Let’s Have Mex-Tex
Enchiladas! Tacos! Guacamole! (and Cochinita Pibil! and Huachinango!) A salsa-drenched survey of the fifty best Mexican restaurants in Texas, including some old favorites, of course (who doesn’t love a plate of flautas and refried beans?), but with special attention paid to the growing number of kitchens, from Houston to Laredo, turning out something new, something fresh, something that can only be called . . . Mex-Tex!
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With Gini Garcia (San Antonio), June Naylor (Dallas and Fort Worth), and Robin Barr Sussman (Houston)
How things change. When I was a kid growing up in Austin in the fifties, “Mexican food” meant one thing: a Tex-Mex combination platter groaning under yellow-cheese enchiladas, lavalike refried beans, and hamburger-meat tacos in shells fried so hard they could deflect bullets. In the eighties, my friends and I regularly ate our weight in the latest border craze: platters of sizzling fajitas. Last week, at my new favorite taquería, I had a hard time deciding between cochinita pibil (achiote-rubbed pork in a banana leaf) and tlacoyos (masa tarts topped with queso fresco and salsa verde). What is my point, exactly? Just this: Mexican food is the richest and the most dynamic native cuisine in Texas, and it’s getting more Mexican all the time.
Over the decades a tide of immigrants from south of the Rio Grande has traveled north, building upon our Tex-Mex base with dishes from deep inside Mexico. At first, some of these delicacies seem novel, even outlandish. Um, you’re going to eat cactus and corn fungus? In time, though, the shock wears off. We try them. We like them. And a new reality emerges.
A phenomenon of such cultural import must be studied on a continuing scientific basis, of course. So as this magazine did in 1995 and 2004, we marshaled a band of valiant food writers and sent them on an eatathon through Texas’s six major cities, plus Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. When the salsa settled six months later, we had visited 138 restaurants (including a food trailer) and we had arrived at the opinionated, subjective, and hopefully controversial list of fifty places (beginning with our top five picks) that appears on the following pages.
Yes, we will always love our yellow cheese. But as dishes from Mexico’s heartland apply for permanent residency in Texas at an ever-increasing rate, we’re on the threshold of a new culinary era: the time of Mex-Tex.
LOS 5 MEJORES
Fonda San Miguel, AUSTIN
salsas: The ultra-smooth purée of oven-roasted Roma tomatoes and jalapeños tastes subtly different from any other in town; in fact, so does the green, equally silky mix of tomatillos and serranos. vibe: On the greenery-filled covered patio, vividly upholstered pillows invite you to sink into colonial Mexican–style sofas; overhead, a wood-and-iron chandelier looks as if it came out of One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the dining room, which showcases art by Mexican masters, punched-tin lamps cast bursts of light on stucco walls.
How many restaurants have endured 35 years with not only the same chef and owner at the helm but with their defining goal intact? Fonda San Miguel was birthed during the seventies, when America emerged from the bipolar decades of the parochial fifties and the psychedelic sixties to embrace global cultures and cuisines as a national pastime. In its infancy, Fonda dazzled customers with then-unheard-of dishes like cochinita pibil and pescado tikin xik (Yucatán-style fish rubbed with brick-red achiote). So intent on authenticity was co-owner Tom Gilliland that early on he had chiles shipped across the border because they were not obtainable locally (the feds once impounded a batch because it didn’t have the right papers). Three decades later, Fonda continues to dazzle. Founding chef Miguel Ravago and young chef de cuisine Jeff Martinez do a stellar mole, dark as espresso and redolent of chiles, chocolate, and aromatic spices. Another specialty, the brilliant chile relleno San Miguel, substitutes a dried ancho for the usual poblano and stuffs it with shredded chicken, green olives, capers, and almonds, a combination that is classic and avant-garde all at once. If a few dishes are merely very good, like pork loin with pineapple and chayote, the overall thrust is so accomplished and so aspirational that even after all this time, Fonda remains the grande dame of interior Mexican cuisine in Texas.
2330 W. North Loop Blvd., 512-459-4121. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–9:30, Fri & Sat 5–10:30. Brunch Sun 11–2. Fonda San Miguel
salsas: The rich, rustic red sauce is tomato-forward, with just enough jalapeño for punch; the tomato-and-onion mix is basic and fresh. vibe: Yes, you’re in a strip center, but you quickly forget the mundane location, thanks to a giant Aztec calendar, strung garlic clusters, and pottery decorations on the sunny yellow walls. A small bar in the corner has a TV quietly tuned to soccer games.
This unpretentious neighborhood joint, owned by Enrique and Elizabeth Villafranca, may be a hub for political organizers—Elizabeth made a run for city council last year—but when you’re here, it’s all about the food. Witness the made-on-the-spot corn tortillas, which arrive before the meal still so hot and featherlight from the comal that it’s exciting just to dredge them in salsa and take a bite. They’re so good, in fact, that when our plates arrive, our first move is always to slather some bacon-rich refried beans on them too. Only then can we contemplate dinner. The pozole sends us into a swoon, its lusty rust-hued broth filled with hominy and big chunks of pork, some still clinging to bone (garnish with cabbage, white onion, and lime to really bring out the bowl’s extraordinary flavors). And, oh, the gorditas! These fresh masa pockets are sturdy but soft, one filled with queso blanco and strips of roasted poblano, another with shredded beef in a bright-red sauce. Finally, the traditionalist in us revels in the chile relleno, an ample, golden-crisp poblano we slice open to reveal a beef picadillo of peas, carrots, bell pepper, and tomato. This, folks, is bliss.
13260 Josey Ln., Farmers Branch; 972-243-1491 (and two other locations). Open Mon–Fri 10–9, Sat & Sun 9–10.
Salsa Fuego, Fort Worth
salsa: Dark and stubbly with roasted tomatoes, onions, chiles, and jalapeños. vibe: Built in the seventies as a Kentucky Fried Chicken, this joint on the far west side of town was more recently a hamburger stand. There is almost always a crowd, so go early to grab a seat.
Salsa Fuego certainly looks like a dive, but when it comes to Mexican food, this piñata-hued hole-in-the-wall may just be Fort Worth’s crown jewel. Owner-chef Carlos Rodriguez’s menu is surprisingly extensive for a place this size—you’ll find tortas, chimichangas, burritos, nine made-to-order homemade sauces, even hamburgers—and yet somehow the range doesn’t seem to weaken the individual dishes. We started with the chunky carnitas tacos, which came with bits of cilantro and onion in the tenderest of corn tortillas, then turned to the sensational pork tamales, served open-faced to reveal fresh, loose masa and a filling seasoned with New Mexico red chiles (the pico de gallo and feta sprinkled on top canceled the need for any sauce). Our carne asada enchiladas, made with corn tortillas and top sirloin, came with a choice of mouthwatering sauce (we’re most fond of the poblano cream), but these were quickly outshone by the chicken poblano relleno, a large roasted chile—not fried—that came splayed open on a pool of ranchero sauce and packed with mushrooms, tomato, spinach, zucchini, and garlic. Rodriguez, who personally oversees (and sometimes buses) the dining room, brought us dessert: crispy churros with a creamy caramel filling and warm chocolate syrup for dipping. It was almost enough to make us want to keep this indie spot our own little secret.
3520 Alta Mere, 817-560-7888. Open Mon–Thur 11–8:30, Fri & Sat 11–9:30. Closed Sun.
salsa: Thick and intense, this puréed dark-red chipotle sauce is medium hot and shot through with smoky-sweet-spicy flavor. vibe: A romantic, refurbished space with high ceilings, soaring windows, lovely tableware and goblets, and an enchanting patio; the contemporary dining room attracts a food-centric, inside-the-loop crowd.
