In recent years, Houstonians may have noticed a new chain of fancy Tex-Mex restaurants cropping up everywhere from Cypress to Katy. What began as a single Tex-Mex joint in Cypress over a decade ago has now expanded to include locations in Katy, Spring and Westchase. But Alicia's Mexican Grille isn't your average enchilada chain. This family-run organization is committed to doing things differently—starting with the decor.
On my first visit to the Alicia’s Mexican Grille in Katy, I took a quick glance around the place and thought, wow, this is real nice joint. High ceilings, tall windows and cool earth tones abound; a massive fireplace anchored the main dining room. I was meeting up with a friend who—like many Houstonians who've tried Alicia's fajitas—won’t stop talking about the place. I was also set to meet up with one of the restaurant’s owners, Ubaldo Herrera, one of three sons of the original founder, David Herrera. At this point, I was a little intimidated. Would this be the regular Tex-Mex food I know and love or something completely different?
Then, the chips and salsa arrived. I’m not big on salsas, but this one had a little kick. It wasn’t mild, nor was it too hot that you had to chug your margarita–er, ice water—to cool down. We were off to a good start.
Herrera’s father, David, arrived in Houston at the age of 18 from El Salvador. Like many talented chefs before him, he entered the restaurant business as a busboy. Not long after, David got a gig at Tony's, working his way up to captain, the highest waiter position in owner Tony Vallone's famously tony restaurant. From there, David went behind the scenes; he started hanging out more in the kitchen, asking the cooks to teach him what they were doing, learning everything about how each dish was prepared and what ingredients were included.
“He said the way he learned, when he had a question he would go talk to the chef and asked, ‘How do you do this?’” Herrera told me. “He said, ‘If I knew how it was prepared and what was in it, I could sell it easier.” Before long, his began trying to prepare the same dishes at home so he could try the entrees himself, all the while working off the notes he took at Tony's.
“It’s funny," Herrera laughed. "He never actually worked in the kitchen."
Just then, our appetizer arrived: queso fundido, which Herrera recommended with chorizo, accompanied by fresh, hand-made flour tortillas. Now, you have your choice of queso fundido ingredients at Alicia's, including veggies, chicken or beef fajitas, but we stuck with Herrera's recommendation, despite the fact that I've never been a fan of the Mexican sausage. Imagine my surprise when I tasted it blended together with melting Oaxaca cheese and found it delicioso. Score another surprising point for Alicia's.
Herrera himself started out as a busboy 15 years ago, working his way around restaurant kitchens from dishwasher to line cook to the front of the house as a waiter and bartender. When his father, David, started the first Alicia's in Cypress in 2006, Herrera was quick to join the family business, which had been named for his mother. His brothers Marvin and Dario followed soon after. “When we first started, our dad put us through everything,” he said. “Anything that’s right here, I can cook it myself, too.”
Today, he and Marvin are more hands-on in the business; their younger brother Dario is attending the University of Houston, but comes in during the weekends to “get an idea on how things run.” Meanwhile, two of his cousins are managers at the Katy location, and the Herreras have even branched out from just running Tex-Mex joints: they've now opened two restaurants within a short distance from each other in Cypress, where the family opened its very first Alicia's. Across the parking lot is Dario’s American Cuisine, while the newer Marvino’s Italian Kitchen sits just south of both on Highway 290. Both, of course, are named after David's sons, Marvin and Dario. The latter has given his own twist to some of Alicia's most popular entrees.
“If you see a lot of our enchiladas, they’re not just typical enchiladas," Herrera said. “[Dario] does a lot of the cream sauce; it’s not something you would normally find at a Mexican restaurants.” In fact, everything here, from the tortillas to the desserts, is hand-made. That made trying to decide what to order for dinner quite difficult: crab enchiladas, lobster enchiladas, pollo chipotle, it all sounded good. However, senior chef Luis Hernandez, who's now been with the Herreras for 12 years, recommended Alicia’s molcajete.
Served in a large stone bowl, the popular entree comes with panela cheese, shrimp (jumbo and small), chicken and beef fajitas, four slices of avocado, and a tomatillo sauce containing artichoke hearts, mushrooms, poblano peppers and scallions. As if that wasn't enough, the molcajete came with charro beans and cilantro rice, and a choice of either corn or flour tortillas. It's a dish big enough for two (and in my case, it fed three).
Though I'm not generally a fan of vegetables, the veggies in this dish are what adds the flavor, and makes the little burrito I made with the aforementioned ingredients delightful and filling. Moreover, the rice isn’t your usual rice; the cilantro flavor is there, but it isn’t overwhelming. And any dish that makes me eat vegetables is a big win in my books (and my probably mother’s who had tried to make me eat the greens for years). Surprise again.
For dessert, I decided to go with the chocolate tuxedo cake, which contains seven chocolate layers. Of course, it’s a huge slice, though I expected the taste to be rich and super sweet that I would only be able to take a few bites and take the rest home. However, that was not the case with this dessert; despite the seven layers, the taste was just the right amount of chocolate, and this chocoholic couldn’t be happier. (Nevertheless, I still took most of it home, but only because I was full from the appetizer and the entree). And in one final surprise, my day-old leftovers tasted just as good the next afternoon.
Though there has been some talk among the family about opening another restaurant, they were surprised to find that Dario's has been busier than anyone could have expected. Herrera told his father to slow down, and wait for the holidays to pass—as well as their upcoming wine and tequila dinner in October, one of the most popular events the restaurant hosts each year—before he talks about opening any other Alicia's.
"My dad said, 'I wish I had more kids,'" Herrera laughed. "I told him, 'I wish you had more kids, too, so you can help spread us out.'"