Joy of Mex: Houston

Tex-Mex institutions in Houston include Irma’s, which looks like a Christmas tree come to life; Leo’s; Spanish Flowers; and Spanish Village. Popular Cafe Noche is more Southwestern.

BLUE AGAVE

1340 West Gray, 713-520-9696.
Order pollo gordo (“fat chicken”) and you’ll be gordo by the time you finish the generous breast stuffed with spinach and pepper cheese in chipotle cream. Your wallet, however, will be thin: Most entrée prices are in the teens. This trendy, exuberantly tacky spot does a booming happy-hour business with young professionals and has both a Mexican influence (tacos al pastor ) and a Southwestern bias (pecan-crusted trout drizzled with garlic butter, with pico de gallo on the side).
Guacamole: 3.5. Chips: 3.5. Red salsa: 3.5. Green salsa: 2.5.

CABO MIX-MEX

419 Travis, 713-225-2060, and one other location.
“Mix-Mex” is right. The food at this loud, bright, wacky downtown place has as many Central and South American influences as Mexican, but I liked it so much I’m letting it in on a pass. The roasted-corn-and-hot-pepper soup turns out to be a terrific corn chowder that only gently singes your tongue. The shrimp taco—reminiscent of California fish tacos—doesn’t stint on either the crisp shellfish or the topping of lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion, red cabbage, and cilantro. And the tamales, filled with strips of chicken, flavorful black beans, and kernels of corn, are a benchmark version.
Guacamole: 4.5. Chips: 5. Red salsa: 3.5. Green salsa: 5.

EL TIEMPO CANTINA

3130 Richmond, 713-807-1600.
You’ll pay more for the uptown Spanish-colonial atmosphere here and for food that’s definitely a cut above the norm. The chicken soup boasts an exceptional broth and both light and dark meat. In true Mexican style, it comes with add-it-yourself avocado and pico de gallo. Rice, usually a throwaway dish, is lovely, lightly fried with cilantro and bits of poblano and topped with grated cheese. As for the crab enchilada, luxuriating in a cream-based shrimp-and-oyster sauce and melted mozzarella, “rico” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 2.5. Red salsa: 4. Green salsa: 2.5 (avoca do-and-tomatillo-based, bland).

GORDITAS AGUASCALIENTES

6102 Bissonnet, 713-541-4560; personal checks accepted, no credit cards.
At five on a Sunday evening, the all-Spanish jukebox is going full blast, baskets of vegetables are lined up in the front window, and flats of soft drinks are stacked on the floor. It looks as if the clientele—couples, friends, a few gringos—are stoking up for the night. The food is decidedly interior, and very good. Don’t skip the gorditas—plump little masa pockets with your choice of fillings. And give the enchiladas con pollo a try. Flatter than the common Texas style, they have only a bit of white cheese, cilantro, and chile sauce inside. Meat and vegetables—in this case, a quarter chicken, chunky carrots, and fried potatoes—come on the side. Guacamole: 4. Chips: 3. Chile-based salsa: 3 (dark, no tomato). Tomatillo salsa: 2.5.

LA TAPATIA TAQUERIA

1749 Richmond, 713-521-3144, and three other locations.
With four locations, unfancy La Tapatía provides daytime and wee-hours sustenance with dispatch. The menu lists a full assortment of authentic tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and tortas (sandwiches), including a tender, well-seasoned tongue torta on a gigantic bolillo (with avocado, beans, lettuce, tomato, and a smear of sour cream). Granted, many items seemed thrown together, and the broth in the chicken soup tasted canned. But, hey, speed counts, and your money goes a long way.
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 3.5. Salsas: 3 (puréed jalapeño or puréed tomato).

NINFA’S

2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175, and fourteen other Serranos-owned locations.
Attention, newcomers: This is the original, ground zero Ninfa’s. Of course, its heyday has passed, but it’s still quite worth your while, in its unprepossessing way. Xochitl soup is a rich chicken broth laden with breast meat and accompanied by heaps of fresh avocado, rice, and pico de gallo. Gorditas come filled with finely chopped pork and a luscious dab of sour cream. The shrimp nachos (with microscopic crustaceans) were disappointing, but the little spherical puffy taco shell topped with chile con queso is an exercise in pure whimsy.
Guacamole: 4. Chips: 4. Salsa: 5.

OTILIA’S

7710 Longpoint, between Antoine and Wirt, 713-681-7203.
This humble little A-frame prides itself on “No Tex-Mex” (the tastes are definitely interior Mexican), but fans of enchiladas and other familiar dishes will find plenty to order. I’ve never had anything but beautifully prepared food here, even at odd times like four in the afternoon. The enchiladas (in either red or green sauce) are delicious; the homemade mole sauce is rich with chile and chocolate; and the roasted chile relleno en nogada comes in a hedonistic sauce of cheese and sour cream sprinkled with crushed walnuts (pomegranate seeds scattered on top add a touch of color).
Guacamole: 3.5 (somewhat overmashed). Chips: 4. Salsa: 3.

PICO’S

5941 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-662-8383.
“Mex-Mex” with a twist is the byword at this bustling, packed place. Chiles en nogada, for instance, are roasted poblano chiles stuffed with shredded pork or—unusually—wild rice, plus almonds and raisins, covered with a chilled walnut-cream-cheese sauce and sprinkled with the traditional rubylike pomegranate seeds. Talk about decadent. But then there’s simple ceviche (fish and shrimp in lime juice and cilantro) and lovely caldo tlalpeño (chicken broth with shredded chicken and avocado). Especialidades Tex-Mex should satisfy nacho and taco hounds.
Guacamole: 4. Chips: 4.5. Red and green salsas: 4.

TACO MILAGRO

2555 Kirby, 713-522-1999.
The Mexican food of Texas’ future should be like this: imaginative variations on classic themes. Consider what co-owner Robert Del Grande (of Cafe Annie fame) does with chiles rellenos: He grills the poblano peppers (no batter to go mushy or soak up oil), and he fills them with a wonderful combination of cheeses, dried apricot bits, and pecan crumbles. The salad of romaine, avocado, and poblano is dressed up with bacon and pickled red onion and dusted with queso fresco; two tiny cheese flautas come on the side. The setting is a snazzy taquería with counter ordering and sit-down dining.
Guacamole: 4. Chips: 4. Table salsa (roasted-tomato-chipotle): 5. Salsas on the salsa bar include a roasted- poblano-tomatillo (4.5), a rather bitter guajillo (3.5), and a mild red tomato-and-tomatillo (4).

TEALA’S

3210 W. Dallas, 713-520-9292.
A Botero-style mural of a

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