Houston’s temple of interior Mexican cuisine boasts a menu not only mind-bogglingly vast but also based on authentic recipes from chef and co-owner Hugo Ortega’s homeland of Puebla; his creative interpretations take them beyond earnest tradition. Navigating the seductive choices can make you woozy, but fish lovers should commence with a seafood cocktail: Four variations include a spicy tomato-sauced Vuelve a la Vida that indeed “returns you to life” with fresh oysters, octopus, crab, shrimp, and red snapper. Further immersion in the menu’s breezy seafood selection turns up ultra-fresh huachinango a la veracruzana, a traditional dish from coastal Veracruz. Here it’s a whole snapper roasted to a perfect turn and surrounded by a chunky tomato sauce jazzed with olives, capers, and onions. Nothing if not ambitious, the kitchen also prepares more than ten made-from-scratch moles daily; an excellent introduction to them is by way of the mini—masa disks called sopesitos. The duck breast version, for instance, comes with mole poblano, a soulful brew redolent of deep red chile and chocolate. If your predilection is beef, try the carne asada: This juicy wood-grilled ribeye comes with just-mashed guacamole and an invigorating ensalada de nopales (cooked and shredded cactus pad). Finally, don’t leave without trying a dessert from pastry chef Ruben Ortega (Hugo’s brother), who goes so far as to roast and grind his own cacao beans. A steaming cup of hot chocolate with a plate of cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted churros could easily become your newest holiday tradition.
1600 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-7744. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 10–9:30. Hugo’s
SoLuna, San Antonio
salsa: Fresh-tasting, somewhat acidic roasted tomato, mild to medium hot. vibe: Potted palms grace a rather old-fashioned dining room of arched windows, tawny walls, and white tablecloths. On one side, a tortilla lady holds sway, expertly flipping corn and flour tortillas that are so puffed up they look as if they could levitate.
If there’s a restaurant that sums up the schizophrenic state of Mexican food in Texas today, it is SoLuna, which is operated by two generations of the Calvillo family. Its dilemma is familiar. On the one hand, it must accommodate customers who are happily hooked on Tex-Mex. To fill that need, it offers the likes of cheddar cheese enchiladas and a fine roster of tacos (the mild, juicy cabrito version, by the way, is fantastic). On the other hand, chef-manager Gerardo Calvillo, 31, is in love with recipes from Mexico’s heartland. Thus you will also find specialties like chile en nogada, a poblano lusciously stuffed with cooked fruits and ground beef and pork. Making everyone happy is a constant balancing act—Gerardo had to nix the nogada’s proper chilled, sweet walnut cream sauce because his customers didn’t take to it, and he uses cream to soften the assertive chipotle sauce on the shredded-chicken enchiladas—but there are pleasures to be had from both sides of the divide. The pescado veracruzana features a perfectly cooked snapper filet in a white-wine sauce with capers, sliced olives, tomato, and onion. And, as a finale, there is a sybaritic pecan-topped tres leches cake. From the day they founded La Fogata in 1979, Jesse and Carmina Calvillo have been nudging San Antonians toward Mexico’s indigenous cuisines. Now, with son Gerardo (and son Jesse Jr., who heads up the family’s other current endeavor, Mirasol), the journey continues.
7959 Broadway, 210-930-8070. Open Mon–Thur 11:30–10, Fri 11:30–10:30, Sat noon–10:30, Sun 11–10. SoLuna
LOS OTROS 45
Listed alphabetically by city
salsa: Robust and red, medium hot, with an underlying flavor that echoes canned tomato sauce. vibe: Bright wooden chairs, tiled tables, and cartoony Mayan glyphs can make you forget that the low-slung storefront is slipping from funk to grunge the older it gets.
We’re talking high highs and low lows here. On the one hand, the kitchen brings forth miracles like mole enchiladas, in which juicy chicken is embraced by a chile mole whose flavor goes on forever. On the other, the selfsame kitchen sends out gnarly carnitas with pulpy guacamole that does an excellent imitation of the stuff that’s squished out of a tube. But just when you’re getting grouchy, here come the enchiladas con chile colorado, made with pork tips so tender they must have been simmered for a day. The inconsistencies do not deter regulars, who just keep ordering their favorites. They finish with tres leches cake, infused with so much sweet milk and cream that the whole thing seems on the verge of exploding—and we mean that in the best possible way.
614 E. Oltorf, 512-444-0012 (and one other location). Open Sun–Thur 7 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri & Sat 7–11.
salsas: The rustic tomato and serrano is quite the wake-up call; the verde stays traditional with tomatillo for tartness and chile morita for depth. vibe: The limestone cottage has been spruced up with Mexican floor tiles and splashy red and amber accents. Note: It’s a little hard to find; turn in at the horseshoe sign.
Purists jumped for joy when the original Burleson Road location opened, selling dishes like pumpkin-seed mole and chile relleno en nogada. In late summer, the new location sprang up, run by chef Marisela Godinez; its longer menu and comfier chairs are big draws. The trick here is to tear yourself away from the excellent tacos and check out the novel (to Americans, anyway) Mexican comfort food. Tinga (chicken in tomato-chipotle sauce) is as homey as chicken and dumplings; chilorio (pork tips in ancho-guajillo sauce) could sub for beef stew. Or try the tlacoyos, masa tarts lavished with tomatillo sauce, refried beans, and queso fresco; these simple snacks are a tribute to the power of fresh ingredients. Seldom have home cooking and street food been so compelling.
2038 S. Lamar Blvd., 512-442-4441 (and one other location). Open Mon 11–2:30, Tue–Fri 11–10, Sat 9–11, Sun 9–10.
salsa: Not provided but available on request. vibe: A sleek trailer painted cactus green commands a driveway on Rainey, a funky downtown Austin residential/commercial street.
If any single Austin restaurant is serving unadulterated interior Mexican food, it’s this one, cheffed by Iliana de la Vega, who came here from Oaxaca. Her menus lean toward chile-rich moles, tart marinades, stewed meats, and creative soups (like salty chilled mango). Taco fillings can be unexpected (vinegary nopalitos) or familiar (chicken loaded with black beans and tomatillo sauce). Some dishes, like the bland chorizo-and-potato-stuffed masa “cigars,” tend to elude American palates. But the moles are another story; a russet-hued one sets mulato, pasilla, and ancho chiles against raisins and sesame seeds, while the mole poblano has a whiff of Mexican chocolate. And the crowning achievement is a seasonal special, chiles en nogada: pork-stuffed poblanos bathed in walnut cream and scattered with pomegranate seeds. (The trailer may close at lunch through February while a house on the property is being converted into a full-service restaurant.)
85 Rainey, 512-474-2776. Lunch Mon–Sat 11:30–4 (call to be sure). Dinner Mon–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11. Closed Sun.
salsas: A smooth red blend of tomato, serrano, and guajillo. Or request an icy-green mix of tomatillo, serrano, chile de árbol, and cilantro. vibe: Smallish and smart, with arty details and earthy hues. A terrace with umbrella-shaded tables overlooks Shoal Creek.
Chef and co-owner David Garrido, formerly of Jeffrey’s, couldn’t do the same old, same old if his life depended on it. Think coffee-rubbed-ribeye tacos with asadero cheese and chipotle-horseradish aioli or brisket enchiladas with a salsa of chile morita and crumbles of queso fresco. Many dishes head in a modern direction, like the succulent lamb pops seasoned with a sauce of roasted garlic and ancho chiles and sided by plantain chips. And, of course, Garrido reprises his famous oyster tostadas; the fried mollusks perch on yuca root chips with a gilding of honey-habanero aioli. For dessert, you could have the mango–star anise crème brûlée, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t try the striking pastel de calabaza, a wedge of moist zucchini cake. It might not sound Mexican, but the recipe comes from Garrido’s grandmother.
360 Nueces, 512-320-8226. Open Mon 4–10, Tue–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 11–9.
salsas: The terrific lineup includes a nutty moranita, with smoky chipotles, and a sweet-spicy roasted habanero and apple. vibe: From the wall-spanning art to the superstring light fixture made of tungsten-filament bulbs, everything in the dining room says “prepare to be astonished.”
