I recently entertained an out-of-town food writer who had been contracted to write on Tex-Mex in San Antonio and Houston. Although he was very personable and fun to hang out with, I knew of his notoriety of writing really negative reviews about things that others held dear.
When we met up he had already sampled Irma’s spinach enchiladas, which he liked. I took him to a favorite place for enchiladas, and he wasn't impressed. Over the next day or so he hit 5 different places, none of which he liked, all of which I do.
Our last meal was at the original Ninfa's on Navigation for some excellent fajitas and a flan that was so delicious, I had to seek out the recipe on the Web and make it two days later.
I really didn't want to be an apologist for Houston Tex-Mex. But his disenchantment got me to thinking how much my appreciation of Houston Tex-Mex is equal parts food, history and restaurant ambiance. And being a non-native, this didn’t have much cachet with him (different cultural map I guess).
That night at Ninfa's I decided to direct him to check out two upscale Tex-Mex places, places that I know of but never go to, Armando’s and Escalante’s. Well, he never made it to them so we’ll never know.
Time to try Escalante's for myself then. I thought it might be fun to compare the crispy tacos at Escalante’s and Los Tios, which are basically across the street from each other on Beechnut at Meyerland.
Escalante's Taco Plate
Escalante’s gets a big thumbs-up for atmosphere, friendly service and food presentation. It’s a well illuminated (from the ambient light and the interior lighting) restaurant with attractive paintings and memorabilia everywhere. The kind of place one might take an out-of-town food writer.
The tacos come in their own cute little stand and the rice and beans are tasty enough. The tacos themselves have a thin shell and are reminiscent of a Taco Bell taco or those grocery store El Paso shells. On the plus side, the taco meat is not overly salty. On the minus side, it's pretty bland and I had to touch them up with some black pepper and hot sauce. With tax and tip my meal came in at $12.50. A similar order of three tacos with rice and beans would be under $5.00 at Taco Bell.
Los Tios Taco Plate
Los Tios has its own charm. It’s a little dark and the interior is very woody. The waitstaff is great there too.
Los Tios is one of only two places left in Houston that still make the crispy style tacos that I remember from my youth. To the best of my knowledge they're unique to Houston (please correct me if you've seen them anywhere else) and if I had my way, every Houston restaurant would make these. The trick to making these is that you have to use freshly ground yellow corn masa for your tortilla. When it goes into the hot oil, there’s enough moisture to allow for the tortilla to separate and puff up.
The taco meat was perfectly seasoned. I ordered two but could have easily downed a dozen of the wonderful little crunch machines. With tax and tip my meal came in under $7.00 for two tacos.
I'll be the first to agree that it's not altogether fair to judge Escalante's solely on its tacos. And I would gladly eat there again. But let's face it, Los Tios kicks a--.
-- Jay Francis