Robb Walsh is rummaging through the dry storage area in search of the anchos. We’re in the kitchen of his Montrose ode-to-old-school Tex-Mex restaurant El Real, which the Beard Award winning writer and former Houston Press food critic opened in 2010 with chef Bryan Caswell. He pulls out a large plastic tub of chiles and drops it on a huge sack of rice.
“If you’re talking about the basic flavors of Tex-Mex,” he says, “you have to start with the chiles."
The tub is filled with pounds and pounds of dried anchos in plastic bags, their aubergine-hued hides, the bulbous flesh of them, seemingly turned to fruit jerky. That’s what they taste like. Kind of. “The flavor is a little bit like raisin,” he says. “Huh?”
They would be a tasty snack on their own, but I’m not sure what sort of diuretic effect that would have on the body — when ground down into powder form as they are at El Real, mixed with cumin in a coffee grinder you’d normally find on a grocery store aisle, they’re certainly not enough to make any bowl of chile con queso digest any more quickly. Granted, I’ve had only a few months to test this theory.
Next he pulls out a long pepper, the tall, skinny pasilla. I rip off a small, spicy piece of its flesh and it turns to fire on my tongue. That’s how you know you’re a true gringo, attempting to figure out what Tex-Mex is all about and weeping in a kitchen on Westheimer instead.
I already know a few things. The fact that this cuisine is overly maligned. The name itself, Tex-Mex, originated from a put-down made by the food writer Diana Kennedy back in the early ’70s. She was a Brit and an authority on Mexican cuisine. The way Walsh makes it sound, she basically convinced The New York Times and its readers that Tex-Mex is nothing more than a bastardized version of Mexican food created by and for rednecks.
Before this, restaurants in Texas just called their unique regional fare Mexican, and, in fact, many still do today. Restaurateur Sylvia Casares calls it Mex Tex and “the original fusion.” Domenic Laurenzo, grandson of legendary Mama Ninfa, calls it “Mexican food that’s been modified for the American palate; the size of Texas.” Walsh calls it the lovable ugly duckling.
Still, Kennedy’s tribe persists. In 2015 Anthony Bourdain called Tex-Mex drunk food. And in July a writer for the Daily Texan called it “distinguishably disgusting.” Commenters immediately noted that the writer was vegan.
This is, after all, a cuisine built upon steak and yellow cheese, no mystery there.
It is said ZZ Top founder Billy Gibbons eats only Tex-Mex. Lindsey Buckingham is a fan. Walsh’s own Tex-Mex Cookbook counts James Dean, Van Morrison and The Beach Boys as lovers of the cuisine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a combination plate named after him in Fort Worth, and one of the few agreeable things Senator Ted Cruz has ever uttered in his life concerns Tex-Mex, noting that good queso "speaks to the soul.”
Today the most essential Tex-Mex dishes in Houston seem to be the cheese enchilada, fajitas, chile con queso, the margarita and rice and beans. But “it all goes back to chili con carne,” Walsh says, to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the chili con carne craze started at the turn of the century, aided by the invention of the railroad. Midwesterners traveled to Texas and chili traveled to the Chicago’s World Fair and beyond. In San Antonio, vendors and fondas (houses and inns) became famous for Mexican street food. And so began Tex-Mex.
Today there’s much to love about Houston’s Tex-Mex. It certainly deserves a place among America’s best regional cuisines, not as a trashy or fake Mexican counterpart, but as one of the nation’s most authentic representations of everyday regional foodways, one that captures the storied history of the Lone Star State, its many families and matriarchs and the meshing of Tejano and Anglo cultures. But also a little bit of unbridled lunacy.
Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, 6401 Woodway
Everyone in Houston seems to have a little secret, or maybe it’s no secret at all. They all judge Tex-Mex restaurants based on the cheese enchilada alone. That’s a good thing for Sylvia Casares, also known as the Enchilada Queen, whose menu features 18 enchilada options. When she opened her first restaurant in Rosenberg in 1995, most restaurants were focused on the fajita craze. “That was a major part of their menus, and enchiladas were an afterthought. I was the opposite.”
The key to a good enchilada, she says, starts with the chili gravy. She’s worked on her own recipe to the point that she now deems it a “10,” à la Bo Derek. It takes a full day to make. “A symphony of flavors” is her preferred nomenclature for describing the sauce.
“I’m a native Texan and I grew up on the Mexican-Texas border,” she tells me on an afternoon at her Woodway location over chips and salsa — served hot in temperature and not too spicy — under the breeze of a dozen ceiling fans on a covered deck. Near the gurgling fountain, a squirrel has found a corn chip and makes off toward a tree to feast. “I believe that’s the watermelon of Tex-Mex. We call it the Garden of Eden of Tex-Mex. A lot of these restaurants are from people who got to know Tex-Mex in adulthood. I grew up eating it every day. Good, bad, mother’s, grandmother’s, neighbor’s, whatever. And so I have that native palate.”