How can a restaurant be so traditional and so creative at the same time? Raised in Texas and trained in New York, executive chef Rene Ortiz puts his own spin on modern Mexican cuisine, playing with fundamental flavors without diluting their essence. His huaraches, humble crisp masa tarts that usually come smeared with beans and cheese, are notable for also piling on mushrooms and huitlacoche. You might fear a train wreck, but the result is titillating. In Mexico, people love them some quail, and here the bacon-wrapped birds come with a tomatillo-apple marmalade. You can lose track of time savoring the duck in Oaxacan mole, the deep sauce playing off the meatiness of the breast and rich roasted leg. It would be remiss not to say that on a few visits, the kitchen was off its mark, but recent tastings have confirmed that this is one of the most exciting Mexican restaurants in the state.
400 W. Second, 512-499-0300. Open Mon–Wed 5–10, Thur & Fri 5–11, Sat & Sun 11–11.
salsa: Slightly watery stewed tomato, medium hot and acidic. vibe: The colorful outer walls—mango, persimmon, cobalt—echo Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta’s style; the spacious, black-accented dining room is surprisingly dark; free parking at this location is abundant.
The great thing about Manuel’s is its consistency—the quality endures, year after year. The knock on Manuel’s is that, except for specials, the menu rarely changes. So, lucky you, the sopes—yummy masa tarts with a small rim around the edge, spread with refried black beans and personalized with an order of sprightly, fresh guacamole—are as good as they were the first time you had them. As are the idiosyncratic flautas—not “flutes” at all but rather grill-crisped corn tortillas topped with salsa verde and folded around fillings like the excellent pork option (avoid the shredded chicken in this and other dishes; it can be dry and disappointing). Fish dishes are generally rewarding—for instance, the very fresh black drum, which is grilled and served atop great lemon-doused wilted spinach tossed with serrano and tomato. The famous jumbo lump crabmeat enchiladas in sour-cream salsa suiza seduce all who order them.
10201 Jollyville Rd., 512-345-1042 (and one other location). Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 10–10.
salsas: There’s the molcajete, roughly crushed tomato and jalapeño; the roja, smoother, with tomatillo and guajillo (and árbol when available); and the verde de aguacate, a lush purée of avocado and jalapeño. vibe: More mod than Mex, with concrete floors and a glass-wrapped dining room; the most appealing tables are under pecan trees out front, and bands occasionally entertain in the picnic-table-equipped backyard.
The menu trends downscale, though co-owners Jose De Loera and Tracey Young and chef Nidxia Lopez throw in surprises like chile en nogada; in this case, the poblano is filled with ground beef and dotted with nibbles of pineapple, apricot, and raisins. Still, most folks opt for dishes like the super carnitas Don Alberto, braised pork shoulder served in corn tortillas. On the vegetarian front, tacos of chopped zucchini, roasted corn, and caramelized sweet potato are surprisingly middle-of-the-road, and the limp nopalitos need an overhaul. But the ceviche (limey shrimp) is much better than average, and the bacon-seasoned charro beans go with everything. So does the fine fresh-mashed guacamole. For dessert, choose the silken flan instead of the rock-hard frozen coconut soufflé (unless you’ve got a jackhammer with you).
1411 E. Seventh, 512-628-4466. Open Mon–Fri 11–midnight, Sat 9–1 a.m., Sun 9–midnight.
salsa: A medium-hot purée of poached tomatoes and red jalapeños mixed with sautéed diced onions. vibe: At this curio-stuffed roadhouse, join friendly strangers at long tables under the watchful gaze of a mounted deer.
The taquería is the hamburger joint of Mexican food; you’ll find one or two on every commercial block in the Valley. And though democratic and efficient, they’re also often indistinguishable from one another. But Rico’s raises the bar, and how. The minute your guacamole arrives, you can see the difference. Someone—that would be chef Oscar Ballí or his mother, Silvia Ballí Cardona—has artfully arranged the scoops of avocado with the red, white, and green mounds of tomato, onion, and cilantro; take some of each, mash together, and spritz with lime to make the freshest guacamole you’ll ever have. Moving on, you can order fajita tacos or beef flautas, but why not step out of your comfort zone and try the mollejas (sweetbreads)? Cut small and fried crispy, they’re as mild as chicken. The quietest time to go is right when the place opens, but the mood is always jolly; these folks know they’ve got a good thing.
714 Military Hwy. (U.S. 281), 956-546-0014. Open Sun, Mon, Wed, & Thur noon–midnight, Fri & Sat noon–2 a.m. Closed Tue.
salsa: A thick tomato blend, with just enough jalapeño to give it a kicky finish. vibe: This converted house is, well, homey, with steel-blue walls and colorful retablos that hang above the tables.
After a family split and a brief closing for an interior face-lift, this standby for authentic Mex-Mex has returned in top form. As soon as we were seated, we ordered the guacamole (smooth, with a few avocado chunks and blessedly little else) and a bowl of chicken-studded pozole, whose side plate of chopped radish, white onion, jalapeño, and cabbage made the chile-infused soup nearly perfect. Then came the mole enchiladas, which rank among our favorites: tender corn tortillas, lovely shredded chicken, and green chile enveloped in a dark, velvety sauce. The pork tamales, served as a trio, were an amalgam of juicy meat and lush masa (the table salsa is an ideal complement), and though the refried beans had no discernible flavor, insiders know to ask for a hotter salsa, kept in the back, that can make those frijoles sing.
4714 Maple Ave., 214-520-2700. Lunch Mon–Sat 11–2:30. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–9, Fri & Sat 5–10. Closed Sun.
Café San Miguel
salsas: The mild, tomatoey version, with a hint of guajillo and served warm, beats the green mix of cilantro, chile, and avocado. vibe: Cheery and casually elegant, with a treasure trove of Mexican folk art—mirrors, masks, leather craft, pottery—for decor.
Café San Miguel does justice to the artistic spirit of its namesake city, San Miguel de Allende, with both its eye-catching interior and knockout food presentation. And, for the most part, there’s substance behind that style. The red snapper en salsa verde, for instance, was a finely calibrated pairing of fish and tomatillos, avocado, and white wine. The ribeye enchiladas, featuring a jumble of coarsely chopped steak, came in a dark guajillo-cascabel sauce covered in mouthwatering asadero cheese. But there are also misses: The quail in mole pipián was too salty, its mole essence too faint, and the blue-crab empanada, with its mushy interior, was unremarkable. Though we were tempted to linger over our jalapeño-hibiscus margarita, made with agave nectar and fresh lime juice, we resented having our post-dinner peace broken by the roar of a vacuum cleaner next to our table.
1907 N. Henderson Ave., 214-370-9815. Open Mon–Thur 11–3 & 5–10, Fri & Sat 11–3 & 5–midnight, Sun 10–8.
salsa: Chunkier than most, the fire-engine-red sauce has plenty of tomato, white onion, jalapeño, and cilantro; paired with it is an addictive black-bean dip. vibe: This original location of a booming mini-chain feels like a ramble of rooms in your abuelita’s comfy home, with a rainbow of painted chairs, colored walls, and artwork from the mercado.
Although Gloria’s is known first for Salvadoran food, its Mex-Mex speaks to the purist. To start, there are two standouts, the fresh guacamole (which begs only for a squirt of lime before you scoop it with the thin, magically nongreasy tortilla chips) and the ceviche tostadas, crispy corn disks coated with the same guacamole and topped with lime-marinated orange roughy. For more-substantial eats, turn to Gloria’s tamales, whose puddinglike masa has been filled with shredded chicken and bits of potato and bell pepper, then wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf, as is common in the Yucatán and Central America. Or try the carne de res asada Salvatex, a fairly tender flank steak served with a tart chimichurri sauce. An accompanying chicken enchilada gilds the lily, with satiny red-chile sauce and a layering of Chihuahua cheese.
600 W. Davis, 214-948-3672 (eleven other locations in the Dallas area and one in Austin). Open 7 days 11–10.
Javier’s Gourmet Mexicano
salsas: The green tastes strongly of tomatillo, with a dash of sugar and little punch; the red is plain and mild. vibe: Surrounded by hunting trophies and exotic animal skins, you’ll feel as if you’re in a hacienda in Mexico’s heartland. There’s excellent people-watching here, thanks to the Highland Park clientele and the manly cigar bar.
