Houstonians consider Mexican food, devoured early and often, to be their sacred birthright. Here are some of their favorite places to get the good stuff, and the margaritas that go with it.
Distinguished mom-style plate lunches and breakfasts in a rambly downtown venue that’s more a folk-art environment than a dining room. Enchiladas in chile sauces made from scratch, pristine guacamole (possibly the best in the land) and fabled lemonade all contribute to the Irma’s experience. The James Beard Foundation has named Irma’s an America’s Classic. 22 N. Chenevert, 713-222-0767.
Villa Arcos It’s cash only, and it closes at 2 p.m. most days, 1 p.m. Sundays. But this modest family-run taco shack makes some of the finest breakfast tacos you’ll ever eat: from the gargantuan Bacon Super Taco to the sublime Velia’s Burrito. Try the weekend chicharrones tacos or the lunchtime Tex-Mex specials, especially the enchiladas. 3009 Navigation, 713-227-1743.
Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
Rio Grande Valley gal Sylvia Casares turns out some of the best Tex-Mex in town at her two locations. Green-sauced chicken enchiladas or the “Lubbock” version swathed in chile con carne are highlights, along with avocado-spiked pico mole relish and the fabulous new mesquite-grilled cabrito al pastor. 6401 Woodway, 713-334-7295; 12637 Westheimer, 281-679-8300.
Chef-owner Hugo Ortega, a native of Mexico City, brings both soul and fine-dining chops to this handsome restaurant. There’s a seriously good bar, a smart wine list and a menu that riffs skillfully on classic dishes from the interior of Mexico. Make your own tacos from the stunning octopus al carbon, grilled with jalapeño and garlic; or try the pan de cazon from coastal Campeche, a sort of soft, stacked tostada layered with chile arbol salsa
and chunks of smoky wood-grilled shark.
1600 Westheimer, 713-524-7744.
A rambunctious, down-to-earth Mexican joint where fantastic handmade corn tortillas and charcoaly platters of grilled beef fajitas, ribs (agujas) and shrimp pack them in. Flautas, green enchiladas and sopapillas are other good bets. 1511 Airline, 713-426-4420.
A staple for old-school Tex-Mex for more than 50 years. The faithful congregate on a funky enclosed porch for serious cheese-and-onion enchiladas in red chile gravy and killer margaritas. (Try the frozen variety, full of splintery shards of frozen fresh lime juice, served in a Nick-and-Nora cocktail glass.) 4720 Almeda, 713-523-2861.
La Guadalupana Bakery and Café
This neat, family-run hole in the wall is beloved for its breakfasts (try the chilaquiles or huevos rancheros with cinnamon coffee) as well as carefully made lunch or dinner plates, from Veracruzana-style fish to green chicken enchiladas in a frisky tomatillo sauce. Chef-owner Tracito Diaz is a pastry whiz, so sample his flan or tres leches, too.
2109 Dunlavy, 713-522-2301.
Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
This is the place where sizzling fajitas were introduced to the world by the late “Mama Ninfa” Laurenzo, and though her family no longer owns this location (or the many separately run chain locations around town), the original remains surprisingly true to her memory. The fajitas of beef skirt steak are among the best in town, the red and green salsas still sing. There’s lots of swell patio seating, plus an excellent margarita-and-tequila program by local mixologist Bobby Heugel. 2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175.
The Laurenzo family, of onetime “Mama Ninfa” fame, runs these pricey but good cantinas specializing in epic charcoaled platters of meats and seafood, with all the
right trimmings. Lethal margaritas; approach with caution. 3130 Richmond, 713-807-1600;
5602 Washington, 713-681-3645; 1308 Montrose, 713-807-8996.
A family-run pearl of the northwest side, Soto’s turns out some of the best fajitas in town, along with very fine renditions of chiles rellenos, green enchiladas and fat Gulf shrimp glazed with
chipotle. Even the nachos and basic combination plates are painstakingly done, and the Texas vernacular cottage setting has a folk-arty charm. 10609 Grant Road, 281-955-5667.
Chef-owner Arnaldo Richards does an exceptionally fine job with dishes drawn from the Mexican interior. His top-shelf margaritas have long set a local standard. (Try “The Perfect,” served straight up in its own shaker.) So have his wonderful cochinta pibil (Yucatecan roast pork), Oaxacan tamales, table salsas, rich mole and nightly specials — like the softshell crab. 5941 Bellaire, 713-662-8383.
El Real Tex-Mex
This tribute to old-school Tex-Mex in a restored movie house is the brainchild of chef Bryan Caswell and cookbook author Robb Walsh. Enchiladas, puffy tacos and excellent fajitas are the mainstays, and a 3 a.m. closing time on Fridays
and Saturdays is a major plus. The refried beans here, made with serious lard, are as good as they get. 1201 Westheimer, 713-524-1201.