Todo con Queso

A huge lunch spread at Don Carlos comes cheap.
Katharine Shilcutt

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.

"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.

5. Spanish Village

Spanish Village has a long and complex history, as tends to happen when a restaurant is more than 50 years old. Houston used to have two Spanish Village restaurants, born of a feud that lasted for years — one at 4811 Lillian and one at 4720 Almeda. The Christmas-light-covered Almeda location eventually outlasted the Lillian location and is the only remaining Spanish Village today, serving what Walsh once called "vintage Tex-Mex at its finest." The enchiladas a la Taylor are the best example of that vintage Tex-Mex, topped with plenty of chile con carne, chili gravy and raw white onions, while the margaritas and their signature dagger-like ice shards remain the stuff of Houston legend.

4. Molina's

Molina's is famous for a few things: The Jose dip, in which seasoned beef taco meat is blended together with queso. And for being President George Bush's favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, which he visited with regularity for decades. And for being the oldest continually operating Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, open for more than 70 years. Walsh proclaimed its enchiladas de Tejas to be some of the best in the city, while I'm a fan of the Mexico City combo platter — another Tex-Mex standard — that hasn't changed since the restaurant was founded in 1941.

3. The Original Ninfa's on Navigation

As with Spanish Village, a long and winding road led to the Ninfa's on Navigation we now know and love — and the only Ninfa's that belongs on this list. The 40-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant has its own Wikipedia page devoted to the years of complicated history, but what matters most is this: Ninfa's gave us fajitas and the much-imitated creamy green sauce made with avocados, both after Mama Ninfa Laurenzo's own recipes. "The Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation is the restaurant that made fajitas famous," wrote Robb Walsh in 2010. "And it's one of the last places where you can eat fajitas that taste like they did in the old days." Current chef Alex Padilla has updated the menu with a slate of adventurous, modern dishes, but the famous fajitas (and homemade flour tortillas, green sauce and much more from the original menu) remain exactly the same.

2. Teotihuacan

This wonderfully festive, colorful and inexpensive neighborhood place has a spacious covered patio, efficient waitstaff and large portions of some of the best Tex-Mex in Houston. As an added bonus, the Teotihuacan on Airline (my favorite of the two locations) is easy to find: Just look for the brightest pinkest restaurant you've ever seen. The green tomatillo salsa, charro beans and thick, handmade corn tortillas are awesome, as are its daily breakfasts. But it's the grilled items like fajitas, shrimp and mixed parrilladas, the cheap but strong margaritas and the singularly spectacular snapper al cilantro that keep me coming back week after week.

1. La Mexicana

The family-run restaurant La Mexicana has been serving Montrose its Tex-Mex since 1982, and the food reflects those years of loving care. You'll find old favorites like entomatadas here that are a rarity on more modern Tex-Mex menus, as well as huge weekend portions of soul-saving stuff like menudo and barbacoa breakfast tacos. If the line gets too long, seat yourself at the bar or grab some tacos to-go; they're made to order and always fresh. For a restorative weekend breakfast, an order of menudo and a breakfast taco will cure anything that ails you. And at dinner, the tampiqueña platter with a cheese enchilada over La Mex's perfectly seasoned, perfectly chargrilled beef skirt steak is the best of both worlds — fajita and enchilada all at once.

Wine Time

Houston Native Wine Celeb Ray Ilese Returns Home
Finds food scene "deeply local while still cosmopolitan."

Jeremy Parzen

My 80-year old mother may not know his name but she knows his face.

"You mean that handsome young man who talks about wine on the Today show with Kathie Lee [Gifford] and Hoda [Kotb]?" she asks when I mention that I'm having lunch in Houston with Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle.


But hey, let's cut Ray some slack: My mother isn't exactly totally up to speed on the highest-profile wine writers in our country today. But she does watch morning television religiously.

Thanks to his monthly columns and frequent appearances on national television, Ray is known to more American wine lovers than any other U.S. wine writer working today. And his work not only reflects the heightened levels of wine connoisseurship in our country, it also shapes and informs the American wine palate on a scale unimaginable even a few short years ago.

Last week, Ray sat down with me at The Pass & Provisions on Taft for a sampling of its menu and a chat about his visit to Texas, where he spoke at the Austin Food & Wine Festival and spent some time catching up with family and eating his way through Houston.

As wine director Fred Jones poured us Godello, Chenin Blanc, and a wonderful expression of Sangiovese from Molino di Grace (Chianti Classico), Ray — who grew up grew up "in West University, and later in the Braeswood/Meyerland area" — shared his impressions of the Houston dining scene.

"It's amazing to come back [to Houston] if you grew up here in the 1970s," said Ray. "Today it's one of the best food scenes in the country. The level of ambition and the level of new stuff popping up is fantastic. And there's an awareness of food of all kinds that wasn't here when I was a kid."

"I think that one of the reasons why Houston has captured the attention of the national media is that the chefs here are pulling from multiple cultures. It's a melting pot that's really interesting."

"Like Chris Shepherd's signature dish" at Underbelly, Korean braised goat and dumplings: "It's a goat ragù with Italian gnocchi that's been filtered through a Korean sensibility."

"And the fact that he's able to source so much of his menu locally is really impressive. It's deeply local while still cosmopolitan."

On the subject of local, Ray also talked about the Texas wine seminar that he led last weekend at the Austin Food & Wine Festival.

"I was really impressed by the Texas Tannat by the Bending Branch winery" in Comfort, Texas, Isle said.