As you might find in Mexico’s cattle regions, the menu here is heavy on steaks, its many beefy offerings punched up with chile, black pepper, or brandy sauces. We’re taken with the filete pimienta, a hunk of exquisite tenderloin draped in a black-peppercorn reduction that we mop up with flour tortillas. Though a side of sautéed carrots and some black beans covered in salty white cheese add extra dimension, they can’t take our focus off the meat. That said, our attention does finally wander when we are brought the Chilean sea bass, which is swept with a fragrant veracruzana sauce (tomatoes, olives, onions, and mild green peppers), and a juicy broiled chicken half-covered in a lush mole poblano (a hint of dark chiles and just a tad sweet).
4912 Cole Ave., 214-521-4211. Dinner Sun–Wed 5:30–10, Thur 5:30–10:30, Fri & Sat 5:30–11.
Nuevo León MEX-MEX
salsa: Dark red and snappy, with a slow burn from jalapeños tempered by fresh lemon, white onion, and cilantro. vibe: Festive red and yellow tablecloths and an abundance of paintings both modern and classic (think Frida Kahlo) elevate this strip-center spot.
Although an ambitious expansion to more-fashionable parts of town, including Oak Lawn and Greenville Avenue, didn’t ultimately work out, the original site has never failed to lure with its fresh-tasting ingredients. Our plate of diced chicken breast came in a cream-laced mole poblano with a jumble of yellow squash and zucchini; the tamales, guajillo-sauced pork chunks in envelopes of moist masa, were smothered tantalizingly in mild chile con carne. Most of all, we loved the details, like the dark borracho beans, slow-cooked with jalapeño, chorizo, bacon, tomato, onion, and beer, and the spinach salad in a tangy mustard vinaigrette that came with the lush shrimp al mojo de ajo. Our only regret was that the uninspiring guacamole didn’t live up to our meal or the unfailingly sweet service.
12895 Josey Ln., Farmers Branch; 972-488-1984. Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri & Sat 11–9:30. Closed Sun.
salsa: A wonderfully rustic and tomatoey mix, stewed to a rusty color and served warm. vibe: This place is often packed, with patrons seated in a tight configuration of tables and bright-green plastic booths. Most of them are chatting in Spanish or watching telenovelas on the TV.
Our quick, cheerful server gets a kick out of our delighted squeals after she tells us that the tortillas—both corn and flour—are handmade in the kitchen. She races back to our table with them and watches us nearly faint at the taste of these beauties: The delicate corn ones are almost sweet; the flour ones are comfortingly soft (we eat them with the bacon-flavored refried beans, which are so fluffy we swear they’ve been whipped). The chicken-stuffed quesadilla, fattened with gooey Monterey Jack cheese, is made perfect with a dollop of the smooth, unadulterated guacamole, and we’re overcome with reverence for the lengua tacos, made with tender shreds of calf’s tongue. The warm gorditas stuffed with nopalitos (cactus, diced with onion and tomato) are another simple delicacy, and the caldo de res, with its (somewhat chewy) beef, cabbage, carrots, red potato, and corn, soothes our souls.
3118 W. Northwest Hwy., 214-357-9296. Open Sun–Thur 7:30–10, Fri & Sat 7:30–11.
salsas: The lineup of eleven includes original creations like jalapeño-zucchini and roasted peanut–habanero; don’t miss the tart tomatillo-serrano. vibe: This upscale taquería is terribly chic, befitting its Uptown location, but still comfortable. The porch is just the right place to sip a margarita.
Whether you’re pondering what trio of salsas or which guacamole to order (quick answer: the Reforma, with zucchini and oven-dried tomatoes), Urban Taco is all about choice. Start with the ceviche list, which features the sensational crudo—silken ahi tuna, mango, pineapple, garlic, avocado, and chile oil—and also the ceviche verde, a combination of snapper, shrimp, coconut, passion fruit, jalapeño, pineapple, carrot, and crema (whew!). Then, for a perfect meal of this and that, turn to the taco list: Choose the red snapper in tomatillo-serrano salsa and avocado-lime crema, say, or the chicken swathed in chile-peanut mole, or the adobo-marinated steak with avocado and roasted red onion. Don’t want meat? Order the potato zucchini taco. Don’t want carbs? You can request your tacos on lettuce leaves. Given the perfect little corn tortillas, though, we’d say that would be taking your choices too far.
3411 McKinney Ave., 214-922-7080 (three other locations in Dallas and one in San Antonio). Open Sun–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–midnight.
salsa: Vivid red, with lots of tomato but scant jalapeño. vibe: This popular date place (though it’s kid-friendly too) is housed in a vintage building; it exudes hipness, thanks in part to location (Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District) and in part to its colorful walls, locally made artwork, and wrought-iron chandeliers.
Given that the menu is inspired by the same Mexican coastal state that lends the restaurant its name, we knew what we had to order as soon as we sat down: the red snapper veracruzana. Bathed in a typical sauce of tomato, onion, bay leaf, and olives, it was outstanding—though we’ll admit we were even more taken with Roberto’s Desert Soup, a vegetable lover’s dream blend of cactus, hominy, zucchini, chayote, carrots, corn, and epazote leaves. We also tried the chicken in mole xiqueño (named after the mole-famous town of Xico), whose lovely rust-colored sauce is made with dark chiles like mulato and pasilla, and the Jalapa-style chile relleno, an unusual creation of breaded jalapeños layered with shredded beef, queso fundido, sour cream, raisins, and toasted pecans. But our happiest choice of heavy dishes was the beefy carne asada veracruzana, fork-tender and blanketed in red sauce.
408 N. Bishop Ave., 214-948-4746 (and one other location). Open Mon–Fri 11–2:30 & 5–10, Sat 11–10, Sun 11–9.
Forti’s Mexican Elder
salsa: A thick, serviceable blend of cooked tomato and raw jalapeños. vibe: Picture yourself in a lovely faux hacienda, where murals depict romantic señoritas and a guitarist sings time-honored Mexican favorites like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
Beset with ups and downs over its 34-year existence, Forti’s seems to be on an upswing. Tortilla soup boasts large chunks of chicken in a killer brick-red broth seasoned with massive quantities of chile chipotle and árbol. Alongside are sour cream, grated white cheddar, sliced avocado, and house-made tortilla chips. That one dish could sate your appetite, but if it only whets it, move on to the upmarket carnitas, the pork cut into sizable pieces that are first baked (for a more robust flavor), then fried; rounding out the plate are grilled green onions, a hearty chile pequin sauce, and so-so guacamole. Whatever else you sample here, take time to appreciate the superb corn tortillas, whose grill marks give them flavor and character. They’re particularly good in the fat, stubby beef flautas, which come filled with juicy, slow-cooked brisket.
321 Chelsea, 915-772-0066. Open Mon–Thur 9–10, Fri & Sat 9–11, Sun 9–8.
H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop
salsa: A tame mix of cooked green chiles and onions, but fresh tomatoes and a splash of canned tomato sauce lend spark. vibe: The most famous Mexican cafe in the city has a scruffy aqua-blue Formica counter, plus eleven orange stools, three tiny tables, and a massive black stove crammed with bubbling pots.
It’s not mandatory to have your car washed in the adjoining garage, but why not? While you’re waiting, take the time to enjoy the huevos rancheros or perhaps the chile verde: beef tips and potatoes in a mild, meaty-tasting gravy served with great, soupy refried beans. Other choices include the famous carne picada burritos, featuring finely diced beef with fresh jalapeños, onions, and tomatoes. A deep-fat fryer gurgles with long green chiles rellenos that have been stuffed with Muenster cheese; the batter is so fluffy it could pass for cotton candy. When you see everyone greeting one another like long-lost relatives, you’ll understand why the James Beard Foundation named the H&H to its roster of America’s Classics in 2001.