Her first menu was simple, composed mostly of combination plates that her cooks helped her learn to make: cheese and beef enchiladas, basic chalupas, crispy tacos. “We didn’t even do tamales,” she says. Today she teaches cooking classes on how to create “rock star”-quality tamale dough.
But it’s still all about the enchiladas here.
An order of the North of the Border and South of the Border platters hits the table, long trays draped with colorful and decadent enchiladas, the plating reminiscent of abstract works of art. It looks haute. But it tastes like home. Well, Casares’s home anyway. “We were always going to the other side, el otro lado we called it, and eating over there, before it got too dangerous with the cartels.”
The Mexican enchiladas are what she says sets her apart from other restaurants. But it’s the enchilada selection as a whole, and the execution, that astound. There are cheese enchiladas cloaked in chili gravy and beef enchiladas almost indecent with thick chili con carne. There’s a crab enchilada; a beef enchilada served pancake-style in stacked layers, popular in El Paso and classically served with cheddar and onions, topped with chili gravy or salsa roja, and in many cases a fried egg. There are spinach enchiladas lathered in salsa verde, and the true standout: The calabacita squash enchiladas doused in a light, white cream sauce that seems sent from the heavens. The one you will go back for, even though it’s vegetarian.
“Calabacita and corn is a skillet meal my mother would prepare with chicken or pork,” she says.
Each enchilada goes through a three-step process. Tortillas are dipped overnight in a chile-based sauce made from mild guajillo peppers. The corn tortillas are heated up in hot oil to become pliable, and then — as soon as an order comes in — they’re filled, rolled and cooked in an oven until bubbling and steaming. “There is no microwave involved. This is labor-intensive.”
These days Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen is a dependable spot for fajita steak. “It took me years of research, reading cookbooks, calling A&M [meat science department] to finally be happy with them,” she says.
The fresh, prime outside skirt steak is cooked over mesquite — the wood of plenty, as she calls it — which turns out a faintly smoky, tender, medium rare bite, one that currently “costs about $14 a pound by the time the meat is all trimmed down and the waste thrown out.”
Still, it’s worth it. Put that slice of beef on a tortilla, made here with the flour her grandmother preferred. “If you go down to the valley, all the fondas and mom-and-pops, they all use White Wings for their tortillas, and it makes a difference. It just tastes better.”
Cyclone Anaya’s, 1710 Durham
“Chips and salsa,” Vienna Valencia Bement says, “can make or break a restaurant too. As a restaurant owner you’re like, what were we thinking; tomatoes are so expensive. But that’s something we’d never, ever charge for. That’s a welcoming.”
Anaya’s salsa is cool, refreshing and plump. It doesn’t easily spill off the corn chip, and may be the most perfectly spicy but balanced welcoming gift of all time. That’s until the queso hits the table. ?“If you want to know a little tip?” Bement says. “Order a side of corn tortillas with your queso and eat it that way. It’s a little messy, but so good.”
Bement and her partner, brother Rico Valencia, have had some time to perfect their family recipes. Their family’s eatery first opened in 1966 when Bement’s father, a famous wrestler from Mexico, Jesús Becerra Valencia, a.k.a. Cyclone Anaya, broke his back and his entertainment career ended. You can find his photo — handsome face, broad, bare chest, hairless and gleaming — on the wall of the restaurant’s seven locations today. He apparently once starred in an obscure Hollywood film as an Aztec god. Her mother, Carolina Berzeny, was a beauty queen from Ohio.
“Their first date was at the Old Mexico. He was in town wrestling and she was Ms. Houston Cowgirl Sweetheart. They met at the Rice Hotel doing interviews.”
With five kids to raise, her parents leased a space on Shepherd, an icehouse with 19 taps. “He had a bad limp,” Bement says of her father, but he still struck fear into the hearts of many, in particular Billy Gibbons, who saddled up one night after a high-school gig in search of a meal.
“What do you want, son?” Cyclone Anaya asked.
“Enchiladas,” the boy mustered.
Bement herself has made her fair share of them. “I’ve shredded cheese so many times, I’m surprised I still have finger tips. I come in today and see the automatic tomato chopper machine and I’m like, that’s just so not fair. I can dice an onion in two seconds, quicker than they can set up the chopper.”
As a kid, she started cooking in back with her mom, who started serving food so the men wouldn’t get too drunk. “We couldn’t serve liquor by the drink back then, but we had beer and wine.”
Her brothers chopped ice. Her grandfather chopped vegetables. Her cousins and aunts pitched in too. Her mother, they always joked, learned Spanish from the kids and how to cook from her husband and his Mexican mother.
