Of all the possible hybridizations of Mexican food, a blending with Middle Eastern cuisine is perhaps one of the most natural. The two cultures have a long history of intermingling food traditions: in the 1930s, Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants to Puebla, Mexico, and their neighbors adapted shawarma into tacos árabes, which later morphed into Mexico City’s classic tacos al pastor and Monterrey’s tacos de trompo—initially called tacos doneraki (a portmanteau of doner kebab and Iraqi) in the 1960s. Many food terms in Spanish come from the Arabic, including aceite (oil), azúcar (sugar), and lima (lime). Alambres (wires), a popular Mexican dish, developed from Middle Eastern kebabs. Mexican staples like fragrant cilantro, earthy cumin, and rejuvenating lime are ingredients adapted from the Moors by the Spanish and shipped to Mexico. Then there is the eight-hundred-year rule of Spain by the Muslim Moors. It’s no accident that the Iberian conquest of Mesoamerica occurred around the same time as the Inquisition and Spanish defeat of the Moors. In Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, the seven-month-old taqueria Tres braids Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines to great success. This is a blend that only seems possible in Houston, one of the nation’s most diverse cities and the home of Cajun tacos and Indo-Mex tacos.
Opened November 18, 2020, by Jordan-bred Anas Mousa (principal owner of Mexican seafood joint La Fisheria) in a small space that has previously peddled both Colombian and Thai food, Tres is colorful inside and out. The freestanding building has a fuschia and white facade with a surreal mural depicting a big cat with a ringed tail, an armadillo, and what look like dragons. Emanating from this cluster of vibrant art are representations of butterflies and birds. One side of a small marquee sign in the front parking lot reads “Chicken Shawarma Is Life.” The other side declares “Tacos B4 Vatos” (tacos before buddies). Inside are ferns alongside framed Lotería cards; painted calaveras, or skulls; a heart formed from small light bulbs; and a mural of a big cat’s face framed by a tribal configuration. The neon-green agave mural behind the tiled bar continues the over-the-top, Technicolor theme. Here, bartenders dispense bright margaritas and house cocktails.
The kaleidoscopic delights extend to the food. Hummus and salsas are available in their traditional formats. However, I recommend you try the Hummus a la Mexicana, in which the chickpea dip includes blended chipotles and is bordered by an arch of pico de gallo and a pinch of cilantro. It’s framed with whole fried tortillas, crunchy pita triangles, and delicate, mouthwatering lavash (a thin Middle Eastern flatbread). I also ordered more whole fried-corn tortillas, slices of snappy plantain, and yet more lavash, which arrived at the table with zippy chipotle mayo, creamy and cooling cumin labneh (strained yogurt), and salsa macha. Everything pops with color—from the mismatched-pattern dishware up—setting the tone for a fantastic meal.
I was surprised to see a machete, or long, blade-shaped quesadilla, on the menu. The rare find had a classic filling: stubby strands of dark red beef birria with sliced red onions. The silky meat contrasted nicely with the crispy corn tortilla, and the onions added a pleasant bite. Pickled vegetables, a creamy salsa verde, and an inky salsa macha accompanied the machete. If beef isn’t your thing, choose a machete filled with grilled shrimp alambre instead.
My favorite dish, though, was the cauliflower taco (and I hate cauliflower). Its filling is gently encased in fried tempura, with a swipe of macha dressing and peaked dollops of radiantly red Spanish romesco sauce, giving the dish a one-two burst of heat. Radish, strips of fried leek, curved onions, and carefully placed cilantro stalks added wild textures. True to the restaurant’s exterior sign, the chicken shawarma taco is also a standout dish. Atop a cushiony flour tortilla are piled soft French fries; chicken sliced irregularly, as from a trompo; and garlic aioli that spills onto your fingers with heat provided by the pickled onions and pico de gallo. In another taco, lone strips of rib eye are dressed with the green-speckled, yogurty cumin labneh and a salad. Slivers of prickly serrano chiles were tossed to the beef’s side.
Much of the restaurant’s look and menu was dreamed up by Karen Diaz-Bizuet, Tres’s general manager. The machete in particular was a longstanding dream of hers: “I’ve been carrying that in my soul for a very long time.” The Mexico City native had worked with Mousa at La Fisheria, where they began to plan another restaurant that would fuse their culinary backgrounds and each culture’s vibrant color palettes. “I want chairs in different colors. I want the walls to be different colors. I want everything to be loud,” Mousa told Diaz-Bizuet. The conversations went on for more than five years. Occasionally, they’d look at a potential restaurant space, but nothing was quite right.
But the pair saw the pandemic as the perfect opportunity to try the new concept, which is the first of its kind in Houston that I can find. “We figured the best we could do is give it a shot and make people feel welcome,” Diaz-Bizuet explains. Indeed, tacos and taquerias have been mostly COVID-proof, and there is nary a negative thing to say about Tres.
According to Diaz-Bizuet, one of the most popular items is the lamb-kebab taco, which was sold out during my visit. It’s based on a recipe from Mousa’s mother. “She wanted to give us something authentic, but was very protective. It took a long time for us to get it out of her.” The only misstep on the menu was the Governator, a take on the shrimp-and-melted-cheese taco gobernador from Sinaloa, Mexico. Its flavor was overwhelmed by a slap of fishiness and whacks of iodine to the palate. It overpowered even the oil-based salsa macha. Nevertheless, Tres is something special, and missing the lamb kebab gives me an excuse to return.
When you visit Tres, you won’t find pork dishes. Pork isn’t halal (Islamic religious dietary restrictions that parallel Judaism’s kosher rules). Tres isn’t halal certified—yet. The ownership and management team are actively working toward it. I applaud the decision and effort. Halal confirmation will go a long way toward expanding the diversity of Mexican food in Houston and what’s possible under a different set of gastronomic regulations. A Mexican restaurant doesn’t need the pork-filled tacos catolicos (Catholic tacos) once used to test a Mexican’s Christian faith to thrive. Tacos al pastor, the most Catholic of tacos, are omnipresent and too often considered the template for tacos. They’re not. There is more to Mexican cuisine than pork, as Tres is proving with a refreshing ease.
212 Westheimer Road, Houston
Hours: Tuesday–Wednesday 5–10, Thursday–Saturday 5–midnight, Sunday 1–8