Most diners in Houston have more than a handful of favorite Mexican restaurants in their dining out rotation. In our booming city, one can find the upscale, creative cooking of James Beard-award winning chef Hugo Ortega, the handmade tamales of someone's abuela and a multitude of Tex-Mex joints ranging from simple taquerias to colorful, family-friendly dining spots. We all have our favorite chips and salsa restaurant. Some of us judge a Mexican place by its margaritas, some by its queso. Others are seriously obsessed with finding the ultimate cheese enchilada plate with the best chili gravy. With such a bounty of fajitas and charro beans at our disposal, does Houston really need another Mexican restaurant? Yes. Yes, we do.
While writing the Openings and Closings for the Houston Press, I discovered that a new Mexican spot had recently opened October 27 near my house. La Corona is located in Vintage Park, a Tuscan-style retail and office complex that houses some of Houston's most popular restos like Peli Peli, El Tiempo and Mia Bella. Vintage Park's fountains and town plaza atmosphere draw in the Cypress, Klein and Spring area folks and the development continues to add more tenants.
My daughter and I decided to check out La Corona for lunch. It's located at the east end of Vintage Park which makes parking a lot easier than the area close to the main square. When we walked in, we noticed that there were a few Mexican touches like the papel picados hanging across the restaurant. The colorful cut out banners add a festive touch to an interior that's a bit unique for a Mexican spot in Houston. The light-colored wood dining chairs would look more at home in a mid-century ranch, but the effect is contemporary and clean. Along the walls are wood-carved booths, with animals and flowers. We were told by one of the owners, Martin Medina, that they were made in his hometown of Celaya in the region of Guanajuato, Mexico.
And the benches are not the only artwork that reflects the Guanajuato heritage. The metamorphic prints of Don Quixote and the famous "Skull" painting are by another native son, Octavio Ocampo. In fact, Guanajuato has a particular fondness for Miguel de Cervantes, so the print of Quixote fits with the theme.
We were greeted and sat quickly as there were only a couple of other diners. We missed the lunch rush, fortunately. I ordered a frozen margarita and my daughter had an orange Fanta. The chips were delivered in a little black iron basket, a touch classier than the usual plastic. The green salsa is a tomatillo/jalapeno blend and was the favorite of my daughter's. I preferred the red salsa, which tasted rather familiar to me. I soon found out why.
When our waiter arrived, we recognized him from another of our favorite Mexican restaurants that had, for the past year, gone to the end of our list. The quality of the food had diminished, though the service was still very good. Our waiter told us the owners had sold the other restaurant and La Corona was their new business. It certainly was a step up from the velvet paintings and well worn booths at the old spot.
I ordered the beef tacos al carbon lunch special and my daughter chose the Acapulco dinner. We admired the platters that our meals were served on, but forgot to ask if the dishware was also from Guanajuato The steak in the tacos was tender and juicy, with the right amount of sear, though the small cubes were a little strange to me and kept falling out of the homemade tortilla. It does prevent, however the dilemma of biting into a fajita taco and pulling out a long strip of steak and half the insides. Speaking of insides, I could have used more pico de gallo with the garnish. The guacamole, however, had nice thick chunks of avocado. Still, I love me some pico.
The taco in the Acapulco dinner was served with a light green shell and was pretty average as far as tacos go. The queso on the tortilla puff was pretty basic as well. You may need to add a little salsa to kick it up a notch.
When I tasted the charros beans, they were pretty much the same as the ones served at the former restaurant, with a slightly sweet spice that I haven't been able to identify. My daughter really liked the cheese enchiladas that came with the Acapulco dinner. The gravy was dark and flavorful, with plenty of chili powder. For $8.75, it was a good deal for lunch.
I visited La Corona another night with the whole family. Both teens chose the cheese enchiladas, which are a bit pricey for dinner at $13, but the Vintage Park rents are also pricey. I got the stuffed avocado with beef fajita ($14). It was lightly battered and there was restraint with the cheese, just enough to make a happy trinity with the tender beef skirt and avocado. It's served with a beef fajita taco and charro beans.
My husband enjoyed the tilapia fish tacos, which were perfectly cooked. I am not a fan of tilapia, myself. The fish on its own was a bit bland, but the chipotle crema gave the tacos the flavor they needed. My husband especially like the refried beans, which were served with whole beans rather than the pureed slop that some restaurants serve. They were also nicely seasoned. However, the fluffy rice yet again needed something more.
The service was very good and we talked with the former manager from the other restaurant who had transferred to the new business. Both owners were on hand, mingling with guests and clearing plates when needed. It's good to see owners who take pride in their establishment.
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And that pride shows in the choices made in the decor, with artwork and furnishings representing the Guanajuato region of Mexico. In doing my research, I found that this might be a travel destination for me one day, because I was drawn in by the culture, art and history of a area that I had never heard of before. Perhaps, in the future, the owners might incorporate a little more of the cuisine of Guanajuato into the menu. I would love to see house specials like gorditas and tamales that represent the region. Obviously, tamales are labor intensive, but methinks Houston could do with more restaurants serving homemade tamales.
La Corona's lunch special and happy hour margaritas are a very good deal. The restaurant also serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 8 a.m. At dinner, you will be paying about $4 more per entree than the lunch menu. Still, in an area that is teeming with restaurants, this gives diners a mid-range Mexican option that reflects the enthusiasm and pride of the owners and staff.
La Corona Mexican Restaurant
106 Vintage Park Boulevard, Suite A
Houston, Texas 77070