The first combination plate her mother served is still a great one to order today, the Summer Special, featuring a sinfully gooey cheese enchilada in chili gravy — though it was originally served with chili con carne — a crispy taco and a bean chalupa. It was the little things her mom did that made every dish special, she says, popping a corn chip into a mound of guacamole like the mast of a sailing vessel and making “phenomenal rice” with sautéed garlic and onion, and tomatoes, carrots and peas.
One thing Houstonians didn’t think was perfect was Cyclone Anaya’s early chili con carne, though. “My mom put beans in her chili. We were the only Mexican restaurant to put beans in our chili. Lots of complaints on that, but actually some people really liked it.”
El Tiempo, 5602 Washington
“Tex-Mex is right up there with chocolate chip cookies; it’s just one of the great comfort foods of the world,” Domenic Laurenzo says. It’s only 9 a.m. at his restaurant El Tiempo on Washington, one of seven locations, but servers are already wiping down tables and polishing silverware, getting ready for the oncoming lunch rush. For Laurenzo, a trained chef and the oldest grandson of “Mama Ninfa” Laurenzo, the Houston restaurateur credited with introducing fajita into the American culinary lexicon, Tex-Mex is a way of life.
You may know the story. The widow Mama Ninfa opens up in 1973, serving tacos al carbon in her struggling tortilla factory on Navigation, where she’s converted the front room into a five-table restaurant. Her kitchen catches on fire. She reopens, but the place stays pretty dead until about 1975. “Everyone that came in would rave about it, but it wasn’t until a city councilman — I don’t remember his name — went over there and had lunch that it reached critical mass,” Laurenzo says. After that it became the place to have business lunches in the downtown area and still is today, though the Laurenzo family is no longer involved.
Ninfa’s boom time was in the ’80s, but by 1996 the family faced financial difficulties and lost everything when creditors pulled the plug and forced them into bankruptcy. “We were trying to expand. We had restaurants all over the place.” Atchafalaya River Cafe. A pizza-by-the-slice spot, Bambolino’s. “We started messing with other stuff instead of sticking close to the knitting and doing what we do best.”
Mama Ninfa signed away her likeness and image. She signed a non-compete and never went back into the restaurant business. Laurenzo and his father, however, immediately plotted out their return while also operating a small burger business located, strangely, in the back of Ninfa’s on Navigation.
“The inspiration behind Ninfa’s was that my grandmother was always cooking her guisados and sharing it with the neighborhood. The aromas would flow through the neighborhood.” It’s the inspiration that Laurenzo has carried over to operating El Tiempo today, with many of the restaurant’s dishes inspired by her cooking.
There’s the carne guisada. The enchiladas Suizas, which come covered in Swiss cheese and a tomatillo sauce blended with heavy cream, turmeric, serranos and spices, all of it combining into a vibrant, practically fluorescent cream sauce. And the carnitas as well, fist-size hunks of pork butt lathered in minced garlic, salt and pepper, and cumin, and fried in pork lard for hours, almost like a braising, and then pulled out to cool. They’re then deep-fried to order.
“‘Fajitas and margaritas’ is our saying,” Laurenzo notes, harking back to Mama Ninfa, whose fajitas and margaritas were often considered a Houston standard. “She created an amazing legacy, one that I carry with me.”
But like the restaurant’s name — el tiempo means “the time” — the menu also continues to march forward. Today many customers believe the restaurant’s take on crab nachos, with lumps of jumbo crabmeat on top of individual chips covered in melty cheese and luscious beans, are the best nachos in Houston.
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, 2704 Navigation
Over at Ninfa’s, the dining room is packed on a Friday at lunchtime. No surprise there. Law firms and big families crowd the room, tables of red and creamy green salsa all over the tables, and in the middle of it all, seated rather candidly behind an ill-placed post, sits famous Astros player Jose Cruz.
From the looks of it, I’m the only person who’s never been here before, and after one bite of queso flameado, that flambéed and sinful white cheese and chorizo stuffed tableside into a perfectly cooked flour tortilla, I understand why. If I’d grown up in Houston, I’d have demanded to be here as much as possible. That’s before the fajitas even hit the table.
When they do, a steaming mixed grill of Ninfa’s famous skirt steak, chopped against the grain, along with smoky, brilliantly tender chicken and the best quail I’ve ever tried — and in my former city, New Orleans, there is a lot of quail to be tried — grilled and not at all fussy, I realize I’m forever finished. I’m ruined. I will dream about tacos al carbon until I die.
Then come the new dishes by chef Alex Padilla. An octopus taco with spicy aioli. Salmon that gives at the lightest touch of fork tine, pairing perfectly with its bed of creamy, buttery polenta. This is Tex-Mex? It very well could be the future of it.
