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Naked Posole

Posole is a traditional Mexican soup from the Jalisco region that has become a popular weekend breakfast in Texas and New Mexico. At Taqueria Mexico on Bellaire Boulevard, the soup comes in a giant bowl with big chunks of pork and plenty of hominy. It looks a little naked -- until you start adding the extras. On my visit there, the parade of garnishes never seemed to stop. The waitress made at least three trips to carry them all.

First, there's chopped raw cabbage and radish slices on the plate beside the soup. Then, on another plate, there are chopped onions, chopped serranos, chopped cilantro and lime quarters. In a small bowl, you also get dried Mexican oregano. Flour tortillas, corn tortillas and whole tostadas come in the tortilla warmer. These are in addition to the traditional Tex-Mex basket of chips. With the chips, the waitress brought an old-fashioned stainless-steel condiment holder with three bowls -- one filled with neatly arranged pickled jalapeño halves, carrot slices and cauliflower florets, and the other two stocked with red and green salsas.

By the time I finished doctoring my soup, it was dense with brightly colored additives. First, I shredded the pork, which was so tender I could break it up with a spoon. Then I added the cabbage, radishes, onions, cilantro and most of the serrano chiles and dusted the top with lots of dried oregano. I squeezed in the juice from four lime wedges and experimentally crumbled in some of the tostada, like you do when you eat tortilla soup. Enthusiastically garnished, the soup was fantastic.


Taqueria Mexico

6219 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-271-0251.

Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Egg-and-chorizo taco: $1.25
Taco al pastor: $1.25
Tacos al carbon lunch special: $5.99
Posole: $4.99
Nopalitos gorditas: $2.25

"It looks like it's going to taste greasy," my tablemate said, noting the orange film on top as she sampled some. "But actually it's really good."

My dining companion loves restaurants that provide lots of opportunities for audience participation. She likes to play with her food. In fact, I've never seen her eat a taco (or a sandwich) without first taking it apart, rearranging the contents, adding condiments and putting it back together in a new form. Thanks to the many little dishes of extras on our table, she instantly fell in love with Taqueria Mexico. "Look, the water even comes with a wedge of lemon," she said, smiling as she squeezed.

She was also pleasantly surprised by the cheery decor. Taqueria Mexico has been in business for 25 years at this location. (There are two sister restaurants on Fondren and Winkler.) But the restaurant doesn't show its age. The walls recently were painted a comforting shade of pumpkin, which sets off the saltillo tile floors. There's a small bar area in the front with fluorescent fixtures, but my companion insisted that we sit in the large dining room in back, which was warmly lit with recessed incandescent lighting and lots of sunny windows.

The view was lovely, but her huevos mexicanos -- scrambled eggs with tomatoes, peppers and onions -- weren't all that great. The red, green and white vegetables represent the colors of the Mexican flag, hence the name. Unfortunately, Taqueria Mexico's griddle was too hot, so there was an additional color: the brown outside of the eggs.

Luckily, the creamy refried pinto beans and home-style fried potatoes served on either side of them were awesome. My tablemate amused herself by rolling up breakfast tacos in ever-changing combinations of ingredients and condiments. She washed them down with a rotation of three beverages: black coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and ice water with a squeeze of lemon.

On another visit to Taqueria Mexico, my daughter and I were both impressed with the restaurant's extensive beverage selection -- she with the choice of tamarind, jamaica, pineapple, horchata and lemon aguas frescas, and I with the nearly two dozen tequilas on display. A full bar seems odd in a humble taqueria, but Houston Press music editor John Lomax tells me that a lot of taquerias are adding bars these days, because it allows them to have a smoking section.

We ordered dinner to go, and while we waited, my daughter and I got something to drink. She got an horchata and pronounced it excellent. I got a shot of Cazadores tequila with a sangrita chaser. Cazadores, which has a stag's head on the label, is one of my favorite "bottom shelf" silver tequilas. It has a woody aroma and a slightly sweet flavor but finishes fairly smooth. Sangrita, the traditional Mexican tequila accompaniment, is made with citrus juice and chiles. This one was quite spicy. If you actually like the taste of tequila, then drinking it with a sangrita chaser is a nice change from sugary margaritas.

Of our take-home items, I liked the tacos al pastor, which are double corn tortilla tacos filled with marinated pork that's grilled crispy and chopped into chunks. The nopalito gordita tasted good but had become a gloppy mess by the time we got it home. The chicken mole enchilada dinner was on special for $3.99. We tried to keep it level in the car, but the beans sloshed into the light brown mole sauce. It tasted great anyway.

The caldo de camarón, or shrimp soup, was a little disappointing. The shrimp were plentiful, but they were too small and too soft. The broth was tasty but light on vegetables. All in all, the caldo wasn't up to the high standards set by Super La Mexicana on Stella Link, my daughter's favorite place for shrimp soup.

I stopped by for breakfast on another occasion and was told the breakfast plates, which are listed on the menu at $3.25, were all on special for $1.99. So I got the huevos con chorizo plate, which was tasty, although I found the sausage a little gristly. The homemade flour tortillas, hand-cut fried potatoes and smooth refried beans were all spectacular. The waitress, a young hottie from Uruguay, brought me a condiment I had never seen served with a Mexican breakfast before: Heinz ketchup. I put some warm red sauce on the plate for my chorizo-and-egg tacos and some ketchup for the fried potatoes. It was a unique experience.

Houston taquerias all have their specialties. At Laredo Taqueria on Patton, it's the awesome calabacitas; at Gorditas Aguascalientes on Bissonnet, the chilaquiles rule; so far, the posole is my choice at Taqueria Mexico, but I'm still working my way through the menu. Judging by the food I saw on other people's tables, the Hispanic blue-collar clientele seems to favor tacos al carbon with hot sauce and cold beer for lunch.

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So on a recent lunch visit, my dining companion and I gave the tacos a try. The lunch special gets you three double corn tortilla tacos filled to overflowing with well-charred beef -- it appeared to be fajita meat. My companion said the meat was very flavorful but incredibly tough. I challenged her to count the number of times it took her to chew a bite.

As I recall, health authorities used to say you should chew each bite of food 30 times for proper digestion. It took my lunchmate 76 toothstrokes to get through her fajita meat. I figured she was exaggerating, so I took a big bite of the taco myself. It took me 73. Good exercise for your jaw muscles, I told her. Besides, as anybody who has spent any time in Mexico can attest, tough beef is pretty typical Mexican food.

Taqueria Mexico is frequented mainly by Hispanics. I have never seen it reviewed or mentioned in any publication. But there's a famous interior Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks down Bellaire that's been written about extensively in the local and national press. Pico's Mex-Mex, whose clientele is mainly gringo, has been lauded by the Houston Chronicle, Gourmet magazine and Texas Monthly for pioneering "authentic Mexican cuisine" in Houston.

I love Pico's. It has a way with that quintessential Tex-Mex cocktail, the margarita, that barrio taquerias can't touch. But if you're looking for huevos con chorizo on a weekday morning, a bowl of posole on the weekend, or simple, honest Mexican food at bargain prices, I suggest you skip the "authentic Mexican food" at Pico's and go eat with the "authentic Mexicans" at Taqueria Mexico a few blocks down the street.

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