If Kevin Shalin's Top 5 Sandwiches was controversial, it will probably have nothing on my picks for the best Mexican eateries in a town where fajitas and 'ritas reign supreme.
Although I have no Mexican blood in my heritage, like many Houstonians, I was raised on a taco- and enchilada-heavy diet. I have been to many of the local favorites, as well as some lesser-known establishments, and I've combined this knowledge with information from almost everyone I've encountered in the past two weeks. While I'm thrilled to extol the wonderfulness of those that made it, there were some close runner-ups that sadly got cut at the last minute (I'm looking at you Tampico). Here are my choices for the best places to tuck into some delicious Mexican food.
5. The Original Ninfa's on Navigation I was never a big fan of Ninfa's, so when I kept hearing how I had to try the original location on Navigation, I resisted. After finally giving in a few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it truly has earned its reputation as a Houston institution. The margaritas are fresh and strong, but not poisonously biting. The queso is velvety-smooth and served with heavenly flaky tortilla chips. And the fajitas ? Well, you already know. Chef Alex Padilla is doing a great job of preserving all our favorite traditional dishes while adding in some innovative specials, such as the scallop ceviche, which was refreshingly light.
4. Laredo Taqueria With three locations to choose from, you're usually not far from a great Laredo taco. The hot, pillowy-soft tortillas encase a number of homemade-tasting fillings. And I mean homemade in the best possible way. The fluffy, golden eggs with spicy green chilies are a great way to start of the morning. For lunch, you can't go wrong with the flavorful carne guisada or the more exotic calabacitas taco with tender pork and summer squash. This is inexpensive, delicious comfort food lovingly prepared with no frills.
3. Pico's Mex-Mex During my informal poll of people's favorite Mexican places, Pico's invariably made the list. It has the holy trinity: good chips, good fajitas, and even better margaritas. Every time I go, I'm amazed by the amount of sizzling skillets and frozen mugs surrounding me. But I also love that in addition to the usual suspects on the menu, Pico's makes really interesting coastal Mexican dishes. The Camarones al Ajillo -- fat shrimp poached in hot, garlicky oil accompanied by French bread -- are a must. And the mole is truly some of the best in the city.
2. Teotihuacan Probably my favorite way to enjoy Mexican cuisine is in a clean, but casual, diner-style setting. Teotihuacan fits the bill. This place is always busy. Latin families bring their children for nice, low-key dinners, young couples come here on dates, and Gringos hold rowdy parties resplendent with tables full of neon-colored margaritas. All of this leads to a fun atmosphere, but the real draw is the unbelievably weighty portions of inexpensive, skillfully prepared Mexican food. I love to get the grilled meats and stuff them in hot tortillas loaded with creamy guacamole, shredded cheese and spicy peppers. Bonus: After multiple visits, I can even pronounce the name correctly.
1. Hugo's Hugo's really almost deserves its own category, but here it sits at No 1. The space itself is elegant and airy, yet not at all stuffy. Service is impeccable, and the riffs on traditional cocktails are superb. This is the place to get authentic, high-end Mexican cuisine. The Filete a la Oaxaqueña, a wood-grilled beef tenderloin with mole negro and wild mushroom tamal, is excellent. But really, my favorite thing about Hugo's is Sunday brunch. This is where I go when I want to end the week right. The guacamole is chunky, the hot dishes always remain amazingly fresh for a buffet line, and the desserts are sinful. If I had a last meal, it would be a trip through Hugo's brunch line that ended with that ridiculously perfect hot chocolate.