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First Look at Moderno Tacos + Tex-Mex

From the outside, Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex looks like your typical nondescript strip mall restaurant. Come a little closer, however, and a charming design space awaits, complete with a funky local Mexican mural in the window, beckoning you to have a closer look.

Just a month old, Moderno, located on Briar Forest just outside Beltway 8 in Westchase, is ambitious. Open at 7 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, they are already serving breakfast and lunch (counter service), happy hour and dinner.

"People are really loving the egg and chorizo breakfast tacos," says general manager Shane Conley. "Come Friday afternoon, our happy hour is great. People would rather come here and have a glass of wine or one of our fresh margaritas than get stuck in traffic."

Designed by Melanie Bell of Pear Tree Concepts, the space is meant to channel a border town cantina, like the ones owner John Moore (who also owns Palazzo's down the street) and his wife Stassa would visit when crossing the border. In fact, the name Moderno is an homage to El Restaurante Moderno (now closed), a cantina they used to visit in the border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

Prettily-patterned Mexican tiles in blues and yellows line the bar, while reclaimed wood slats in varying shades of blue and brown line the back walls. Several rows of string lights evoke an outdoor feel even when indoors, and comfortable-looking booths appear inviting. Moderno's also has a big elk animal trophy on the back wall named Oscar, and a very cool, artsy partition wall in the back made of hundreds of colored glass bottles.

The dinner menu is classic Tex-Mex and several tacos plates. We started with the basics: chips and salsa, an order of guacamole, an order of queso. The chips were whisper thin and very crispy and quite addictive, especially when eaten in combination the cheese-guacamole-salsa combination on the table, and we easily polished off an entire basket.

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A note about the margaritas and drinks. You can get a good red or white by the glass, as well as their house margarita on the rocks for $5 during happy hour. They have more than 40 tequilas in house, and an old fashioned pull down juicer, which is employed in a showy fashion every time someone orders a house margarita or any of the fresh fruit margaritas. Served in simple cylindrical cups rimmed with salt, the margaritas, whether on the rocks or frozen (we ordered a frozen blood orange margarita) are a must.

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On the food front, the spinach and mushroom enchilada, which we ordered a la carte, was the best of what we ordered. The creamy poblano topping was savory and rich --reminiscent of a very good Italian alfredo sauce -- and the textures and flavors of the spinach and mushroom seemed made for each other.

Our order of beef fajitas was solid, but not too remarkable. There are so many places that do fantastic fajitas around town that these seemed, well, run of the mill. The entree was well portioned, the soupy charro beans were excellent, and the meat came in nice, thick medium rare cuts, but Houstonians who have become accustomed to getting their fajitas on sizzling plates may want a little more pizazz than the plain white plate that arrived at our table.

A plate of DF Street Tacos, which come four to a plate with a choice of either carne asada or chicken, also needed some work. Though they looked like your typical Mexican street tacos (D.F. stands distrito federal, or Mexico City), they were unfortunately way too salty and somewhat dry, so we didn't finish them. The vegetarian ratatouille tacos are supposed to be amazing, however, and other menu favorites mentioned by our server include the baja shrimp or fish tacos, and their tacos norteno (filled with fajita meat).

Though there was room for improvement, Moderno is a very promising addition to the Westchase area for those wanting an Inner Loop ambience in an Outer Loop location. Their fresh juice margaritas are some of the best you'll find at a non-chain Tex-Mex restaurant outside the loop, and they'll soon be adding a patio in the back -- just in time for the cool fall weather. Oh, and try the tres leches, too. Creamy, moist and oozing with lightly sweetened milk, Moderno version is just as good as some of the best you'll find around town.

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