A diner would be hard pressed to find better stateside Mexican food than in the Bayou City. Sure, San Antonio and Austin put up a good fight, but are they home to Hugo’s, Xochi, or Cuchara? Can any city claim to hold a candle to Houston’s roster of genre defining Tex-Mex kitchens? The answer, unequivocally, is no. Houston is the undisputed king of Mexican food north of the Rio Grande. It also happens to boast the most ethnically diverse population in America.
Among the city’s ethnic communities are Latinos from every imaginable corner of the Spanish-speaking world. From as far as Patagonia, to as close to home as Havana, Houston’s Latino residents have spent decades infusing their cuisines into the fabric of this city. Unfortunately, given the overwhelming number of Tex-Mex and Mex-Mex options, many Houston residents are woefully unfamiliar with the bulk of these incredible eateries. This article aims to shine a well-deserved light on merely a handful of these establishments, in hopes that readers will take it upon themselves to further explore these charming and culturally rich cuisines.
Originally from Spain, colonialism brought the empanada to the New World where it has evolved and split off into several unique regional varieties. Nowhere is the empanada more integral to the national cuisine than in Argentina. The Argentine empanada is what many consider a true empanada.
Having recently been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, the Marini family’s empanada house is, by now, far from obscure. Although the original Westheimer location burned down in 1985, the Marinis reopened in Katy back in 2004 and again on Westheimer in 2007. All said, this family has been serving Houstonians empanadas for three generations.
Their most traditional offering is likely the Beef “Gaucho”: seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, olives, and onions wrapped gently into a pocket of deep fried dough. Unlike the characteristically crunchy Colombian empanada, the Argentine variety retains a soft doughy bite while staying firm and crisp on the outside.
Of course, empanadas come in endless varieties. Throughout Latin America, sweet empanadas area a staple dessert item. Perhaps none more so than the classic dulce de leche. At Marini’s, several of the sweet empanadas feature dulce de leche. Among them, the sweet and savory family classic, Grandma Marini; a unique fusion of dulce de leche and mozzarella that will turn an unprepared palette on its head (in a good way).
What makes Colombian food so special is its utilitarian nature. This is salt of the earth cuisine. Calories and comfort for a long day of work. From ramen to jambalaya, working class cultures produce some of the best dishes on earth. In Colombia, the blue-collar equivalent of such a meal is the Bandeja Paisa. While the exact components vary from kitchen to kitchen, the paisa at La Fogata is comprised of the following: white rice, beans, skirt steak, Colombian sausage, thick cut chicharron, fried egg, half an avocado, plantains, and an arepa to boot. The lunch serving is prepared sans arepa and sausage. If one has the appetite for it, a pre-meal empanada is a must.
The Colombian empanada, as previously mentioned, is made of a much thicker and crunchier fried dough than the soft Argentina variety. One may choose to dive right in or use a fork to crack the hard-fried shell. Inside, the stuffing of seasoned beef, onion, and potato is best doused in a spoonful of the house salsa. Diners may also order one of La Fogata’s signature fruit drinks such as the fresh mango or guava smoothies. This obscenely authentic Colombian kitchen, located in a nondescript shopping center off Highway 59 and Wilcrest, is a southwest institution and a genuine Houston treasure.
There exists a sad reality about Cuban food that has been voiced by those who visit the Caribbean island in the post Revolution era. Due to strict rationing and widespread poverty, finding noteworthy Cuban food on the island is more difficult than most tourists would imagine. While Havana is no doubt home to the most authentic and true-to-form renditions of its own cuisine, Cuban chefs in the United States enjoy the luxury of high quality and abundant ingredients. As such, some of the best Cuban food in the world can be found in the U.S.
While Houston is no Miami in the realm of Cuban eateries, it does proudly boast its own handful of highly authentic establishments. Top among those is undoubtedly Cafe Piquet. This celebrated locale has been a Bellaire institution for 20 years. Though the Piquet menu is brimming with authentic fare, none is more celebrated than the national dish of Cuba, Ropa Vieja. Roughly translated to mean “old rags”, the dish is significantly more enticing than the name suggests. A plate of pulled beef, slow cooked and marinated in a tomato and wine sauce with chopped green chilis and heavy Caribbean seasoning. It comes served with traditional rice and black beans, a side of fried plantains, and has been known to melt in one’s mouth like a slow smoked Texas brisket.
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Last on this admittedly brief list is the latest gem in the all-star roster of Houston area Latin cafes. Latino Bites Express opened less than a year ago in northwest Pearland, near Highway 288 and the South Beltway. What makes this hole in the wall cafe so exciting is both its authentic street food ambiance and its wide-ranging menu of South and Central American favorites. The grab and go kitchen is both a crash course on Latin cuisine and a nostalgic taste of home for many Houston residents.
The menu is geared toward fast, eat with your hands items such as empanadas from both Argentina and Colombia, arepa sandwiches and fried tequeños (cheese sticks) from Venezuela, Mexican street tacos, and possibly the only Cuban jibarito in all of Houston (a beef or chicken sandwich where the buns are fried plantains). Latino Bites represents an exciting development for Latin cuisine in Houston, a fusion of both an authentic experience and a casual one normally reserved for burgers and craft beer.
This list provides only a small window into the depth of Houston’s Latin offerings. Without tasting a single taco or fajita, a person could lose himself in a months-long culinary adventure attempting to discover all the Latin food in this city (a feat that readers are strongly encouraged to attempt). While this is a town known primarily for its Mexican and Southeast Asian culinary experiences, the streets of Houston hold many treasures. An enterprising person merely needs to look a little closer.