Some Like It Picante
ONCE UPON A TIME, WE WERE PART OF MEXICO, and if you look at what we like to eat, you would think we still are: Breakfast tacos get us going in the morning, fajitas sustain us at lunch, and truck-stop enchiladas restore us after a night on the town.
With John Morthland (El Paso, Laredo), June Naylor (Dallas, Fort Worth), and Robin Barr Sussman (Houston). And with additional research by Costa Caloudas, Claire Canavan, Erin Gage, Leslie Higgs, Stirling Kelso, S. L. McDonald, Zach Smith, and Tim Taliaferro.
SIX MONTHS AGO our SWAT team of food writers fanned out across the state to find the spiciest salsa, freshest guacamole, deepest, darkest mole poblano, and much more. Along the way, we stumbled upon great recipes, learned a few tricks of the trade, and discovered the answers to some burning questions (what’s the deal with menudo, anyway?). Read on for the last guide to Mexican food in Texas that you’ll ever need.
Los Mejores—Where to find the best …
Star billing for enchiladas in Austin goes to Las Manitas; with some half a dozen regional sauces that honor Zacatecas (a smooth green poblano), Michoacán (cascabel chile plus tomato-jalapeño on top), and more, the humble downtown cafe has been reeling in office workers, musicians, and politicians for 23 years. If you like a no-fooling-around, interior-style sauce, try the ancho-chile enchiladas rojas at either Manuel’s sleek but comfy black-and-white Congress Avenue digs or its colorful north location; in fact, all of Manuel’s enchilada sauces, from tomatillo to sour cream (especially on the lump-crabmeat enchiladas), rock. The kitchen at cheerful little Garibaldi’s turns out a trio of excellent salsas for its enchiladas: chipotle, with an almost fluffy tomato base; tart tomatillo with a zap of jalapeño; and a dark-red guajillo chile. With achiote, a touch of vinegar, and pickled onions, the chicken-fajita enchiladas at Polvo’s evoke Michoacán’s distinctive cuisine; come summer, the restaurant’s scruffy but wildly popular deck will be in full swing. For classic yellow-cheese enchiladas topped with chile con carne, look no further than Maudie’s, with its idiosyncratic Elvis memorabilia, where hordes of Austinites converge for their weekly—if not daily—Tex-Mex fix.
There’s a tie for the best enchiladas in Dallas. Those who favor the ones found at Avila’s tout their pure, uncomplicated flavors. Chicken enchiladas arrive under a blanket of pale, tangy tomatillo sauce sprinkled with Jack cheese; the spinach-poblano enchiladas are coddled in a smooth, wonderfully indulgent sour cream sauce; and the ancho-sauced black-bean enchiladas mix beans with Monterey Jack and cheddar to excellent effect. Understated and quietly fashionable, this place is the city’s best-kept secret. People who prefer the enchiladas at Pepe’s & Mito’s, in Deep Ellum, cite the variety of the restaurant’s sauces and excellent fillings, which will pull your attention away from the piñata-colored interior. The chicken enchiladas are excellent in both the swoonworthy mole poblano and the elegant chipotle-wine; if you call a day ahead, the cooks will prepare their robust new roasted-tomatillo sauce for your chicken enchiladas. Don’t overlook the brilliant balance of tart and spicy in the sour cream—tomatillo sauce on chicken enchiladas at Primo’s, a loud but happy hangout favored by Big D’s chefs. Taco Diner wows its chic crowds with crispy, griddled enchiladas verdes, stuffed with finely shredded chicken and awash in a tomatillo sauce crowned with crumbled queso fresco. At comforting, colorful Gloria’s, in Oak Cliff, homey chicken enchiladas are slathered with a dark-red ancho chile sauce and decorated with cheddar and queso fresco.
The best enchiladas in El Paso are the enchiladas rojas at ranch-house-style G&R Restaurant, which come filled with cheese or the meat of your choice. They are smothered in a complex red sauce that’s mellow and a bit spicy; if you wish, have them stacked (with the tortillas flat, not rolled), with a fried egg on top, a regional custom. The green-chile chicken enchiladas at L&J Café, an El Paso institution in the rear of a popular neighborhood bar, are as goopy as they are tasty. Whether stacked or rolled, the thin, slow-burn cheese enchiladas rojas at the H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, another local perennial, are as comforting as comfort food gets. At the spacious Café Mayapán, run by political activists, the cheese enchiladas called enmoladas come in a rich but not sweet mole sauce of ancho, poblano, and pasilla peppers, and the blood-red cheese enchiladas rojas have a heat that sneaks up on you.
