My great-grandmother lived in the same little house off Navigation, home to dozens of kids and family gatherings over the decades, until the day she died. Although she never once spoke a word of English, she was clever and sly; she could understand every word spoken to her (or about her) in English, but would only reply in Spanish. And the few words she spoke were usually some version or another of "Ay, mijita," with a resigned sigh.
Because of this, my primary impression of Houston's East End is inextricably tied to the Mexican culture that's still deeply entrenched in the community to this day, from Talento Bilingue de Houston to the enormous Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans center. But although Hispanics make up more than half of the residents in the East End, there's more on offer than just Latino culture, as evidenced by monuments like the Orange Show, historic neighborhoods like Eastwood and restaurants like Kanomwan and Mandola's.
Below is our list (as always, a subjective list that's subject to change) of the 10 best places to get your grub on in the East End. The cartographic basis for selecting these restaurants was the official map of the East End, which roughly places its boundaries at Clinton Drive to the north, I-45 to the south, 610 to the east and parts of 59 to the west.
10. The Original Ninfa's 2704 Navigation
What to get here: Pretty much everything. Keep in mind, though, that there are far better Mexican restaurants in the area, including right across the street. But those tourists or business associates you've got in tow (which is why you're eating here, right?) have been told they should experience Ninfa's if they go to Houston. So let 'em have it. It's still good food even if it's gone downhill a bit since the place first opened in 1973, so relax and enjoy your meal while planning a more authentic adventure for the next time you're in the area.
9. Fiesta Loma Linda
2111 Telephone Road
What to get here: Puffy tacos. Jonesing for those San Antonio-style tacos you stuffed your face with at Henry's or Jacala? Don't head west; head over to Telephone Road. You can get your puffy taco fix here, along with a huge helping of old fashioned Tex-Mex goodness with all the cheese and gravy you can eat. And if you're an early riser, Loma Linda also has some of the best breakfast tacos in town.
8. Mandola's 4105 Leeland
What to get here: Spaghetti and meatballs. Yes, yes, the parking is tight and it's next to train tracks that routinely feature trains long enough to circle the equator, but the old-school food is worth the inconvenience. If you're heading out here for lunch from downtown, head out early to grab a parking spot. Spaghetti too heavy for you? Try the equally good po-boys and enjoy the family-style vibe as you take a few steps back in time.
7. Champ Burger 304 Sampson
What to get here: Burgers, yes, but also chicken fried steak. Braving Sampson -- which is absolutely the most horrible, pothole-ridden street in Houston -- only makes your prize of a delicious lunch that much sweeter. Stand in the shade of the green awning while you wait for your order and savor the slow pace of life along the street, reflecting on the busy shadows of downtown Houston to one side and the hyper-caffeinated Maxwell House plant to the other.
6. 888 Chinese
What to get here: Lo mein and anything seafood-related. Although this little favorite (for both dine-in and take-out) straddles the border of Gulfgate and the East End, it's hard to think of the East End without thinking of 888. And even though the menu has been heavily Westernized, you'll still see plenty of Chinese ex-pats eating their way through bowls of clay pot soups, which means there's something here for everybody.
5. Alma Latina No. 5 902 Telephone Road
What to get here: Breakfast. Yes, there are better overall Mexican restaurants around. But is there a better Mexican breakfast? Find me one, and I'll happily eat it. From fluffy breakfast tacos to killer menudo, Alma Latina has the first meal of the day covered. The huevos rancheros will fill you up for the rest of the day and are quite the deal for just less than $4. Be warned: The restaurant serves breakfast after 10:30 a.m. (hooray!) but charges extra for it (boo!).
4. Alamo Tamale 2310 Navigation
What to get here: Tamales. Just tamales. The steam table might look tempting, but...don't. Trust me. Still, the pork tamales are out-of-this-world good. And it's so conveniently close to downtown that you can whip in and out for lunch if you're an office worker, or -- if you have more times on your hands -- relax on the patio with a Coke and some fat, juicy tamales. A dozen will run you $9.50, but be warned that they're machine-made. You have to order ahead for the handmade version.
3. Villa Arcos
What to get here: Tacos. It's now been a little more than just "30 Years Of Awesome Tacos," as the sign on the side of Villa Arcos proudly proclaims, which only means that every passing year, the tacos get better. Whether you're going for breakfast tacos (the "super" taco comes with everything but the kitchen sink) or lunch/dinner tacos, Villa Arcos won't disappoint. Word to the wise: Go now, while it's still cool outside. The restaurant doesn't have air conditioning. Or you could just get that juicy carne guisada taco to go.
2. Bohemeo's 708 Telephone Road
What to get here: Fish and/or shrimp tacos with a side of music and culture. In a set of beautifully anachronistic, pastel-plastered buildings just outside of Eastwood lies the oasis that is Bohemeo's (and Kanomwan, but I'll get to that in a second). There's no better patio in town and no better place to enjoy coffee and live music with your fish tacos (or smoothies and poetry readings with your sandwich) than Bohemeo's. We still can't understand why this is a "hidden" jewel, but we're happy for it to stay that way as long as possible.
1. Kanomwan 736 1/2 Telephone Road
What to get here: Everything, especially pad thai, if you want to really experience what the dish should taste like, instead of what Nit Noi tells you it should taste like. Kanomwan is the second best Thai restaurant in Houston (behind only Vieng Thai on Longpoint), which tells you all you need to know in a city saturated with Thai restaurants. Ignore the legend of the "Thai Nazi" and enjoy a splendid meal brimming with authentic flavors (and lots of spice, if you can handle the heat). Afterward, hit up Bohemeo's right across the street for a nightcap and a pleasant evening on the patio -- there's almost no better date night in Houston than this duo.
A lot of favorites were left off the list, merely because they didn't fall within the boundaries of the "true" East End, such as Brother's Tacos, Noemi, Telewink and a host of places in the "EaDo" district. Which restaurants do you think should have made the list?