It's easy to see where Doneraki's tacos cazuela tapado got their name. The cazuela tapado is a skillet of tender meat simmered in chile sauce and "topped" with four soft, stained tortillas. I got the beef tacos, made with what appeared to be fajita meat, but there is also a pork version available.
The tortillas are individually fried and then turned in the brick-red sauce, so each bears a greasy chile-sauce imprint. The earthy, bitter flavor of the dried chiles cooked into the corn tortilla recalls the original meaning of the term "tortillas enchiladas" -- these are literally chilied tortillas. The little skillet holds the meat, which has been simmered in chile sauce. Onions, serranos, mushrooms and other additions come on the side. You wrap the tortillas around some tender meat in chile sauce and decorate it with your favorite condiments. And then you bite into one of the best tacos in the city.
I also sampled a combination plate with a giant battered chile relleno on that visit. It was filled with ground meat in a loose tomato-chile sauce and topped with cheese. Compared to the stellar tacos, the stuffed pepper was bland and boring. A chicken enchilada in tart tomatillo sauce served on the side of the chile relleno was more interesting.
Doneraki is owned by Mexican-Americans, and its clientele is almost entirely Spanish-speaking, which makes the upcoming weekend a big one at the restaurant. While gringos think of Cinco de Mayo as the major Mexican holiday, Mexicans get more worked up about el Dies y Seis de Septiembre, Mexican Independence Day. At Doneraki, they will celebrate with floor shows featuring músico folklórico, a jalapeño-eating contest and a Mexican grito (yelling) contest. The show starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 15, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 16.
Doneraki is so intent on being known for authentic Mexican food, it added the description to its name. But while the restaurant does have some unique Mexican dishes like the cazuela tapado, for the most part it is the Tex-Mex fare -- chips and fiery salsa, stiff frozen margaritas, sizzling fajitas and free-flowing chile con queso -- that keeps the crowds coming. The Gulfgate Doneraki has continued the free queso tradition, but here you get the free cheese dip at lunchtime.
Lunch at the Gulfgate Doneraki is a study in efficiency. Ice water, menu, chips, salsa and velvety queso hit the table before you have the chance to scoot back in your chair. If you know what you want, the waiter will take your order before you even get a chip in your mouth. And you probably know what you're going to order, because the lunch specials are such a great deal.
You get two items with rice and beans for $8.95 and three items for $10.95. The two-item list includes a beef fajita taco, an enchilada, a tamal or a "fajitadilla" (Tex-Mex for a fajita quesadilla). The three-item list also features shrimp, chicken chipotle and a chicken breast in mole, or your choice of other sauces.
The last time I went for lunch, I got a taco al carbon made with fajita meat and a cheese enchilada in roja sauce. The fajita meat was nicely charred and crispy, and the enchilada oozed yellow cheese. If you're on a lunch break and need to get back to work fast, you can't beat the Gulfgate Doneraki, but some people think the service is too rushed.
The original Doneraki on Fulton in the northside barrio was a humble joint, more of a taqueria than a restaurant. It was founded in 1973 by brothers Cesar, Jorge and Victor Rodriguez. The restaurant was always a local favorite, thanks in large part to the free chile con queso at happy hour.
The Gulfgate Doneraki is an enormous and beautifully designed restaurant with a fountain at the entrance and a breathtaking recreation of a Diego Rivera mural dominating an entire wall. The floors are saltillo tile, and there's a pierced tin roof with ornate Mexican chandeliers in the center of the interior. Arches mounted on stone columns mimic the design of a courtyard. The cinnamon-colored walls are decorated with Mexican paintings, along with the mounted heads of a longhorn steer and a buffalo.
The Rodriguez family fortune spiked wildly when they opened the Gulfgate location. In August 2003, Cesar Rodriguez told Shopping Centers Today magazine that the new restaurant, which was designed to seat 450, served 17,000 customers and "pulled in about $150,000 in sales" in its second week in business.
The last time I had lunch at Doneraki, I ordered tacos al pastor from the same section of the menu that yielded the wonderful taco cazuela tapado. The section is called " 'Don Erakio' Famous Tacos." According to the Web site (www.doneraki.com), Don Erakio is the guy the restaurant is named after. He was an old Indian in the Chihuahuan Desert who invented tacos al pastor.
Both the story of the Indian Don Erakio and the tacos al pastor I was served at Doneraki are utterly bogus. According to www.mexconnect.com and other Mexican food histories, "tacos al pastor" are a "Mexican adaptation of Middle-Eastern spit-grilled meat, brought by immigrants from Lebanon."
The Mexicans took the vertical roaster, which was carried to Mexico by immigrants from the Middle East, and switched the meat from the traditional, Arab, seasoned ground meat to marinated pork strips layered on the roaster in the shape of a child's toy top, or trompo, with a piece of pineapple on top. The meat is typically bright red, salty and spicy, with a wonderful fruit flavor from the pineapple. Since the thin strips are shaved from the edge with a sharp knife, the pork comes in very fine pieces.
What they call tacos al pastor at Doneraki looks like three corn tortillas topped with thick brown hunks of chopped pork with little or no seasonings. Well, at least there's plenty of pineapple, I thought, pushing around a bunch of yellow things with my fork before I picked up the taco. But what I thought were pineapple chunks turned out to be gristly pork fat.
I have nothing against pork fat. I could eat hot, crispy chicharrones by the pound. But these were chunks of inedible gristle that just got more disgusting as I tried to chew them. When the waiter returned and asked if everything was all right, I got out a menu and pointed to the description of tacos al pastor. It said, "marinated pork from our famous 'trompo' (similar to a large spinning top)." I asked him to take me to the kitchen and show me el trompo. That earned me an audience with the manager. When I told him I wanted to see their famous trompo, he admitted there wasn't one. "The machine is broken," he said.
The waiter returned, and I told him I couldn't eat the tacos for all the gristle. He told me I didn't owe anything for the meal. Then he did something I will always remember. He told me about a nearby taqueria that served tacos al pastor that really were cut from el trompo, and he drew me a map explaining how to get there. I gave him a nice tip.
What a wonderful moment. We have come full circle. Now that Doneraki has grown into a huge, successful Tex-Mex operation, new little taquerias with flavors straight from Mexico are springing up in the barrio to take its place.
If the Don Erakio tale on the restaurant's Web site was fiction, I wondered where the odd name Doneraki actually came from. So I Googled the term. And I found a chain of restaurants in Mexico called Don Eraki Tacos Arabes. Tacos arabes are Mexican gyro sandwiches. Seasoned ground meat is sliced from a vertical roaster and wrapped in oversize thick flour tortillas called pan arabe, which looks a lot like pita bread.
According to the Mexican Don Eraki's Web site (www.tacosarabes.com.mx), tacos arabes, which are now known as doneraki tacos, were introduced in Puebla in the '30s when an Iraqi immigrant named Jorge Tabe opened an eatery that advertised both "tacos arabes" and "tacos estilo Doneraky." Doner is the Arab word for "gyro meat," and aki means little in Greek, so doneraki means "little gyro."
To create a moniker that sounded like a person's name, the Mexican restaurant chain separated the "don" from the "eraki." Don Eraki Tacos Arabes is a now a franchise operation with locations throughout Mexico.
I love great Tex-Mex, and I love Doneraki's Gulfgate location. I don't know or care if the Rodriguez brothers stole their name from the Don Eraki chain in Mexico. I don't expect them to admit that the name "doneraki" was coined by an Iraqi, either.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.