"Like California," he noted, "Texas is still trying to figure out what grapes will work best here. Tannat is a relatively rare grape, essentially grown only in a few places in the world" (notably southwest France and Uruguay). "But this thick-skinned, sturdy variety really seems to do well here in Texas."

As our server at The Pass and Provisions offered Sriracha to spice up our eggplant parmigiana pizza, I asked Ray what the next stop was on his dining agenda.

"I'm dying to get down to Pearland to visit Ronnie Killen's new barbecue," he told me.

It may be Houston's new "deeply local but cosmopolitan" food scene that has captured the attention of the national media. But it's the barbecue that keeps calling Ray back. You can take the boy out of Texas but you can't take the Texas out of the boy.

Grocery Guide

Bug Off
The five fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides.

Molly Dunn

We all know that we should thoroughly wash our fruits and vegetables after buying them from the grocery store or farmers market. That doesn't mean there isn't still pesticide residue left on the produce items, however. According to nonprofit advocacy agency Environmental Working Group, a lot of the most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables still contain a large amount of pesticide residue. If you want to avoid most of these pesticides, buying organic is the way to go, especially for the ones ranked highest on the list.

Here are the top five fruits and vegetables that made the EWG's Dirty Dozen list and Clean 15 List found in their Shopper's Guide to Pesticide in Produce.

Dirty Produce

5. Peaches

Peaches have a fuzzy skin that allows mold to grow easily, causing peaches to need and contain pesticides. Pregnant women are ­advised to avoid peaches because of the amount of pesticides found in the fuzzy skin. Stick to organic if you want to enjoy peaches free of pesticides.

4. Celery

Celery is the only vegetable to make the top five list on EWG's Dirty Dozen list. In the samples tested by EWG, 13 different pesticides were identified. In years past, EWG has identified more than 60 different pesticides on non-organic celery. Be careful when making ants-on-a-log for your kids.

3. Grapes

Grapes came in at number three on the Dirty Dozen list and results from the test found that one grape alone contained 15 pesticides. Think about that the next time you decide to eat an unwashed grape.


2. Strawberries

If you thought that 15 pesticides on one grape were scary, the EWG found about 60 different types of pesticides on strawberries. Strawberries are not strangers to the Dirty Dozen list, however. Because strawberries develop fungus on the skin, they must be sprayed with toxins and chemicals to eliminate the fungus and other microorganisms, causing them to retain the pesticides even after they are harvested and sent to the supermarkets for retail.

1. Apples

Be wary of the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Apples came in at number one on this year's Dirty Dozen list out of all fruits and vegetables. The apples used in EWG's tests came back positive for at least one pesticide 99 percent of the time.

The other fruits and vegetables to make the Dirty Dozen List include spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.

Clean Produce

Out of the 15 fruits and vegetables to make the Clean 15 List, all fruits had no more than four types of pesticides and only 7 percent of the fruit samples contained one pesticide.

The top five produce items in descending order are: cabbage, avocado, pineapple, onions and corn. If you don't want to have to buy all of your fruits and vegetables from the organic section of the grocery store, no need to worry, because you have plenty of choices that don't feature an alarming amount of pesticides.

Other fruits and vegetables on the clean list include frozen sweet peas, papayas, mangoes, asparagus, eggplant, kiwi, grapefruit, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
New concepts abound for beloved chefs.

Katharine Shilcutt

Let's pull the Band-aid off and list the bad news first: Jeannine's Bistro officially closed this past week after a temporary closure became permanent. On its Facebook page, the Belgian restaurant posted the following farewell:

"We've sadly decided to close, and wanted to thank all our friends & patrons for their support during the past 4 years. You were the reasons we were here & want you to know that you were appreciated. We will miss you all, as well as our staff tremendously!"

Meanwhile in the Shepherd Plaza area, Azteca's closed quietly last weekend. Moving trucks were spotted outside the Tex-Mex restaurant two Sundays ago, and the phone has been forwarded straight to voicemail. No word on why the restaurant, well-known for its patio and inexpensive margaritas, closed its doors or if it plans to move elsewhere. Azteca's has not yet returned a call for comment.

In happier news, the Heights saw more activity last week as Ruggles Green finally reopened at the corner of 11th and Studewood after extensive renovations to the old structure that houses the restaurant. The restaurant will also feature extended hours, as Charlotte Aguilar reported in The Leader: "Ruggles Green's biggest change in the Heights will be to offer a weekend breakfast," she wrote, "not available at its other locations."

Not too far away, the refurbished D&T Drive-Inn is almost open following a change in ownership. Chris Cusack, who also owns nearby Down House, took over D&T in January and plans to unveil its new look in a few weeks. "Down House bartender Jason Moore will run D&T, which will feature 55 craft taps," writes Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler, who also reports D&T will have a small food menu.

Chronicle real estate reporter Nancy Sarnoff gave foodies plenty to discuss earlier this week when she revealed the list of tenants set for a new Rice Village development. "A half dozen restaurants will open soon in Hanover Rice Village," Sarnoff wrote, "the high-end apartment and retail complex at 2455 Dunstan." Among them are pastry chef Chris Leung's ice cream shop — Cloud 10 Creamery — and two new concepts from restaurateurs Charles Clark and Grant Cooper: Coppa Osteria and Punk's Simple Southern Food.

Finally, chef John Sheely — owner of Mockingbird Bistro — shared photos on Facebook this week of his newest project: Osteria Mazzantini, opening this year in the Galleria area at 2200 Post Oak Boulevard. When asked how long the build-out would take, Sheely replied: "120 days to opening."

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