701 E. Yandell, 915-533-1144. Open Mon–Sat 7–3. Closed Sun.
Tacos Santa Cecilia
salsas: The charred-tomato and chile de árbol is nicely flavored but has a watery, chunky texture; the medium-hot fire-roasted jalapeño boasts a whiff of the grill. vibe: The aroma of deliciously seared pork rotating on an upright spit behind the counter will captivate you at this down-at-the-heels but convivial fast-food space, exuberantly splashed with hot-pink and lime-green paint.
The Six Pack is what you want: half a dozen mini-tortillas brought from Juárez (they really are better than the local ones) folded around succulent pork shoulder sliced to order from the “trompo” (rotating drum) of meat up front; alongside come avocado halves, Mexican limes, radishes, and plastic forks. It’s way easy to order too much here: You’ll definitely want some refried beans, which are slightly mashed, plain, and delicious. And maybe a couple of chiles rellenos, batter-fried and simply stuffed with mild, locally popular Muenster cheese; as is typical, the chiles are served unsauced. You may have never thought of a baked potato as a Mexican specialty, but the papa asada, stuffed with fajita meat, is wildly popular. 5500 El Paso Dr., 915-772-3435. Open Sun–Thur 8–10, Fri & Sat 6–11.
salsa: Dark reddish-brown and utterly addictive, with a rough texture from roasted tomatoes and jalapeños. vibe: The three-room storefront has a come-as-you-are feel, with serapes for tablecloths and a tree in an aging planter at the entrance.
We feel instantly welcomed when the fast-footed servers bring us bowls of mild, tomatoey tortilla soup, included with every entrée. We scoop queso flameado—Oaxaca cheese studded with chorizo and flamed tableside—into our hot, light corn tortillas and nibble contentedly before digging into tacos de puerco en salsa verde: a double layer of tortillas, also corn, filled with pork and bathed in a smooth tomatillo salsa (the refried beans are good too). In a nod to Oaxaca, Benito’s offers oversized chicken-and-red-mole tamales wrapped in a banana leaf, but the time to order it is earlier in the day; by dinnertime, it is dry and disappointing. However, you can’t ever go wrong with the chile relleno, which is stick-to-your-ribs good when stuffed with chicken and paired with a belt-busting tostada of chorizo and Monterey Jack cheese.
1450 W. Magnolia Ave., 817-332-8633. Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri & Sat 11–2 a.m., Sun 10–9.
salsa: Bright red, thinnish tomato with a pop from jalapeño and cilantro. vibe: Families, office workers, and Texas Christian University students alike congregate at this charming strip-center joint, an offshoot of Joe T. Garcia’s, in the medical district.
The only way to resist gobbling two baskets of the thin, delectable chips is to ask the server to not deliver them at all—which, of course, we never do, because the salsa is irresistible, as is the chunky guacamole (prepared tableside in the evenings). If we could, we’d come here multiple times a day: for a breakfast of Esperanza’s migas (topped with shredded chicken, a mild garlic-onion-tomato sauce, and grated cheese); a lunch of ceviche tostada (lime-marinated catfish and avocado chunks on a crispy tortilla) and chile relleno (plump with shredded beef, in a smooth egg-batter coating and ruddy ranchero sauce); and a dinner of carnitas (braised pork) and barbacoa (melt-in-your-mouth beef cheek). The rare blunder here might be the uninspired catfish tacos, but we easily forgive the misstep after one bite of the vanilla-laced tres leches cake.
1601 Park Place Ave., 817-923-1992 (and one other location). Open Mon–Thur 7 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri & Sat 7–10, Sun 7–5.
Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana
salsa: None, as this is not your usual Mexican restaurant. vibe: The quaint house is casually stylish, with heavy cream-colored table linens and draperies that divide rooms.
Count on owner-chef Lanny Lancarte II and his “high Mexican kitchen” for a never-ending series of twists on familiar standbys. Though his menu changes, one notable star is the hamachi ceviche, which looks somewhat traditional yet is anything but: Rosy-pink slices of yellowtail are tossed with roasted red peppers that have been macerated in balsamic vinaigrette; then they’re topped with avocado and served with house-made pepita-crusted lavash. On our latest visit, a basic like the tamal got a similarly transformative treatment: The Michoacán-style masa—enriched with cream, butter, and puréed corn—surrounded a filling of huitlacoche, jalapeño, and epazote; the husk-wrapped package was then placed atop a pool of saffron-infused corn purée. Lancarte’s play on pescado veracruzana, by contrast, was refreshingly simple, with halibut bathed in a blend of tomatoes, capers, olives, bay leaf, and fresh thyme. Don’t dare bypass the mole poblano—made over two days with mulato, guajillo, and ancho chiles and sesame seeds, peanuts, and unrefined Oaxacan chocolate—or the satiny, sweet corn flan.
3405 W. Seventh, 817-850-9996. Lunch Tue–Fri 11:30–2. Dinner Tue–Thur 5:30–10, Fri & Sat 5:30–10:30. Closed Sun & Mon.
Paco & John
salsa: A rich and fresh-tasting tomato blend, with a bit of snap from serrano. vibe: This cute cafe with an open kitchen was once a gas station, as evidenced by the refrigerator cases (where you can stash your BYOB beer and wine) that still line the back wall.
At lunchtime, this medical district eatery offers traditional street tacos that are irresistible, especially when they’re filled with grilled red snapper. The salmon enchiladas, lavished with a guajillo chile sauce, are another good pick. But really we live for the Saturday brunch, when we can dig into the chilaquiles: coarsely chopped corn tortillas tossed with arracheras (soft strips of beef) in a zesty tomato-guajillo sauce and crowned with a fried egg (note: request the egg over medium so it’s not cooked hard). The empanadas, which are light and buttery and filled with chicken and poblano or shredded duck, are a reminder of the restaurant’s French lineage: Its co-owners, Bernard Tronche and Francisco Islas, first made their names at Fort Worth bistro Saint-Emilion.
1116 Eighth Ave., 817-810-0032. Breakfast Mon–Fri 7:30–10:30. Lunch Mon–Fri 11–2:30. Brunch Sat 10–2. Closed Sun.
Cyclone Anaya’s Mexican Kitchen
salsa: A spicy purée of tomato, jalapeño, and cilantro, with visible chipotle seeds. vibe: The founder is former wrestling champ Jesús “Cyclone Anaya” Valencia, who opened the original in 1966. This new, contemporary location has brick walls; a happening, young bar scene; and loud rock and roll.
Cyclone Anaya’s arose from the ashes a few years back, much like a wrestler rousing himself from the mat. In its glory days, the restaurant was known for its smoky grilled meats; thankfully, the juicy marinated carne asada endures, served with bold pico de gallo and smooth refried black beans dusted with queso fresco. Surprisingly, the chile relleno is a smash hit—the massive, crisp poblano overstuffed with delicious roasted shredded chicken. A thick sour cream sauce and a drizzle of tart tomatillo sauce complete the ensemble. Though a tad small, dewy Chihuahua cheese enchiladas (tucked into red tortillas) have no shortage of flavor, thanks to a russet ancho chile sauce.
1710 Durham Dr., 713-862-3209 (three other locations in Houston and three in Dallas). Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 10–11, Sun 8:30–10.
salsas: The medium-hot tomatillo is vibrant with lime; the red emphasizes tomato and jalapeño but is watery. vibe: A blaring jukebox of Mexican pop music and a cheerful display of Mexican plates capture the friendly spirit of many taquerías in Aguascalientes, a city of hot springs.