Currently run by Legacy Restaurant Group, the Ninfa’s institution continues to boom well into its 45 years of business, with a $2 million kitchen renovation in 2016 that left the restaurant boasting one of the biggest and baddest mesquite-fired, wood-burning ovens in town. Kitchen staff runs 30 deep — 37 if you count the tortilla ladies out front — headed by Padilla, who moved from Honduras to Houston as a kid and whose own mother worked for Mama Ninfa as a dishwasher back in the day.
Queso asado, or grilled cheese, is a highlight. The white cheese arrives on the table thick as Texas toast, char marks etched into its fleshy surface like prison bars and the square of it cut bunny style, as my grandmother would have called it, down the diagonal. With a dash of accompanying tomatillo, pickled jicama, pineapple and onion, it’s absolutely phenomenal, and probably the lowest-calorie option for queso on the menu.
“That’s Tex-Mex,” Padilla says, looking at my serving on a flour tortilla, the way I’ve neatly arranged it with all of its side items, including one long stem of cilantro. He serves his queso on a ripped shred of corn tortilla with just a light dollop of tomatillo sauce in classic chef fashion, no time to spare. “This,” he says, “is Mexican.”
While Padilla is busy turning folks on to new, progressive dishes with ingredients such as sweetbreads, adobo rabbit and duck confit and high-end reposado, mezcal and sotol, folks in search of old, off-menu items can still find them at Ninfa’s thanks to longtime server Kady Lopez, who has been on the floor for 41 years, a menu-whisperer of bygone eras. Can’t find the dish you loved in 1979 or 1989? She’s your lady.
“People say, ‘I wanna have enchiladas the old-fashioned way.’ The other day I had a customer who wanted something called Chicken Acapulco. There’s a sauce called Dolly sauce, white sauce, which came from Jack Laurenzo’s wife, his first wife. People ask for it; it’s not on the menu anymore, but I give it to them because we have the ingredients. I always give it to them.”
Lopez’s own sister, Tina, has worked at Ninfa’s as a server for 35 years, and co-worker Omar Cepeda for 30. Many customers call them on their cell phones to reserve tables, Lopez tells me, especially on the way home from the airport. Apparently that’s a thing — calling in for your queso fix the second you touch down on the tarmac. But if you don’t have Lopez’s number, don’t worry.
“The baldheaded guy is on vacation,” she says, referring to Cepeda. “But he’ll be back next month.”
El Real, 1201 Westheimer
Back in Montrose, Walsh takes me up to El Real’s second-floor dining area, where Houston institution Felix has been preserved and put on display, from its cases of memorabilia and old ephemera to the dining chairs and the very doors that resided in its dining room for decades up the block where Uchi is now located. I’ve heard that people who ate at Felix would never venture to other Tex-Mex eateries.
Back downstairs, I chow down on The Roosevelt Special, an enchilada with fried egg served over it, and think about what Walsh said, how it all started with chili con carne. If that’s the case, the chili gravy here is a testament to the history of Tex-Mex. It’s a meatier version of the roux-based gravies around town, and the house-ground seasoning powder makes its fresh presence known. I take turns eating the enchilada, scooping up queso with chips and taking sips of a top-shelf margarita. This, I believe, is the essence of Tex-Mex.
I’m handed a puffy taco full of smoked chicken out of the Southern Pride smoker. “I hate these things for barbecue,” Walsh had told me on my kitchen tour. “But I love them for Tex-Mex.” Indeed, the chicken is smoky and succulent, the corn tortilla puffy and crisp on the outside, still pliable on the inside, practically melting in the mouth, but isn’t everything in the land of Tex-Mex?
That’s when a small plate of fajita arrives.
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SHOW ME HOW
Walsh tells me that not many places still actually serve fajita, or the “little belt” of outside skirt, because of cattle regulations — something to do with the meat being redesignated as offal back in the ’90s and being sold in large part to Japan and other parts of Asia, instead of here in the States. There are places, he informs me, that serve meat loaded with enzymes that will keep tenderizing the meat until it turns to mush, even after it’s cooked.
At El Real, you will still be served the hard-to-find outside skirt, cut against the grain. Everything here is traditional. I take a bite and another. It’s delicious. Walsh wants me to guess the ingredients in the marinade, but the only one I can pick up is pineapple.
I ask him what his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant is and he responds that it’s his own, but I’m pretty certain his allegiance just lies in the history of Tex-Mex itself.
When I ask if he thinks the cuisine will continue to change, to become more progressive, he gives me a resounding “no” anyways. Then he tells me the other ingredient in the marinade. It’s not a rare chile or some German’s mass-marketed seasoning blend or even a Canary Islander’s exotic cumin spice that dates back to the border towns you might pluck right out of some old, gritty Western film. No. It’s soy sauce.