It's been more than a century since the first Tex-Mex restaurant opened in Houston. George Caldwell brought The Original Mexican Restaurant to our city in 1907, influenced -- most agree -- by a restaurant of the same name in his hometown of San Antonio.
It would be another 20 years before Felix Mexican Restaurant opened on Lower Westheimer as one of the Tex-Mex restaurants that -- along with Ninfa's, Molina's and Leo's -- would define the genre in Houston. And it would take at least 40 more years before the cuisine had a definitive name: Tex-Mex, used to qualify a cuisine that neither purely Mexican nor purely Texan but an organic fusing of a blend of cultures throughout the region.
Diana Kennedy didn't see it that way, however, and the famous cookbook author dismissed Tex-Mex as Americanized Mexican food served at "so-called Mexican restaurants." This didn't sit well with Texans or Tejanos, who'd been serving what they simply referred to as "Mexican food" for decades.
"Texas-Mexican restaurant owners considered it an insult," wrote former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh in his introduction to a six-part series on the history of Tex-Mex in 2000. To this day, you can usually bet that if a Texan says, "Let's go out for Mexican," you know they're talking about Tex-Mex.
Although Leo's and Felix are both closed now, Ninfa's is still recognized as the birthplaces of fajitas and Molina's as the standard bearer for the classic Tex-Mex dish of cheese enchiladas topped with chili con carne. And although Kennedy was initially dismissive of the genre, Tex-Mex is now considered to be America's first regional cuisine -- beloved not just in Texas, but throughout the world.
It's fajitas and enchiladas dishes that continue to define Tex-Mex cuisine in Houston, as much as frozen margaritas in Dallas, or the way the puffy taco symbolizes Tex-Mex in San Antonio. In compiling this list, I wanted to spotlight the 10 restaurants in Houston that preserve the standards of these beloved dishes -- the fajitas, the cheese enchiladas, the chili con queso, the margarita -- and serve as cultural touchstones for the history of the cuisine itself.
Note: In order to be considered for this list, a restaurant must serve the Houston Tex-Mex trifecta of fajitas, enchiladas and margaritas.
El Tiempo, Guadalajara, Los Tios, Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, Irma's and Lankford Grocery (on enchilada days).
10. La Fiesta
From the outside, this Tex-Mex restaurant looks like another strip center sadsack at the corner of the Katy Freeway and Kirkwood. Inside, however, you'll find it consistently packed -- and somewhat of a neighborhood secret out in Memorial. La Fiesta (which first opened in 1972) used to have additional locations, but this is one of two left (and the better of the pair). Service is king here, and the waiters tend to remember you and your entire family after only one visit. Guacamole is made tableside and deftly seasoned, perfect for smearing on a hot flour tortilla with some equally well-seasoned beef fajitas. Cheese enchiladas are gooey and wonderful and covered with classic chili gravy.
9. Don Carlos
There is absolutely nothing fancy about Don Carlos, and that's what I like about it. It's resolutely old-fashioned, from the Brandy Alexanders you can order after dinner to the friendly waitresses who seem to have been there for decades. The tart, sweet frozen margarita here is one of the best around; it's terrifically cheap and consistently good. Ditto the slim-cut but juicy beef and chicken fajitas, which are on special Mondays and Wednesdays. Cheese enchiladas come with a chili gravy that tastes homemade and queso is free alongside your chips and spicy red salsa. Like the Original Mexican Restaurant, the original Don Carlos on Harrisburg wasn't opened by Mexicans. Instead, it was opened by brothers Gerry and Christos Stathatos in 1986, and now features two other locations in Houston -- plus one in Waco.
Lupe Tortilla gets a lot of flack for its child-friendly policies, but that may soon be a thing of the past: Many of the locations are removing the sandbox/ playground/ nightmare pit to make room for additional seating. The original location off Katy Freeway and Highway 6 is still my favorite, although the chain has now expanded to include a dozen spots in the greater Houston area. Fans of Lupe's swear by the lime-laced fajitas, and rightly so. Along with the stiff margaritas, they're some of the best and most consistent fajitas in Houston.