The upbeat outpost caters to neighborhood Latino immigrants and others craving genuine Central Mexican cuisine. Regulars start with the exceptional sopes de deshebrada: soft, thick masa disks layered with refried beans and shredded beef, then stacked high with crispy onions and tomatoes. Huge vessels of pozole jaliciense (hominy soup) restore the weary with chunks of pork in a savory broth. Expect wonderfully fresh toppings alongside—cilantro, shredded cabbage, lime. Tacos nopales not only sport the intriguing flavor of pickled cactus (think bell pepper crossed with fresh green beans) but go beautifully with a dose of the green salsa—a fresh tomatillo potion so compelling you’ll want to drink it. For something classy, tuck into the enchiladas de codorniz, roasted quail crowned with a flurry of queso fresco. A nice plus: Presentations are careful, even artistic, and aguas frescas are fresh-squeezed.
6102 Bissonnet, 713-541-4560 (and two other locations). Open 7 days 7–2.
salsa: Medium-hot roasted tomato whirled with cilantro, jalapeño, and onion. vibe: The quirky casa overflows with Christmas bric-a-brac, dolls, and birdcages.
Beaming, energetic Irma Galvan is the face behind the legendary downtown Irma’s, known for chile sauces made from scratch daily and heirloom recipes for savory, slow-simmered stews. It’s true: Her hours can be difficult to remember (she recently started serving dinner), and her verbal menu has prices that can seem steep (be sure to ask). However, dig into the spinach enchiladas—a transcendent bundle—and each ingredient chimes in with its distinctive flavor. She also serves a spicy, fresh-mashed guacamole thick with avocado chunks, red onion, and jalapeño. Another coveted dish is the mole poblano, and the kitchen gets both the meat and the mole right: The fork-tender chicken breast is blanketed in a rich (but not sweet) mole with smoky tobacco overtones, a bite of peppercorns, and a kiss of chocolate. For dessert, nothing bests the velvety cinnamon-sprinkled sopaipillas with a whisper of dulce de leche.
22 N. Chenevert, 713-222-0767. Open Mon–Wed 8–3, Thur–Sat 8–10. Closed Sun.
salsas: Six are brought to your table, including a cumin-spiked tomato blend and a medium-hot purée of chipotle, cilantro, onion, and jalapeño. vibe: This festive taquería on the west side of town blasts Mexican TV; the adjacent taco trailer attracts adventurous bargain-minded eaters.
Chile heads call this taquería “salsa central.” Most of said salsas—like the green serrano and the dark chile de árbol—are electrifying, so sample sparingly. A popular purveyor of Mexico City–style tacos, Jarro does an exceptional cochinita pibil consisting of shredded slow-roasted suckling pig marinated in orange juice, quickly grilled, and double-wrapped in lightly griddled corn tortillas. Top off that masterpiece with fresh lime (wedges served) and the stellar vinegar-marinated white onions redolent of oregano. You’ll also find those signature onions on the moist trio of chicken enchiladas sauced with a smooth, slightly sweet mole poblano. Even better are the enchiladas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and garlanded with sour cream and queso blanco plus a veritable salad of avocado slices, lettuce, and onion. Many Jarro followers insist on crowding around the taco trailer, whose menu is more limited but no less tasty.
1521 Gessner Dr., 713-365-0373. Open 7 days 7–11.
Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
salsas: Both the creamy avocado-tomatillo and the smoky roasted tomato are medium hot. vibe: Always crowded, this is a well-worn landmark with vivid colors, rustic furnishings, and spirited waitresses in embroidered Mexican dresses.
We don’t want to sound like a broken record by including the original Ninfa’s every time we cover Mexican food, but some eateries are timeless. Which is not to say that the place hasn’t evolved. We’re thrilled with executive chef Alex Padilla’s impressively updated menu. But we’ll never get enough of the famous avocado-tomatillo salsa (or the Ninfarita, which packs a smooth tequila punch and a wallop of tart lime). The ceviche is also a winner, served icy cold and garnished with avocado in an oversized goblet. Order tacos in any guise (smoky asada, rosy-pink fajita) and your prize is the fabulously fluffy flour tortillas or the piping-hot corn tortillas hand-rolled by the tortilla ladies. Moist tamales are swaddled in soft masa blankets and stuffed with the likes of shredded chicken with tomatillo sauce, piquant ground beef with ancho chile sauce, or, the best—Oaxacan-style pork with roasted pasilla chiles.
2704 Navigation Blvd., 713-228-1175. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 10–11, Sun 10–10.
salsas: The medium-hot red is thick with tomato, smoky chipotle, and jalapeño; the tomatillo is tangy with lime and cilantro. vibe: Big, bustling dining room with a harp- and guitar-playing duo.
A foodie favorite for more than 25 years, Pico’s packs in crowds eager to hoist hefty margaritas and savor Mexico’s interior specialties. Camarones al mojo de ajo are plump tail-on shrimp served with plenty of sizzling butter and garlic for sopping up with tortillas. Tender cochinita pibil—marinated pork roasted in a banana leaf—has the distinctive flavors of achiote, cinnamon, and cumin and is served with bracing pickled red onions, chunky refried black beans, and Mexican rice. Purists also relish the lick-the-fork pollo en mole negro, chicken bathed in a rich, complex potion made with dozens of Mexican herbs and spices as well as bittersweet chocolate, sesame seeds, and chiles. Don’t miss the genuine (and visually stunning) chile en nogada: a savory-sweet poblano bulging with moist shredded pork, blanketed in a decadent white walnut sauce, and garnished with ruby pomegranate seeds.
5941 Bellaire Blvd., 713-662-8383. Open Sun–Thur 9–10, Fri & Sat 9–11.
Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
salsa: Slightly sweet red, served warm. vibe: Visitors to this Woodway spot are greeted by a large patio, sunny rooms, and proud owner Sylvia Cásares, whose passion shows in everything from the nigh-perfect sauces to the fluffy house-made tortillas.
Love enchiladas? Here’s your foray into the widest variety in the city. Take a journey to South Texas with the Crystal City, a fresh spinach enchilada bathed in a vibrant tomatillo sauce. Move on to Mexico for the simple yet sublime Morelia, stuffed with sweet onions and Chihuahua cheese and resting in a smoldering brick-red sauce. Or have the Puebla, a chicken enchilada preening in a swamp of chocolaty mole with a tingling chile finish. Dive into the seafood ceviche, with its aggressive kick of chiles and lime, and don’t miss the carne asada: marinated skirt steak expertly grilled over mesquite wood, served with poblano grits, fresh guacamole, and pico de gallo. Perfect finale: the crazy-good chocolate-and-cinnamon-dusted tres leches.
6401 Woodway Dr., 713-334-7295 (and one other location). Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri 11–10, Sat 11:30–9, Sun 11:30–8:30.
Teotihuacán Mexican Cafe
salsas: The tomatillo is tart and full-bodied, with a garlicky punch; the chipotle is dark red and medium hot, vibrant with tomatoes, jalapeños, and cilantro. vibe: This pink come-as-you-are cafe is named after the site of the famous ancient pyramids near Mexico City.
Regulars revel in the Mexican breakfasts, myriad combo plates, and aromatic char-grilled specialties. Parrilladas (tabletop grills) arrive heaped with a bounty of meat, like quail, beef short ribs, or beef and chicken fajitas. The plump butterflied shrimp basking in garlic butter is another popular choice. All come with rice, some of the best charro beans around—slightly spicy, with bits of bacon, jalapeño, and tomato—and either silky flour tortillas or cakey-thick corn tortillas, both house-made. Teotihuacán excels with anything green, from the hand-mashed guacamole and the chunky verde sauce that comes ladled over the chicken enchiladas to the addictive, almost-glowing tomatillo salsa. A little Tex, a little Mex, family-operated Teotihuacán is not perfect every time, but the value, colorful crowd, and energy are always just right.
1511 Airline Dr., 713-426-4420. Open Sun–Thur 8–10, Fri & Sat 8–midnight.
El Meson de San Agustin
salsa: Roasted jalapeño with raw onion and fresh cilantro; it has good flavor but is a bit ragged-looking and can be too salty. vibe: Conversation and laughter bounce off the walls and tall ceilings of this wildly colorful dining room located in an ancient downtown building.
