Dining Deals

Molina's Cantina: 70 Years of Tex-Mex in Houston

Earlier this year, when Molina's Cantina ran a 50 percent Groupon (Buy $15, get $30 worth of food), I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw the number sold: a whopping 4,012 Groupons. I'd never tried Molina's, and it was amazing to me how a Tex-Mex restaurant could be so popular. But that was before I knew more about its 70-year history in Houston, the numerous dedicated employees who have worked there for 20 years or more, and the fact that they have such a long history that their menu is littered with specials -- the "CW Special," the "William's Special," "Raulito's Shrimp Special" and more -- that were named after and/or created by longtime customers and friends.

It's not the history that makes the restaurant, however. It's the food: down-home, honest-to-goodness tasty Tex-Mex that has people coming back regularly.

For me, it started with the chips and salsa. Wispy, super-thin, crispy and light chips without even a hint of greasy oil had me paying attention, fast. Combined with Jose's dip, a creamy queso with some Mexican ground beef in it, they were so addictive, I had to shove away the basket so I wouldn't eat the whole thing myself.

I looked around the room while sipping my frozen margarita on a recent Friday night to see a packed dining area filled with casually dressed families and groups of friends. The atmosphere was lively, with festive music playing in the background and uniformed servers walking quickly back and forth, wielding large silver trays holding sizzling creations and large plates topped with hot melted cheese.

I made a point of trying their Enchiladas de Tejas, cheese enchiladas topped with chili con carne, melted cheese and chopped onions. The flavors were hearty, rich and deep, and the cheese... That vaunted melted cheese center oozed when I cut into the enchilada with a fork, spilling forth as if to say "eat me now!" How could I not clean the plate with so tempting an enticement?

My friend ordered the Williams Special, carne asada with grilled onions and two cheese enchiladas, and despite the fact that my stomach was full of enchiladas and chips and dip, I had a moment of food envy when I took a bite of her carne asada. It reminded me of when I first tasted the Cordua's famed churrasco steak - tender, smoky, flavorful, delicious.

By the time dessert rolled around, I wanted to say no but succumbed to my friend's urging and ordered the flan. Less dense than Mexican flans made elsewhere, this one was delicate like silken tofu, the burnt caramel topping rendered to perfection. A spiked Mexican hot chocolate, full of enough liquor to give me a slight buzz, was a fitting end to our night, which was pretty great as far as Tex-Mex outings go.

So now I know why Molina's sold 4,000-plus Groupons. I also understand their longevity, and the fact that this month marks their 70th anniversary in business. Molina's is like a tightly run ship, producing high-quality, savory Tex-Mex for all generations. It's also a family business, and when I say family, I don't just mean the ones with the last name Molina. It's the family that consists of employees who have stayed for generations, brothers who have taken over where their parents left off, and patrons who have been coming to Molina's for decades.

In honor of their 70th anniversary, Molina's is running amazing daily specials all month, like their 41 cent crispy taco or 70 cent cheese enchilada dinner, rollback prices corresponding to what they cost in 1941. The specials are being announced every morning on Facebook and Twitter, so if you didn't buy their 50 percent off Groupon, don't worry. You can still get in on some pretty awesome deals this month.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham