The refried beans lie in a flat puddle beside my enchiladas. I spread some on a hot handmade flour tortilla and roll it up into a refried bean taco. The beans are as slick and satisfying as a mouthful of butter. This is what the frijoles used to taste like before the food police figured out what "manteca" meant.
The chicken enchiladas are baked in a green tomatillo sauce and topped with a layer of sour cream. The combination of starchy tortillas, tender chicken, tart green tomatoes and rich sour cream is exquisite.
Ever since I wrote The Tex-Mex Cookbook, people have asked me, "Where do you go for old-fashioned Tex-Mex in Houston?" Lately, I find myself recommending the three locations of La Fiesta. The retro Tex-Mex menu is identical at all three, but each has its own unique atmosphere.
You won't see the original La Fiesta location in the Bunker Hill Shopping Center unless you're really looking for it. The front of the restaurant faces south (away from the freeway) on a driveway accessible from Bunker Hill. But once you make your way inside, you'll find one of those Tex-Mex time capsules that are fast disappearing.
The little 30-table joint opened in 1972. The bucolic murals painted on one wall of the interior are especially charming. This style of Tex-Mex-restaurant decoration traces its lineage all the way back to the murals of peasant life painted on the walls of the Original Mexican Restaurant, which opened in San Antonio in 1899.
About the time that the first La Fiesta was being built, Tex-Mex was undergoing some major changes. Local option elections for liquor by the drink were approved by the Texas legislature in 1971. For the next several years, there was a booming market for Mexican restaurants serving the new drink sensation, frozen margaritas. Then in 1973, Ninfa's began the fajita frenzy in Houston with their "tacos al carbón."
As a result, La Fiesta's menu straddles two eras. There are plenty of Tex-Mex combination plates and old-fashioned favorites like chalupas and tostadas; and then there's the "modern-style" menu items that were emerging in the 1970s, like sizzling fajitas and frozen margaritas. La Fiesta does it all surprisingly well, at unbelievably cheap prices.
The La Fiesta on Westheimer was the first one I visited. It was a Saturday evening after a day of errands and chores. Our group was sweaty and hungry. We were clad in dirty shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, and we had an unruly infant in tow. Our destination was a Mexican restaurant called Cantina Laredo at Wilcrest and Westheimer.
While we were looking for a space in the crowded parking lot the restaurant shares with Whole Foods, a couple walked by on the way to Cantina Laredo's front door. She was an attractive blond in tight jeans and a designer top, and he was wearing a natty silk shirt. There was an awkward silence as we watched them walk by the car. And then, to everyone's relief, I suggested that we go to a different restaurant.
A block farther down Westheimer, we pulled into the empty parking lot of the aging and forlorn-looking La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant. I had never heard of the place. There were some doubts expressed from the backseat drivers, but I convinced the skeptics it was worth a try.
The La Fiesta at Westheimer and Hayes was built in 1995. It is a freestanding building in the parking lot of an aging shopping center. On the sign out front, above the words La Fiesta, two anthropomorphic beans wearing oversize sombreros play a trumpet and a guitar while a cactus accompanies them on the marimbas. Maybe that's why I instinctively trusted the place.
Inside, we found a darkened interior with neon beer signs and old vinyl-covered booths. A busboy set up a vintage high chair. The baby immediately began banging the stainless steel tray like a gong. We tried to shut the kid up, but the bored waiters thought it was funny. And the only other people in the restaurant had a baby of their own. So we relaxed way back into our booth, ordered frozen margaritas and let our eyes adjust to the soothing darkness.
We dug into the good old-fashioned combination plates with glee. I loved the Tejano Plate, a pile of tamales covered with taco meat, chili gravy and queso. The cheese enchiladas were oozing chili gravy and yellow cheese, but I wished they were made with the same processed cheese that they put in the queso. The fajitas were grilled to order, not pulled out of a steam table. The meat was tender and nicely charred with lots of caramelized onions and green peppers on the sizzling comal, and the tortillas were handmade.
"Good call," my tablemates agreed once we were through with our first margaritas.
On my second visit to the Westheimer La Fiesta, I tried to order a dish that wasn't on the menu. "Enchiladas montadas" is an order of enchiladas topped with a fried egg. The manager told me that usually they had some eggs in the kitchen for the chile relleno batter, but they were out of them today. He encouraged me to try again. He also told me about the other La Fiesta locations.
All three restaurants are owned by the Gonzalez family, I was told. I stopped by the La Fiesta location at Kirkwood and I-10 for lunch one day to see how it compared. This restaurant has only been open for two years. The square box interior was the least interesting of the three. It was also by far the most antiseptic. If you judge Tex-Mex restaurants by cleanliness, this is the La Fiesta for you.
I got the cheese enchilada lunch special just to compare the food. The enchiladas were identical. The only difference I noticed was that the pico de gallo here was inferior. It was a nasty tomato mush in a pool of liquid instead of a well-blended mix of tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. Or maybe it was just the bottom of the barrel.
In the case of most Tex-Mex chains, I love the original location and loathe the clones. But in the case of La Fiesta, I like the 12-year-old second location on Westheimer the best. The original La Fiesta at Bunker Hill and I-10 is charming, but it's also crowded. The wait staff screwed up several of our orders, and it took forever to get their attention.
Maybe I just like the Westheimer location the best because on my last visit, they actually did have some eggs in the kitchen. So I finally got my enchiladas montadas. I started with an order of two beef enchiladas and had them topped with a fried egg. I asked for lots of raw onions and sprinkled them over the top. It was the best Tex-Mex lunch I've had in a long time.