It’s all in the family at El Meson. Mom cooks, several daughters wait tables, and most of the customers know them and one another. You certainly get your money’s worth here, with most dishes running $5 to $7. The tostada, for example, is piled with shredded chicken breast, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, and enough drifts of snowy-white queso fresco to look like a Michigan winter (hint: a squirt of the avocado crema that comes with the very nice flautas will moisten the dryish chicken). Another great bargain is the homey, tender pork stew; its so-called salsa verde turns out to be a broth robust with cilantro. A fluffily battered chile relleno—moist and just a tad greasy—bulges with a filling of ground beef and potato stew. Even the drinks are a steal: How about 32 ounces of fresh lemonade for two bucks?
908 Grant, 956-712-9009 or 956-725-9299. Open Mon–Sat 11–4:30. Closed Sun.
Fonda Don Martin
salsas: The deliriously good cheese-topped pinto-bean dip totally outclasses the tomatoey red table salsa. vibe: It’s a happy sign when you see a tortilla lady presiding over a blue-and-white-tiled kiosk.
That a strip mall in suburban Laredo should boast a restaurant with so much soul comes as a decidedly pleasant shock. There are obviously skilled hands in the kitchen making the enchiladas callejeras (heavenly soft corn tortillas with a filling of crumbly cotija cheese, topped with pan-fried potatoes and carrots and a spicy chile rojo sauce). The memorable chiles rellenos are so flavorful, with a ground-meat-and-potato filling and thick, spongy fried batter coating, that a sauce is superfluous—which is a good thing, because the local style is sauceless. Rice-and-cilantro-stuffed albóndigas (meatballs) float off the plate, and the chunky cortadillo de res (beef braised in tomato, onion, and serrano) tastes as if it has been simmering for hours. So much is excellent here that you never need order the overcooked milanesa (breaded beef cutlet) or the bland chicken-and-squash stew.
9652 McPherson Rd., 956-723-7778. Open 7 days 7 a.m.–10 p.m.
Although Palenque Grill started in Laredo, it has expanded to McAllen, where you’ll find our review. The menu is the same, and so is the quality. The buildings differ in details but not overall appearance.
7220 Bob Bullock Loop, 956-728-1272. Open Sun–Wed 11–midnight, Thur–Sat 11–1 a.m.
Zaragoza Grill, La Posada Hotel
salsas: The quemada is a fabulous roasted tomato and serrano mix with flecks of roasted chile; the puréed chile de árbol is overwhelmed by cumin; the tomatillo is average. vibe: From your comfy armchair at a white linen–covered table, gaze out on La Posada’s marble-floored lobby and watch the action in the city’s nicest historic hotel.
La Posada remains a bright spot in Laredo’s formerly vibrant downtown, which over the years has been sadly transformed into one giant “everything must go” sale. Classically trained chef Beto Gutierrez’s upscale, fusion-y touches (like avocado aioli) set his menu apart from all others in the city, so if it’s offered, order the rack of lamb with Oaxacan mole, a miracle of a sauce with the flavors of dark and roasty chiles (we might have even detected the elusively sweet chilaca) and aromatic dried fruits like prunes and raisins. Or try the perfectly juicy shrimp, sautéed with a touch of tequila and chile de árbol and paired with asadero cheese enchiladas in black-bean sauce. In deference to local tastes, not everything is fancy-pants: Chicken flautas, in a light cloak of cumin-rich tomato sauce, are straightforward, and heck, there’s even a Tex-Mex Platter. And it’s probably darn good.
1000 Zaragoza, 956-753-4444. Open 7 days 6:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
salsas: A hotter-than-Hades green with cilantro, avocado, and serrano; a chilled fresh, pulpy, thinnish tomato; and a coral-colored chimichurri, consisting of blended oil, vinegar, garlic, herbs, and árbol chiles. vibe: This Valley stalwart has kept its proper service while attracting a broader, slightly more informal family trade.
Perhaps compromises to its newer, more casual clientele have resulted in things like a gummy yellow-cheese enchilada on the Veracruz plate and a thin, powdery-tasting mole sauce on the chicken enchiladas poblanas. As good as ever, however, are the small grilled quail served in a molcajete with a decorative garnish of pan-fried potato slices. The place has resolute customer loyalty, and it is pleasant, with its volcanic-stone pillars and long mural of a Mexican landscape populated by oddly wraithlike villagers. A must-have is the stellar guacamole, a fiesta of freshly mashed avocado sided by chopped tomato, jalapeño, onion, and crisp fried tortilla halves.
1621 N. Eleventh, 956-618-5449. Open Sun–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11.
salsas: The charred-tomato and serrano salsa is head and shoulders above the smooth but metallic-tasting red chile diablo. vibe: This nicely decorated chophouse, its walls painted tan and apricot, is accented by rough-cut limestone and polished-wood wine racks.
The unrest south of the border has caused quite a few restaurants to move north. Happily, Mexico’s loss is America’s gain: El Pastor, formerly of Reynosa, has been a prime dining venue in McAllen since 2009. The pièce de résistance here is whole cabrito, which you’ll see arranged on spits over open coals at the entryway. Go on a weekend night, when the place is busy and the meat is fresh off the fire, and order family style. The pierna (leg) and paleta (shoulder) are the meatiest; the connoisseur’s favorite, riñonada (“kidney cut”), is tender but skimpier. Taco fixings are provided, so grab one of the homemade tortillas and pile on the meat, queso fresco, and a dab of salsa. Alternate bites of taco with the toothsome charro beans, which come in a cilantro-and-bacon-spiked broth. As for your beverage, order the red-wine-and-lemonade jarra de clericot, a first cousin to sangria.
1400 U.S. 83 East, 956-213-8383. Open Sun–Thur 7–11, Fri & Sat 7–midnight.
salsas: All three are fantastic: the gloriously soupy refried pinto bean and chorizo dip; the charred poblano, serrano, and tomato; and the herbal green sauce made of avocado, serrano, and cilantro (you must request this one). vibe: The big, impersonal room needs dividers, but white tablecloths, terra-cotta-toned walls, and copper lanterns give it considerable character.
Like the original, in Laredo, this Palenque Grill can be counted on for a special-occasion dinner. The traditional northern Mexico atropellado de res makes for a good appetizer; its odd name (meaning “run over” or “stomped on”) comes from the stewed Mexican-style dried beef that goes into the filling of the crosswise-sliced flour tortillas. Another good choice is an order of empanadas, not baked but fried masa turnovers stuffed with potato and paired with the same heavenly refried beans that are served as a salsa. Or have a taco platter, the best filling being the al pastor—sweetly glazed pork tips in adobo. Note: Said tacos must be filled to bursting with the chopped cilantro and onion that come alongside, then drizzled with juice from fresh limes (squeezer thoughtfully provided).
606 U.S. 83 East, 956-682-6048. Open Sun–Thur 11–midnight, Fri & Sat 11–2 a.m.
Cascabel Mexican Patio
salsas: The austere, highly puréed, brick-red chile de árbol is not for sissies; the mild, slightly gelatinous roasted tomatillo is intensely sweet and tart at once. vibe: Basically a hole-in-the-wall, Cascabel has nine tables covered in lively Mexican tablecloths (more outside), a primitive mural of a rattlesnake coiling around all four walls, and AM-radio ranchero music blasting from the kitchen.
The funky eatery keeps it traditional with dishes like puerco en pipián, a fine dice of pork immersed in a creamy-crunchy pumpkin-seed sauce scattered with sesame seeds. This bountiful stew will warm you up; a fresh nopalito salad of cooked cactus (topped with chopped tomato, onion, and queso fresco) will cool you down. Despite bearing the name mole de olla, the cafe’s russet-hued beef soup has nothing to do with the familiar thick sauce; instead it is a rejuvenating bowl of tender beef chunks, hunks of corn on the cob, zucchini, and epazote leaves in a dark, rich broth. To finish your meal, nothing beats the tropical flavor of a guava empanada, its coarse whole-wheat crust positively oozing with sweet-tart jam.
