At El Chile’s jazzy little converted house, the tomatillo sauce on the chicken enchiladas has ample flavor and a touch of sweetness, and the chile con carne sauce on the Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas is made from real red chiles, not commercial chili powder; but the restaurant’s best may be the chicken enchiladas de mole rojo, in a complex Oaxacan-style ancho sauce. Sultry lasses gaze at you from the artwork on Vivo’s walls; you’ll be equally beguiled by the cafe’s tomatillo sauce, gentler than some. A velvety blend of fresh cilantro and tomatillos with a hint of jalapeño gives depth to the chicken enchiladas verdes at Cilantro’s, a minuscule strip-center diner brightened by tangerine and mango hues. By itself, the green sauce at casual Curra’s might be strident; alone, the filling of its chicken enchiladas might lack pizzazz; but together—under a (slightly too thick) blanket of Monterey Jack—the two balance perfectly.
Sleek and sexy La Duni, with a Latin American menu, shows special Mexican savvy with chubby chicken enchiladas covered with a bright red salsa of roasted tomatoes, a green tomatillo sauce, and melted white gruyère cheese, reflecting the colors of the flag of Mexico. Traditionalists cannot resist a pair of old favorites. Oak Cliff’s humble Tejano soothes with good ol’ Tex-Mex enchiladas oozing yellow cheese beneath a hearty, cumin-rich chili sauce and with tender chicken enchiladas ladled with a thick, sour cream topping. On Maple Avenue, Herrera’s is as beloved for its lack of frills as for its chicken enchiladas, packed with white meat, covered with a mild, thin green chile sauce, and lavished with grated yellow cheese.
SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE: Runners-up
At lovely Fonda San Miguel, don’t miss the irresistibly tangy cajeta-kissed crêpes. Utterly nontraditional—with fluffy masa, a filling of squash, eggplant, and carrots, a creamy mushroom sauce, and a topping of raisins and pecans—the opulent tamal vegetariano at Las Manitas has become a Friday ritual for hords of the storefront cafe’s devotees.
The caldo de albóndiga at the cozy Deep Ellum hideout called Pepe’s & Mito’s is exceptional, thanks to little omelet-like patties of meat and minced vegetables mingling in a flavorful broth. Peruse the mural of Dallas celebs splashed across the vast wall of Matt’s Rancho Martinez while tucking into the signature appetizer called Smoked Bob Armstrong Dip. This imminently scoopable Tex-Mex indulgence is a pool of thick, melted chile con queso surrounding big scoops of guacamole and sour cream and a mound of smoked beef brisket. A new specialty at La Calle Doce, a renovated vintage bungalow, is the unusual plate of tacos filled with fresh, juicy, grilled mahimahi, crisp shredded cabbage, rice, and crunchy jícama matchsticks.
You could almost get lost in a simmering bowl of the chile con queso at L&J Café, a local Tex-Mex landmark hidden away beside a cemetery. White cheddar, roasted green chiles, garlic, onions, and a dollop of sour cream combine into one glorious mess. Carnitas Queretaro, in a converted fast-food outlet, specializes in pork: Best is the Queretaro Plate (deep-fried and then shredded); the asado ballezano, cubes stewed in a garlicky sauce of pasillas and red chiles, is for those who like it hotter. At the Little Diner, minutes west of downtown in Canutillo, order the wonderful masa pocket sandwiches called gorditas, soft in the middle and crunchy around the edges; of the four fillings, fiery chile colorado (with stewed pork) is the best. Festive La Cuesta seems to be the only place in El Paso where you can get cochinita pibil; the tender, mildly seasoned shredded pork is baked in agave leaves to approximate the traditional method in the Yucatán of wrapping it in banana leaves and cooking it in the ground.
A recent highlight at Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana, hidden away within the gardens of Joe T. Garcia’s, was an herb crêpe filled with sweet lobster and goat cheese atop a fresh tomatillo salsa textured with baby corn kernels. At Cultural District favorite La Familia, owner Al Cavazos makes a mean cactus–pinto bean soup, laced with fresh cilantro, nopalitos, and tomatoes, that is served gratis to every diner. The simple tortilla soup—chicken broth, shredded chicken, bits of tomato, and crisp tortilla strips topped with chopped avocado and served with lime wedges—at upbeat, family favorite Joe T.’s is the best in town. Of the homey dishes at friendly Esperanza’s, one of the tops is the juicy, tender pork carnitas in smooth, zippy chile colorado.
At cheerfulPico’s, the soulful caldo tlalpeño could sub for Jewish penicillin; diced tomatoes, fragrant cilantro, crisp onions, rice, and lots of chopped avocado add textural interest to the broth and shredded chicken.
At no-frills Paulita’s #1, the bulging mariachis—that’s what they call tacos in Laredo—are stuffed with everything under the sun. Although the two outlets of Laredo’s homegrown Tacolare may look like fast-food joints, the subtly seasoned tacos al pastor (the pork is marinated in citrus juice) and tacos de cochinita pibil (it’s stewed in an achiote sauce) are world-class.
One of the best tacos at upbeat Beto’s is the achiote-seasoned pork al pastor (with cilantro and pineapple pico tucked inside). You’ll find two marvelous unconventional flans at clamorous Rosario’s: a lush, mousse-y chocolate with almonds and a satiny cream-cheese topped with toasted coconut.
At cramped Teotihuacán, with its turquoise serapes and rambling Aztec mural, the guacamole is minimalist and pure: nothing but silky smooth avocado and crunchy fresh onion.
The most intriguing sauce at Tex-Mex favorite Matt’s El Rancho is “Charro’s sauce” (not on the table, but you can ask for it), which is named for a cook and prickly with roasted jalapeños plus tomatillos, cilantro, garlic, and fried onions.
At posh La Duni, you get not only a beautiful setting but also a practically perfect chunky salsa, not too fiery and exuding the flavors of fresh tomato, onion, and cilantro, with hints of jalapeño. This place gets extra points for its super-thin, brittle corn-tortilla chips with just a little salt. Gloria’s, a funky Oak Cliff hangout, pampers regulars with its thick, coarse salsa; loaded with chopped jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, it will sear the unsuspecting tongue.
Green-salsa lovers will relish the tomatillo sauce at easy-going Teotihuacán Mexican Cafe. Tart and medium-bodied, it’s full of silken avocado bits, fresh cilantro leaves, and fiery jalapeño.
An addictive warm, tomatoey chile de árbol salsa starts you off right at seafood destination El Siete Mares, with its funny, faux-shell-bedecked walls.
TEQUILA SELECTION: Runner-up
Party palace El Tiempo tempts with a menu of about 50 different tequilas listed by category: blancos, reposados, and añejos. The most requested are Herradura Seleccion Suprema, Don Julio silver, Patrón, and Chinaco—all best served “neat” and slightly chilled.
CHILES RELLENOS: Runner-up
At El Chile, where the walls are painted in tones of lavender, periwinkle, and mango, a naked (i.e., batter-less) roasted poblano is the blank canvas for a simple, well-crafted pork picadillo filling and a savory ranchero sauce (guajillo and tomato with accents of cumin and oregano).
TAKE-OUT TAMALES: Runner-up
Though the combination might not be obvious, the smoked-brisket tamales from Dos Gringos Tamales are exceptionally tasty, and the sweetish chipotle-raspberry sauce supplied with them is—amazingly—a perfect match. Three other fillings are also available: black bean, pork, and chicken. $8–$10 a dozen.