The real draw of El Real isn't its late-night hours nor its cavernous dining room nor even its patio perched on a busy stretch of Westheimer: It's the fact that the restaurant -- partly owned by Tex-Mex historian Robb Walsh -- is committed to preserving the cuisine in both the dishes it serves and the memorabilia it houses in a mini-museum upstairs. This is your father's Tex-Mex, in the best possible way: Beans are made with lard, tortillas are made fresh in-house and cheese enchiladas are smothered in chunky, beefy chile con carne.
The cult of Lopez has strong, deep roots in southwest Houston, where the family-oriented Tex-Mex temple has been serving combo plates and queso since 1978. That's when Mexican immigrant Rodrigo Lopez -- who first came to the United States in 1962 -- opened the restaurant he still runs today with his wife Bertha, sons Jonathon, Jose and daughter Ana. What's so mesmerizing about Lopez is how the well-oiled machinery of the place can serve so many people in one evening while still turning out top-notch plates of enchiladas and tamales to every single diner. It will either make you avoid the restaurant at peak hours or seek it out to be a part of the fun, frenzied action. Pableuax Johnson once wrote of Lopez that it "epitomizes the old-school Tex-Mex family restaurant. Clean, fast and loud, it's not a homey, family-run cocina but a family-friendly fallback built for high volume and informal charm."
Spanish Village has a long and complex history, as tends to happen when a restaurant is more than 50 years old. Houston used to have two Spanish Village restaurants, born of a feud that lasted for years -- one at 4811 Lillian and one at 4720 Almeda. The Christmas-light-covered Almeda location eventually outlasted the Lillian location and is the only remaining Spanish Village today, serving what Walsh once called "vintage Tex-Mex at its finest." The enchiladas a la Taylor are the best example of that vintage Tex-Mex, topped with plenty of chile con carne, chili gravy and raw white onions, while the margaritas and their signature dagger-like ice shards remain the stuff of Houston legend.
Molina's is famous for a few things: The Jose dip, in which seasoned beef taco meat is blended together with queso. For being President George Bush's favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, which he visited with regularity for decades. And for being the oldest continually operating Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, open for over 70 years. Walsh proclaimed its enchiladas de Tejas to be some of the best in the city, while I'm a fan of the Mexico City combo platter -- another Tex-Mex standard -- that hasn't changed since the restaurant was founded in 1941.
As with Spanish Village, a long and winding road led to the Ninfa's on Navigation we now know and love -- and the only Ninfa's that belongs on this list. The 40-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant has its own Wikipedia page devoted to the years of complicated history, but what matters most is this: Ninfa's gave us fajitas and the much-imitated creamy green sauce made with avocados, both after Mama Ninfa Laurenzo's own recipes. "The Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation is the restaurant that made fajitas famous," wrote Robb Walsh in 2010. "And it's one of the last places where you can eat fajitas that taste like they did in the old days." Current chef Alex Padilla has updated the menu with a slate of adventurous, modern dishes, but the famous fajitas (and homemade flour tortillas, green sauce and much more from the original menu) remain exactly the same.
This wonderfully festive, colorful and inexpensive neighborhood place has a spacious covered patio, efficient waitstaff and large portions of some of the best Tex-Mex in Houston. As an added bonus, the Teotihuacan on Airline (my favorite of the two locations) is easy to find: Just look for the brightest pinkest restaurant you've ever seen. The green tomatillo salsa, charro beans and thick, handmade corn tortillas are awesome, as are its daily breakfasts. But it's the grilled items like fajitas, shrimp and mixed parrilladas, the cheap but strong margaritas and the singularly spectacular snapper al cilantro that keep me coming back week after week.
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1. La Mexicana
The family-run restaurant La Mexicana has been serving Montrose its Tex-Mex since 1982, and the food reflects those years of loving care. You'll find old favorites like entomatadas here that are a rarity on more modern Tex-Mex menus, as well as huge weekend portions of soul-saving stuff like menudo and barbacoa breakfast tacos. If the line gets too long, seat yourself at the bar or grab some tacos to-go; they're made to order and always fresh. For a restorative weekend breakfast, an order of menudo and a breakfast taco will cure anything that ails you. And at dinner, the tampiqueña platter with a cheese enchilada over La Mex's perfectly seasoned, perfectly chargrilled beef skirt steak is the best of both worlds -- fajita and enchilada all at once.