Whittling this year’s list to a manageable length was difficult. In 2023, I traveled extensively, not only throughout Texas, but also Mexico, with a little New Mexico and New York thrown in. Everywhere I went, at least one dish stood as a powerful example of the local style. That includes tacos, entrees, tasting menus, and desserts, in addition to fantastic barbacoa, guisados, and moles. The abundance of excellent food I’ve consumed since January might have made this my best year of eating in four years.
Xalisco Cocina Mexicana, The Woodlands
Enticing, refreshing, and fiery aguachile has stolen my heart. I order it whenever I see it on a menu, including at Xalisco Cocina Mexicana, where executive chef Beatriz Martines gives customers a survey of Mexican cuisine, including a gimmicky table-side mini trompo. But it’s the aguachile verde—with its tender butterflied shrimp resting in a bath of lime juice and serranos topped with aromatic cucumber and apple slices—that shines brightest.
Arroz con Leche
El Hidalguense, Houston
This Spring Branch neighborhood restaurant was praised in the New York Times as one of the best restaurants in the country for its “rustic cooking.” The barbacoa de borrego is good, no doubt, but it’s the fresh, light arroz con leche dessert that is the star of any meal at El Hidalguense. A delicate layer of condensed milk blankets fluffy white rice and is garnished with a stick of cinnamon—it takes the weight off of a hearty meal.
Barbacoa de Borrego
Barbacoa Veloz, San Simón Tlatlahuquitepec, Mexico
On a side road along the highway to the capital of Tlaxcala state, Barbacoa Veloz is a bullring, hotel, and restaurant overlooking farmland and hills. Although there is plenty of seating inside, the best move is to go around the back of the building. There you’ll find the hornos, brick-lined pits that rise above the ground, and a team of barbacoyeros (barbacoa masters) taking orders, grabbing meat from the pits and chopping to order. I love the sweet and fatty costillas (ribs). Opt for the candy-like salsa de chinicuiles (maguey worms) to top the meat.
Barbacoa de Borrego
Tres Chiles, Houston
The large chunks of earthen-cooked lamb served at this Mexican restaurant in the outskirts of Houston are deceiving. A gentle push from a fork and the meat separates into threads of intensely gamey meat. This barbacoa de borrego is among the best around and excellent by the pound, in a drinkable consommé, or in tacos. There is one caveat: if you’re put off by animal mounts on walls, Tres Chiles is not the restaurant for you.
Birria de Borrego
El Lago Azul, Aguascalientes, Mexico
Delicately flavored with chile, the birria de borrego at El Lago Azul in the Mercado Juárez in Aguascalientes is a stellar choice for those looking for steamed birria. The fine vermillion threads are served soaked in their juices, and sprinkled with chopped white onions. Add hand-crushed oregano, and then make a difficult decision on how to eat it. Grab the meat with a tortilla or use a fork to lift the meat into a tortilla. The former is messier, but either way is delicious.
Bolillo con Crema
Panaderia Mayoral, Aguascalientes, Mexico
The pantheon of tortas, Mexican sandwiches, is large and includes regional varieties that employ the typical sourdough baguette called bolillo. They’re not always sliced in half from the side, as the bolillo con crema (also known as the torta de resistol and the torta de albañil) proves. The baguette is opened from one end, and the interior bread is removed. The cavity is then filled with crema, square slices of ham, and a pickled jalapeño. Finally, the removed dough is jammed back into place. I had been eager to try this regional torta several months ahead of my trip to Aguascalientes in November. It did not disappoint, although it’s very messy. Crema will leak, large crumbs will magnetize to your shirt, and tears of ham will hang from your mouth.
Consommé de Birria de Res
Birria-Landia, Jackson Heights, New York
I have a habit of laughing with glee when I taste an incredible dish. That’s exactly what I did when I took a sip of the consommé from Birria-Landia’s original location under the elevated 7 train in Queens. Oh, and the accompanying Tijuana-style tacos de birria de res, cooked by brothers José and Jesús Moreno, are satisfying too.
M.K. Davis Restaurant & Bar, San Antonio
This Tex-Mex snack innovated from tight budgets at home is a rare dish in restaurants. It’s found mainly in San Antonio, and composed of Cheddar or Velveeta cheese stuffed into a sliced hot dog. The frankfurter is then wrapped in a corn tortilla and deep-fried. Aside from being addictive, there is an intense nostalgia associated with crispy dogs. One bite at M.K. Davis Restaurant & Bar, and you’ll realize why.
Much of the produce, including the chiles, used in the dishes at Este comes from the garden in the back of the restaurant. The corn is sourced from Dripping Springs–based Barton Springs Mill and nixtamalized in-house. But the seafood, the focus of the menu, is delivered fresh from the deep blue, and it’s outstanding. This is especially true of the swordfish in the crispy flautas. It smells of the sea and tastes of delight. Even the restaurant’s interior design recalls the ocean, with tiles the color of sunset meeting beach sand.
Guasmole with Zancarrón
Antojitos Mary, Puebla, Mexico
The comedores (open dining rooms) inside the main municipal markets of Mexican cities are a wonder in maximizing small spaces. The comedor Antojitos Mary in Puebla’s Mercado Acocota had what might have been my best meal in Puebla. Served in a large bowl, the guasmole with zancarrón is composed of a thin mole (really more of a soup) with guajes, a small legume also known as river tamarind, as the main ingredient. Sitting in this earthy liquid is a smoked lamb shank with a faint whiff of the pit in which the bone-in meat was cooked.