The city’s top enchiladas can be found at La Familia, a charming little cafe in a former McDonald’s. The deeply seasoned beef version is topped with a smooth tomatillo sauce (traditionally paired with chicken or cheese), and the cheese enchiladas feature Monterey Jack instead of the expected American yellow cheese, plus a rustic ranchero sauce made with chiles de árbol in lieu of the usual chile con carne. The shredded-chicken enchiladas suizas at colorful, plant-filled Benito’s—nestled under velvety sour cream—are pure indulgence. El Asadero, an older, well-worn gathering spot, has a loyal following for its unbeatable green enchiladas filled with bite-size pieces of chicken, ladled with a fresh blend of tomatillos and roasted green chiles, then topped with slightly nutty-tasting asadero cheese.
The spinach enchiladas at folksy, fun Irma’s are unsurpassed: Spectacular homemade red ancho tortillas are stuffed with leafy greens, daubed with tart tomatillo sauce, lavished with chicken and mushrooms, and hit with queso blanco. At Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, a pretty, brightly painted casa, the massive Donna enchilada, our runner-up, is bursting with savory ground beef and smothered in a spicy, soulful gravy made with freshly ground red chiles. La Guadalupana Bakery and Café, a little Montrose sleeper, serves elegant enchiladas verdes like those from Puebla, Mexico, the owner’s home. Shredded chicken is bundled into ethereal corn tortillas and topped with avocado, thick, spicy tomatillo sauce, and crumbles of queso fresco. The crowds at upbeat Jalapeño’s, with its boldly colored, art-splashed walls, keep this place hopping; the spinach enchiladas garner awards, but it’s the corn enchiladas—filled with sweet corn kernels and nuggets of piquant poblano, covered with a decadent poblano cream—that shine. The stylishly Southwestern West niversity—neighborhood outpost of Molina’s Mexican Restaurant, a Houston institution, is beloved of those who lap up Tex-Mex enchiladas; the classic Tejas version gently oozes yellow cheese into a swamp of cumin-spiked chile con carne.
The unbelievably savory enchiladas mexicanas at Paulita’s #1, an eleven-table neighborhood joint, are the best in town. Stuffed with white cheese, they’re topped with a russet cascabel sauce that does a fire dance on your tongue. Runners-up are the extra-tangy chicken enchiladas verdes at Las Cazuelas, a converted gas station, followed closely by the mexicanas (stuffed with white cheese and topped with a medium-hot chile colorado sauce) and the americanas (Longhorn cheese and chile con carne, of course). Though El Mercado is a buffet restaurant, scrumptious, artery-busting “street-vendor-style” enchiladas callejeras are made on the spot: The tortillas are quickly softened in hot oil and dipped in red chile sauce, then stuffed with white cheese and topped with oil-drenched carrots and potatoes.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY
In the nothing-if-not-casual Valley, McAllen’s Costa Messa is surprisingly formal, with white tablecloths and classical columns that appear carved from volcanic rock. Among many fine enchiladas here, the chicken version, in a full-of-flavor tomatillo sauce with a discreet grating of white cheese, stands out. Poncho, an oasis of bright colors and rustic tiles in Pharr, offers a long lineup of excellent enchiladas. Which to mention? The bright entomatadas—which literally means “tomatoed”—come in a light, ladies’-lunch-worthy ranchero sauce and have a chicken filling so tasty you would gladly eat it alone; ditto for the chicken enchiladas verdes in a delicately tart tomatillo sauce.
It’s hard to declare a top enchilada in San Antonio, but some of the best are found at thoroughly modern Acenar; the tomatillos in the verde sauce taste fully ripe, complementing a filling of chicken and crunchy corn, and the restaurant’s enchiladas with red sauce (a lightly sweetened blend of guajillo and pasilla chiles) have an agreeably crumbly queso fresco filling. Head to El Mirador’s brightly painted, easygoing space for a green enchilada fix; the tomatillo sauce on the chicken enchiladas is light and zesty. La Fonda’s converted house with its oak-shaded patio draws a well-heeled clientele for unctuous cheese enchiladas rojas in a mouth-puckering sauce of roasted tomatoes plus ancho and chipotle chiles.
See the Directorio for directions to any of these restaurants.