1000 S. St. Mary’s, 210-212-6456. Lunch Mon–Fri 10:30–2, Sat 10–3. Dinner Mon–Fri 6–9. Closed Sun.
salsa: A spicy, coarse grind of lightly roasted tomato with tiny bits of jalapeño and cilantro. vibe: The well-turned-out open space brings to mind a nice contemporary restaurant in a Mexican city; mostly Spanish is spoken in the dining room (and occasionally shouted from the lively adjacent bar during sporting events).
Little here is altered for American tastes, including what may be the best nopalito salad in town. This platter of julienned cactus pads is ultra-fresh and enlivened with diced tomato and serrano in a light oil-and-lime-juice dressing. Around the edge of the platter is a ring of big, airy chicharrones (yes, pork rinds), perfect for scooping. At first, the weekend-only pozole verde (chicken-and-hominy soup) served with tostadas comes off two-dimensional and flat. But add the condiments, including finely diced radish and onion plus emulsified green chile, and the brothy stew springs into vivid focus. For dessert, definitely choose the crepas orizabas. Neatly folded, the paper-thin pancakes are scattered with crushed pistachios and bathed in a delicate, warm sauce based on (drum roll, please) evaporated milk. Trust us: sounds boring, tastes great.
19141 Stone Oak Pkwy., 210-545-6965. Open Tue–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 9–9. Closed Mon.
El Siete Mares
salsa: One-dimensional and tomatoey; doesn’t live up to the rest of the menu. vibe: The convivial low-ceilinged room, with colorful plaques of marine life on every wall, feels like a diner in a Mexican seaside town. Expect occasional live conjunto music.
AS fresh as the blue waters of the Caribbean, the Ceviche Siete Mares seduces you with generous quantities of sliced Manzanilla olives and an olive-oil marinade; the garnish gives an unexpected twist to the lime-cured tilapia tossed into a salad of shredded carrots, diced tomato, and onion. The food of cravings, the camarones enchipotlados offers a catch of medium-sized shrimp in a complex and buttery-textured chipotle cream sauce; the spice level gently sears but never scorches. But perhaps the most astonishing item at “the Seven Seas” is not its surf but its turf—specifically cabrito. Braised, then finished on the grill, this superlative baby goat is tender yet crisp on the edges. Accompany it with refried beans, which have an almost chocolaty depth.
3831 W. Commerce, 210-436-6056. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–midnight, Sun 10–10.
salsa: Salty, zesty red-brown purée that emphasizes guajillo chiles. vibe: Wait your turn for a table at this casual, usually busy Loop 410 storefront with an Alamo-like facade.
You’ll live a life of unending regret if you don’t order the albóndigas, tender meatballs of peppery ground beef, white rice, and crumbled boiled egg in an incomparable smoky-spicy-sweet chipotle sauce. The inevitable reaction to this dish is “Wow!” or “¡Aiii!” Gritty in the best possible way, the mole verde takes nutty, mild pumpkin seeds and combines them with serrano and poblano chiles for a bit of spunk; have it with your choice of chicken or zucchini. About as straightforward as it gets, the chicken cutlet prepared a la plancha (grilled) comes off fork-tender and perfectly seasoned; tuck the last remaining morsels into a delicate, handcrafted tortilla de maíz. Even though all the desserts are notable, the arroz con leche stands out for its perfect balance of rich milk sauce, plump and winey raisins, and fragrant canela, a.k.a. Mexican cinnamon. Everything here is authentic, homemade, and well beyond adequate.
1001 NW Loop 410, 210-344-4119. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun noon–9.
La Fonda on Main
salsa: Garden fresh and medium hot, made from a fine blend of raw tomato, jalapeño, and garlic. vibe: A dignified older house, with white walls, dark carpet, pretty Talavera pottery plates, and vintage bullfighting posters on the wall.
The dining room is traditional, the kitchen creative and surprisingly contemporary. Chef Javier Flores’s chayote with queso crema is a wonderful surprise, combining cubes of the light-green squashlike vegetable with a sauce of cream and queso fresco; think beurre blanc and you’ll have the right idea. Fusion notions go even further with chicken breast stuffed with zucchini blossoms—one of the seasonal specials that Flores labors to turn out. Adorned with a squash blossom cream sauce, it trends Mediterranean with its accompanying ancho chile–seasoned risotto. The flavors of Mexico return in force, however, with the tamal zacahuil, a giant chicken tamal about the length of a whole banana leaf. Divided into serving pieces like tamale pie, it has a delicious and complex ancho sauce marbled right into the moist masa.
2415 N. Main Ave., at Woodlawn; 210-733-0621. Open Sun–Thur 11–9:30, Fri & Sat 11–10:30.
La Gloria Icehouse
salsas: The avocado-cilantro-lime is smooth and mild; the medium-hot tomatillo counters the fruit’s inherent sweetness with flecks of chile de árbol. vibe: Pure energy bounces off the walls of the tall, airy room with its rolling garage doors, sinuous twisted-wire tables, and queue of customers winding out the door.
Chef-owner Johnny Hernandez has spent years traveling around Mexico to assemble this eclectic collection of “Mexican street food.” What stands out? The authentic and unusual tamal del día, for sure. Swathed in a banana leaf, the enticing creation recently featured ground beef, aromatic spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and a hidden trove of dried apricots, prunes, and dates. Of several ceviches, the verde is not to be missed. It’s rife with a virtual garden of avocado, tomatillo, cilantro, and green olives, which add layers of bold flavor to lime-spritzed diced black drum. If you’re not feeling up to “bold,” check out the trusty tacos al pastor with fresh pineapple. If you are feeling adventurous, finish with a cool cactus-fruit agua fresca. The fuchsia hue is otherworldly.
Pearl Brewery Complex, 100 E. Grayson; 210-267-9040. Open Sun, Mon, Wed, & Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–midnight. Closed Tue.
Mary Lou’s Café y Cocina Mexicana
salsa: Mild, deep reddish-brown with roasted tomato and jalapeño; slightly too sweet, despite a bit of vinegar. vibe: The menu is muy tradicional, but the slick, contemporary dining room, with its dark woods and upholstered banquettes, is as urbane as a fine restaurant in Mexico City.
Little things count at Mary Lou’s. The chips are fried in-house; the tortillas are made fresh when you order. In fact, you can spoil your appetite with these beauties—the flour edition puffed and steamy, the corn version fluffy, moist, and nearly white. Keep on enjoying the latter as a spice-rubbed-fish taco topped with crunchy shreds of fresh cabbage and creamy avocado. Americans who have always wondered about the Mexican obsession with beef tongue should try the excellent version here. Cooked in a hearty brown sauce based on butter and flour (think roux), the lengua guisada falls into delectably tender bites at the touch of a fork. Stewed onion and green bell pepper round out its homey flavor profile.
4405 McCullough Rd., 210-396-7909. Open Mon–Thur 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri & Sat 6:30–11, Sun 6:30–3.
salsa: Addictive mahogany-brown roasted tomato and chile. vibe: The cement floors and tall, colorful walls reverberate with the sound of clinking margarita glasses, chattering families and club hoppers, and background pop music.
IF you can tear yourself away from the famous fish tacos or the tacos callejeros (both topped with a snappy cabbage-lime slaw), try the ceviche fino. The secret ingredient is finely diced jícama, which lends crunch and sweetness to the de rigueur elements of tilapia, red onion, serranos, oregano, and leafy green cilantro. As hot as the ceviche is cold, the sopa de pollo tlalpeño-style is layered with flavor after flavor: earthy, chipotle-laced chicken broth; diced carrots, tomato, and onions; and meltingly soft fresh avocado. Alongside, you get a cup of cumin-tinged rice to splash into the bowl. But indulging in favorite dishes is only half the appeal of owner Lisa Wong’s gathering place; the other half is the big, bustling room itself, with its tropical colors and fun knockoffs of Frida Kahlo self-portraits and Fernando Botero fatties (done by artist Gilbert Duran). If you don’t have a good time here, you may need meds.
910 S. Alamo, 210-223-1806. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 11–9.