Upon stepping through La Lupita's heavy, black-iron door, you're greeted with rustic shelves holding tequila and baskets of colorful produce; a lively painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe; and a bright-red ceiling centerpiece made of hand-blown glass hearts. A grand spiral staircase with a wrought-iron railing beckons you to the first floor.
On the ground floor, creamy-yellow walls accented by red brick and dark wood serve as the restaurant's frame. In the corner sits a station that looks like a taco stand with a parrilla, plenty of salsas and two employees crafting tacos in front of dining guests. A bar runs along the back side of the restaurant, while large windows reveal a spacious, umbrella-clad patio overlooking the Woodlands Waterway Square.
We were seated at one of the best tables in the house -- neatly set, with a view of the whole restaurant, which would allow us to take in all of its rich visual elements.
Promptly after we sat down, our waitress visited our table. Would we like a cocktail, beer or margarita? My dining companion asked for a Corona, while I went with the first drink I spotted on the cocktail menu -- a Jamaica Fizz, made with 1800 Silver Cointreau, hibiscus, pineapple juice and fresh lime juice, topped with prosecco.
While our waitress was at the bar getting our drinks, we took in our surroundings and quickly determined that the patio is one of the best in The Woodlands. We admired the bold, iron chandeliers, the chile plants in a corner of the spacious restaurant, and the walnut-colored bar. If our eyes weren't deceiving us, the bar held only tequila bottles.
As our waitress dropped our drinks off, I asked her if La Lupita only carried tequila. "Well...we do have a couple of other things, like Grey Goose. But right now our focus is on tequila. We have 80 tequilas right now, but we're supposed to have 120 at some point." Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
The first sip of my Jamaica Fizz indicated a generous pour of tequila (no complaints about that) and the taste of hibiscus mixed with pineapple. Although the drink was pleasing, it lacked the element that I was most looking forward to: the "fizz" of the prosecco, which had fallen flat. Nevertheless, I liked the refreshing cocktail. I loved that the drink had hibiscus in it -- the ingredient just screams "Mexico," and hibiscus agua fresca just so happens to be one of my favorite drinks of all time. Plus, it was after five, and I was ready to make a point of that.
We munched on the homemade tortilla chips that had been placed before us. The chips were accompanied by traditional pico de gallo, green tomatillo sauce and a pico made of raw tomatillo, onion, cilantro and plenty of lime juice. The traditional pico de gallo was fine, period. The green tomatillo sauce was delightfully reminiscent of homemade Mexican salsa. Finally, the green pico tasted to us like ceviche without the fish. Did we really like that? We never decided.
"No Tex. Just Mex." read the front of the menus, which we finally got to opening. Inside, the assortment of options seemed to stay true to La Lupita's tagline. In place of Tex-Mex offerings such as queso, chimichangas, burritos and fajitas were authentic Mexican items such as sopes, tostadas, ceviche, tacos, chiles rellenos, mole and cochinita pibil, to name a few. Not only were the options abundant and varied, they were quite reasonably priced, especially considering La Lupita's premium location.
We started with the sopes as well as the sopa de tortilla, served on beautiful green dishes that indicated a fine attention to detail. The sopes -- thick corn tortillas topped with black beans, chicken, chorizo, lettuce, cotija cheese and crema (the Mexican version of sour cream that's infinitely better than sour cream) -- were excellent. As soon as we picked them up, grease dripped from them. A good sign, especially because the sopes had chorizo on them. The refried black beans topping the sopes were spectacular. And you don't find spectacular beans just anywhere. The sopes were truly authentic in their preparation, presentation and taste. Though meant to be an appetizer, they could be a meal themselves.
Our next dish, the tortilla soup, came in six parts: a large bowl with tortilla strips topped with avocado; four small ramekins containing chile pasilla, chicharron (dried pig skin), cream and cheese; and a mini teapot filled with the soup's broth. The idea was to add the contents of the ramekins to the tortilla strips and then pour the broth on top. Not only was the presentation creative, it was functional. It assured that the tortilla strips didn't get soggy. As for the soup itself -- perhaps we liked the plating better than the taste. All of the ingredients were good by themselves, but the broth had a slightly sweet hint to it that was unexpected and unwelcome. Despite this small detail, we agreed that props were owed to the chef for using epazote in the broth -- a dried herb that gives the soup its signature flavor -- as it's usually absent in Tex-Mex versions of tortilla soup.
For our entrées, we stuck with some classics that would test whether La Lupita was more Mex than Tex. I ordered the enchiladas verdes, while my companion ordered tacos campechanos -- corn tortilla tacos stuffed with arachera meat and chorizo.
We were surprised in a pleasant way to find that both dishes were indeed authentic Mexican cuisine. The enchiladas' green sauce was spicy. They were topped with cream and a small bit of fresh cheese, whereas a Tex-Mex restaurant would have had them swimming in melted cheese, perhaps topped with a bit of sour cream. Moreover, the tacos campechanos were accompanied by chopped onion and cilantro -- two simple ingredients that accompany Mexican street tacos.
As we finished off our entrées, we smiled in approval. But we weren't done quite yet.
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We ordered the arroz con leche -- rice pudding in tres leches reduction with raisins and cinnamon. It was an enjoyable end to our La Lupita experience, as the rice pudding wasn't overly sweet, and the cinnamon was sprinkled in tasteful quantities atop the rice.
Young Chef Daniel Miranda, 2010 winner of "Prime Gourmet: El Reto," an Iron Chef-style television show, helms the kitchen at both La Lupita and its sister restaurant Luca & Leonardo. He tries to create traditional dishes with a contemporary touch, and he succeeds. We'll surely be back each time we yearn for the flavors of Mexico.