There was a fried mojarra on display on the front counter as we walked in the door of Taquería Jesus Maria on Spencer Highway. One look at the big fish changed my mind about what to order for dinner.
I was eager to eat some Tex-Mex after being out of Texas for a while. I had cheese enchiladas in mind when my friend Jay Francis picked me up at Hobby Airport. It was a short drive from the airport to Taquería Jesus Maria, where they have some pretty fine Tejano plates. But the whole tilapia looked too good to miss — it was scored to the bone, seasoned and fried until it was extra-crispy and served on a plate covered with french fries, lettuce and tomato and Spanish rice. And it was on special for $5.99.
The low-priced specials at Taquería Jesus Maria are the first thing you notice –they're displayed on the sign out front — breakfast $2.29, lunch $4.99, dinner $5.99.
Taqueria Jesus Maria
1106 Spencer Hwy., 713-943-8822.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays.
Enchiladas Gringas: $8.49
Rib steak: $9
Fajitas for two: $10
"Do you want flour or corn tortillas, or bolillos?" the waitress asked when I requested the fish.
"Get the bolillos," Francis advised. "Then you can say you ate loaves and fishes at Jesus Maria."
"But then I would have to pass on those heavenly handmade corn tortillas," I said. I got the corn tortillas and made some spectacular crispy fish, lettuce, tomato and salsa tacos.
They serve two salsas at Jesus Maria, a very fresh-tasting pureed pico and a more complex cooked red sauce. The chips are kind of weird — they taste like they are baked instead of fried.
To satisfy my Tex-Mex cravings, I also ordered a plate of nachos. The plate of tortilla chips came covered with overlapping pools of refried beans and queso topped with a huge puddle of sour cream.
Francis inexplicably ordered "Costilla Borracho," which the menu described as a "rib steak served with rice, ranchero beans, salad, pico de gallo, guacamole, onions and radish" for $8.99. "Never order steak at a pancake house — or a Tex-Mex restaurant," I lectured Jay. But he was fairly happy with his enormous rib steak and the mountain of fixin's. The ranchero beans had huge gobs of bacon floating around in them.
It wasn't a normal-looking rib eye steak; rather, it was a huge flat steak with a C-shaped bone at one end. There was some very tender meat alternating with some tough meat and gristle. Francis didn't have a lot of luck carving the monster with the butter knife provided.
So he got up and walked out to his car and returned with a small chef's knife he had with him for some reason. He was happily sawing away at his gristle-bomb of a steak when the manager showed up at our table. The man handed Francis a steak knife and told him he would have to get the dangerous-looking cuchillo out of the restaurant immediately.
That's the problem with taking a character like food explorer Jay Francis to South Houston — you just never know when he is going to get kicked out of the joint for pulling a knife or something.
Breakfast is the most amazing deal offered at Jesus Maria. Huevos rancheros, huevos mexicana, huevos con chorizo and huevos revueltos (scrambled) with bacon or ham are $2.29. It used to be even cheaper — it was raised from $1.99 not that long ago.
More expensive breakfast dishes like machacado con huevos, migas and chilaquiles are also available. There's menudo and posole on the weekends too.
I got the huevos rancheros, which were served with fresh-made ranchero sauce, two strips of bacon, refried beans and handmade flour tortillas. But I ruined the bargain by getting posole on the side.
The pork and hominy stew came in a broth that was tinted brick-red by the high concentration of dried chiles. There was a little bowl of shredded cabbage, radishes and lime quarters served on the side. The meat was a little gristly, but the broth was terrific.
I don't think I'd go back to Jesus Maria for the posole, though. The posole extravaganza at Taqueria Mexico on Bellaire [see "Naked Posole," November 10, 2005] is much more impressive. And at $3.99, the small bowl of soup was almost twice as much as the rest of the breakfast at Jesus Maria.
Breakfast tacos are $1.50. I took several home, and my housemates were quite impressed with the humongous size of the overstuffed handmade tortillas and the fresh salsa that came on the side.
So is this restaurant owned by a saintly woman and her longhaired son? I asked the waitress in Spanish on a lunch visit. Or are the owners devout Catholics?
Neither, she replied. The restaurant is named after the town of Jesus Maria in the state of Jalisco a couple of hours' drive east of Guadalajara. Which is not far from another Jalisco village with a taquería named after it — Arandas.
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Like Taqueria Arandas, Jesus Maria has a huge menu with an interesting assortment of dishes most of us consider authentic Mexican mixed up with lots of good old-fashioned Tex-Mex. And like Arandas, the restaurant is clearly targeted at the Spanish-speaking market.
Yes, that's right, Mexican nationals love Tex-Mex. While fancy "authentic Mexican" restaurants for gabachos insist they don't serve Tex-Mex, truly Mexican taquerías where nobody even speaks English are dishing up fajitas, nachos and cheese enchiladas along with the regional Mexican specialties. So where would you rather eat?
The $4.99 lunch specials at Jesus Maria were tempting, but I wanted to try the enchiladas. So I ordered Number 20 on the "Tejano Plates" section of the menu, an item called "Enchiladas Gringas." The dish consists of three enchiladas stuffed with your choice of chicken, beef or cheese and topped with chile con carne and chile con queso, with rice and beans on the side. I got the beef filling, which turned out to be a rich picadillo of ground beef with onions, roasted carrots and seasonings.
I once had a similar plate of three enchiladas topped with the cholesterol-heavy combo of chili con carne and chile con queso at the Palmetto Inn on South Padre Island. There it was nicknamed the "heart attack on a plate." Jesus Maria's version of the dish was excellent, if a little on the heavy side. In the interest of heart-healthy dining, I gave up after eating two of the enchiladas and most of the beans.