Guava Mole With Shrimp
Levadura de Olla, Oaxaca, Mexico
My guava consumption usually takes the form of ice cream or an agua fresca. Because of the meal I had at Levadura de Olla in Oaxaca, I’m now determined to relish the tropical fruit in many other forms. The mole, shimmering dark with lenticular-like purple highlights, is the bed upon which whole-head prawn are aligned at attention. Behind the crustaceans was a battered and fried cauliflower. Chef-owner Thalia Barrios García is to thank for the mole’s culinary ingenuity, bright with citrus and chile but also a tad tart from the fruit.
Ramen del Barrio, Austin
The best lengua I’ve ever consumed isn’t from a taqueria. It isn’t from a restaurant. It’s not from a sidewalk taco cart, either. Rather, it’s at a Mexican ramen shop inside an Asian market in Austin. The beef tongue is braised with onion, black peppercorn, and bay leaf for approximately four hours. By then the lengua is tender. The protein is peeled and allowed to cool before being cut into fat cubes. Once skewered with green onions, they get grilled over binchotan pellets on a yakitori grill and dipped in a piloncillo tare (a Japanese sauce tweaked to include unrefined Mexican sugar). Eventually, the sauce caramelizes, forming a pleasant crust. The meat is then served in a corn tortilla with chile de arbol salsa, guacamole, onion, lime, cilantro, and queso cotija.
Marlin al Pastor Tacos
Revolver Taco Lounge Gastro Cantina, Dallas
The urgent text message delivering news of marlin al pastor came on a night when I’d otherwise be staying home. Luckily, putting on shoes and hopping in an Uber was worth chowing down on adobo-seasoned fish carefully sliced from the charcoal-fired trompo and served on nixtamalized corn tortillas. I had five.
Soy-Marinated Tuna Tostada
Oxomoco, Brooklyn, New York
This high-end New York Mexican restaurant is the holder of a highly coveted Michelin star, and when I dined there, I found the quality of the food supported the award. Especially good was the nixtamalized crispy tortilla bearing swaths of umami-popping tuna, marinated in soy sauce and slathered in salsa macha. The result is a nutty and refreshing snack worth the $25 price tag.
Tacos de Canasta
Tacos Joven, Mexico City, Mexico
Good luck finding a seat at this tiny taqueria in Mexico City’s Narvarte Oriente neighborhood. The best one might be the brick planter on the sidewalk. The specialty here is steamed tacos de canasta served from a woven basket. There are layers of several filling options divided by blue plastic. I enjoyed the mole verde, and the chicharron and papa, with a rich salsa de morita bobbing with more chicharron.
Tacos de Guisados
Azteca Taco House, Houston
It’s no secret that wide-ranging guisados are my favorite category of tacos. They’re the perception-busting tacos that evoke homeyness and a strong sense of identity from Mexicans. Every morning and at lunch time, Azteca Taco House sees a line of customers shuffling and pointing in front of the vinyl barrier behind which the daily guisados are displayed. I’d love to say you should get them all or that I’ve tried them all; the guisados, which fill a tortilla alongside beans and rice, are very filling. Order two if you’re dining alone: I recommend the bone-in costillas (pork ribs) and the potato-studded picadillo.
There are myriad reasons Purépecha is considered one of the best restaurants in Dallas. The exclusivity of enjoying a reservation-only tasting menu is nice, but it’s the food, the care of it, and the incredible ingredients sourced from around the world that make it spectacular. The back room of the space is a replica of the kitchen from owner Regino Rojas’s childhood home, and is reserved for dinner tastings only. The front room is a small seating area for the new lunchtime taco omakase. It looks similar to Rojas’s other restaurant, Revolver Taco Lounge (now around the corner at the taquero’s Gastro Cantina), but the dishes, specifically the tacos, are tailored to each customer’s tastes. On my visit, I relished a taco of grilled hen of the woods mushroom paired with a squash blossom. Also incredible was seared mole verde–cured albacore tuna rounds topped with creme fraiche and dollops of salmon roe. But, really, it’s difficult to go wrong here.
La Colonial Tortilla Factory, El Paso
The tacoritto is not on the menu of this 51-year-old Sun City institution. You gotta be in the know to ask for the crunchy, nixtamalized taco shell cradling shredded beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese, and wrapped in a wonderfully chewy and light burrito-size flour tortilla. Don’t worry—you won’t get a strange look as your face lights up with guilty pleasure.
Taqueria Linares, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Like a New Mexican–style Christmas burrito, which is topped with green-chile salsa on one side and red-chile salsa on the other, tacos tiesos are drowned in a thin salsa verde, like guacamole or tomatillo and chile, as well as a salsa roja. The tacos are filled with beans and machaca before being crisped to hold up against the sauces.
The Beer at Bow & Arrow Brewing Company
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Bow & Arrow, the first Indigenous women–owned brewery in the U.S., was my first stop during a summer visit to Albuquerque. The hazy IPA, Like A Diamond in the Desert, Like a Beacon in the Night, is my favorite of the several beers I ordered and brought back to Texas. The drink blooms with citrus and ends with a bit of a dryness, like days spent in the cool, high-elevation burg.