ­invention.

According to legend, chile en nogada was first served on August 28, 1821, at a banquet for Don Agustín de Iturbide, the newly proclaimed emperor of Mexico. It was garnished with red pomegranate seeds, which together with the green chile and white walnut sauce represented the colors of the Mexican flag. I loved the dish when I ate it at a restaurant called Osteria San Domingo in Mexico City, which is reputed to have the definitive version.

I wasn't all that fond of Doña Tere's chile en nogada. The picadillo was bland and the sweet cream sauce tasted like an ice cream topping. But the biggest problem was that the dish was served at room temperature. My dining companion, who is an amateur sanitarian, won't eat meat that isn't heated or chilled for fear of bacterial contamination. I just didn't like the way it tasted.

She loved the restaurant and wouldn't stop raving about the distinct and intense flavors of the green sauce on the chicken chalupa. And she loved her chicken and mole tamal so much, she ordered two more for dessert — a pineapple tamal and one sweetened with raisins and the Mexican sugar called piloncillo, both of which were fabulous.

If you start craving tamales as soon as the first cold front passes through, put Restaurant Doña Tere on your lunch-hour hit list. Just don't get anything the owner ­recommends.

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