Generations of Tex-Mex lovers have etched their signatures into the front door at The Don’Key in Pasadena. Inside, waitresses in gaudy dresses—the place revels in colorful kitsch—pile gooey spoonfuls of cumin-scented queso flameado into hot, fresh tortillas, and proudly dispense platters of “Sabroso,” a house specialty of deep-fried flour tortillas topped with juicy chunks of fajita meat, queso, and shredded cheese.
The gorgeous, neon-lit 1960s-era signage outside El Patio is a signal to diners that this Tex-Mex stalwart has weathered the years with grace and charm. Adding to its throwback allure is El Patio’s queso recipe, originally concocted by the late, great Felix Mexican Restaurant. Other Tex-Mex classics on offer here include fried egg–topped Sunrise Enchiladas (former owner Ana Villasana’s favorite dish), which the restaurant claims to have invented before anyone else in town. Though Villasana sold her family’s restaurant to a trio of investors in 2000, the new team has kept the old El Patio traditions alive.
How do you feel about lard? If a plate of refried beans or a stack of tortillas just isn’t complete to you without some porcine smack (absent most other places in these days of hydrogenated oils), head to El Real Tex-Mex Cafe. There, a die-hard old-school aesthetic is waiting for you—plates of San Antonio–style puffy tacos and chile gravy–topped tamales. Thanks to co-owner (and former Houstonia editor) Robb Walsh’s adherence to old-fashioned Tex-Mex recipes, you won’t find better cheese enchiladas in town—and the fajitas, made with well-marinated outside skirt steak, rival those at Ninfa’s, Houston’s standard-bearer (and no, he didn’t write this!).
Though the Ninfa’s name is nowhere in evidence, El Tiempo—run by Ninfa Laurenzo’s oldest grandson, Domenic Laurenzo—can’t help but betray its heritage. Here, the stand-outs are traditional fare, like sizzling beef fajitas, but also modern dishes, like ancho-honey-glazed quail and cañonballs: deep-fried avocados stuffed with cheese and spicy shrimp. Aside to lovers of atmosphere: Richmond Ave. may be El Tiempo’s original home, but it’s the Vintage Park location in Cypress, complete with sweeping staircase and tall ceilings, that truly dazzles.
Like El Tiempo, Patrick Torres’s Escalante’s was born of another Tex-Mex institution: Guadalajara, which his family originally ran. Torres opened the first Escalante’s on Voss Rd. in 1993, then expanded, several years later, into the original Guadalajara’s location in Town & Country Village (Guadalajara, under new ownership, moved down the road to I-10 and Gessner). The menu at Escalante’s is lighter and friskier than its stalwart predecessors, and somewhat more sophisticated. The escaveche with chunks of shrimp, fish, avocado, and mango is terrific, as is the fajita relleno: fajita meat wrapped around a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper and topped with queso. Don’t miss the outstanding roasted corn bisque with sherry or the Loco Mango margaritas, with plenty of fresh fruit in every glass.
At Fiesta en Guadalajara, you won’t be surprised by the Mexican crooner in one corner warbling “Por Tu Maldito Amor,” the abuelitas making fresh tortillas just off the dining room, or the excellent enchiladas—although you might be momentarily thrown by the Thursday-night drag shows at this Tex-Mex institution. The show might be gimmicky, but the food is not. We love the enchiladas de rancho topped with a zesty red salsa, fried potatoes, and fried carrots, not to mention the old-school Texas Combo, complete with cheese enchilada, tamale, and a crispy beef taco.
The family-run restaurant in Sugar Land known as Lupita’s used to be a beloved hole-in-the-wall. Then, the secret got out. On weekend evenings, you’ll find a long line waiting for owner Lupe Garcia’s fresh tortillas, towering plates of nachos, and chile gravy–topped tamales. Everything is made from scratch at this place, which Garcia runs with her husband and two sons, and the love shows in every forkful.
In 1993, Russell Ybarra transformed his padre’s restaurant in Pearland into Gringo’s—the first in what would eventually become an empire. Today, Ybarra’s portfolio includes nine Gringo’s restaurants and numerous Bullritos and Jimmy Changa’s. The family-friendly aesthetic remains firmly in place at Gringo’s, where cones of soft-serve ice cream are always free and you can feast on big portions for small prices. We love the Presidente combo plate, with cheese enchiladas, a chalupa, chile con queso, a crispy beef taco, and guacamole, all for less than $11, as well as the Veracruz: four bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed shrimp with a big platter of beef fajitas for only $17. Bonus: there’s even a gluten-free menu.
“A Houston tradition since 1941” reads the menu at Molina’s, which has been guided by three successive generations of the eponymous family. In some ways, the restaurants have changed little in the interim: the classic Mexico City combo is still served just as it was seven decades ago—in three big plates of enchiladas, tacos, a tamale, and more (so much more). The eatery remains a favorite of former president George H. W. Bush, who was one of the first customers when the new Bellaire location opened in 2012.
What’s left to say about the restaurant that gave the world fajitas and creamy green sauce? Not that The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is resting on its laurels. Ninfa Laurenzo’s historic restaurant—independently owned and operated since 2006 after being purchased separately from the other franchised locations—continues to up the ante each year with an expanded patio, shuttle buses to and from downtown sports venues, an ambitious cocktail collection, and inventive dishes from chef Alex Padilla such as mole-encrusted grilled salmon. Of course, you can still get Mama Ninfa’s famous fajitas, made with outside skirt steak and served with fresh, fluffy tortillas.
The allure of Pappasito’s Cantina is simple: no matter which of the 23 statewide locations you visit, the service is always on point, the food terrific. Consistency is the name of the Pappas family’s game, and they’ve built an impressive fajita fiefdom as a result. We love the basics here, which are often the toughest things to get right: tableside guacamole, beef fajita nachos, and—naturally—the fajitas themselves.
As you might expect, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen is known for owner Sylvia Casares’s elegant enchiladas—most named after towns in South Texas—but we’re equally fond of her home-style fideo soup (the Mexican version of chicken noodle) and the mesquite-grilled quail, which, in addition to being delicious, conjures up images of nights spent around the campfire on hunting trips to the Valley.
“Either you love the place or you don’t,” says the website for Spanish Village, a carnival of multi-colored Christmas lights and tequila-heavy margaritas for over half a century. We love it—especially the cumin-heavy Enchiladas-A-La-Taylor, a house specialty that tops cheese enchiladas with chile con carne, more cheese, then plenty of diced white onions. Equally popular: the Chalupa-A-La-Bales platters, which let you pair a crunchy chalupa with nearly any other menu item.
The bright pink original in the Heights on Airline is our favorite Teotihuacan, both for its boisterous patio and immense Mayan mural. The cheap, strong margaritas and overflowing parrilladas of grilled meats don’t hurt either. For those in the mood for fare that’s a bit lighter, the snapper al cilantro in a meunière sauce remains one of the best choices in town.
Though we could do without the valet service (this is Garden Oaks, after all), Tony’s Mexican Restaurant is forgiven—it’s just trying to take care of loyal customers the best way it knows how. The cozy, carpeted interior reminds us of a favorite aunt’s home, and the service makes you feel like family too. Tony’s enchiladas are absolutely killer, sporting a rich chile gravy and plenty of gooey cheese, and the margaritas are deceptively strong (in a good way!).