Mexican & Margaritas

Houston's Top 10 Regional Mexican Restaurants

Take an impressive culinary tour of Mexico without ever leaving the city limits.

By Robb Walsh June 30, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Mula de nopal at Cuchara

100% Taquito features the distinctive street food of Mexico City, including fresh masa sopes; molletes made with French bread and refried beans, and the Mexican sandwiches called tortas. The place is painted to resemble a famous plaza in the Mexican capital, complete with a lime-green VW bug taxicab to make visitors from the D.F. feel at home. Most customers get a bag of tacos to go, but there are plenty of tables if you just can’t wait. Try the banderitas: three flautas decorated like a Mexican flag—sour cream, salsa verde, and salsa rojo.

Buey y Vaca is both the name of a Mexican mercado and a restaurant that’s housed adjacent to the sprawling collection of flea market stands on Airline Dr. just south of Beltway 8. Inside the restaurant (only open on the weekends—Sundays are especially busy), you can choose from several different food stalls—or hit them all. Our favorite is El Pechocho, a Mexico City–style barbacoa de borrego vendor. Order a bowl of spicy broth, then tell the taquero manning the booth how many of the falling-apart-tender, chile-braised lamb tacos you want. A nopalito salad comes on the side, as does a pungent herb called papalo (a.k.a. Bolivian cilantro). Add a squeeze of lime, chopped onions, and cilantro along with the papalo, and discover barbacoa tacos Mexico City–style.

Casa De Leon might be lacking in décor, but it’s the best place in the city to eat the famous Jalisco stew called birria. The exotic bowl of dark-red chile broth comes with braised goat meat, a stack of fresh corn tortillas on the side, and a garnish plate of chopped onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and lime wedges. The menu also boasts giant burritos and deep-fried chimichangas, along with fajitas and crispy tacos, if you aren’t in a goaty sort of mood. Attention sports aficionados: this is a favorite gathering spot for fans of Mexico’s World Cup soccer team—as long as Mexico hasn’t been eliminated yet. 

Cuchara Mexico City Bistro is the hippest of the Mexico City–style restaurants in Houston, with sidewalk tables and Keith Haring–esque murals (by owner Ana Beaven’s sister, Cecilia) that make a striking backdrop for the international crowd. Get a craft cocktail or a shot of premium tequila with a sangrita chaser, and sample such unusual bar snacks as fried minnows or hibiscus flower–and–cream-cheese tacos. Of the entrées, which are ingeniously presented in tiny enamelware pots, our favorite is the pork in mole verde sauce made with ground pumpkin seed kernels. For dessert, the five-leches cake is a decadent treat for those times when three milks simply won’t do.

The name El Hidalguense refers to someone from Hidalgo, a city in Mexico’s Huastecan region, and not surprisingly, the food hails from there as well. The humble restaurant’s brick pit offers up grilled cabrito (baby goat) and lamb barbacoa in giant maguey leaves—both recommended. But whatever you order, don’t miss the signature chile rayado salsa, which has a dried chile flavor like an ancho, but also a chocolaty bitterness and subtle smokiness. An entertaining Huastecan band plays here on the weekends.

Chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s

Image: Kate LeSueur

The food at Hugo’s, the city’s most elegant Mexican restaurant, is cooked in the exalted Puebla style. To make James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega’s classic mole poblano, the kitchen staff roasts cocoa beans, grinds them by hand, and blends the paste with several varieties of dried chiles, toasted sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, and plantains. Seldom-seen delicacies like rabbit mixote appear on the menu along with seasonal offerings like squash-blossom summer dishes and chiles en nogada in the early fall. Don’t miss the Sunday brunch, when an extensive buffet offers almost the entire menu.

Luna Y Sol boasts a chef born in Mexico City and educated at Le Cordon Bleu. As such, you'll find a deftly executed menu of Mexican comfort classics, or "real Mex-Mex," as the menu calls its line-up of sopes, tacos, empanadas and enchiladas. Try the enmoladas—corn tortillas stuffed with roasted chicken in a dark mole—or the entomatadas—stuffed with beef fajita meat and topped with a lusty tomato sauce—two dishes rarely found on most Houston menus, and save room for the crumbly cinnamon "wedding cookies" called ojarascas.

When Pico’s Mex-Mex opened on Bellaire Blvd. in 1984, it was one of Houston’s only restaurants devoted to interior Mexico—and it had to offer Tex-Mex standards as well to stay afloat. These days, at the restaurant’s shiny new Kirby location, the enormous menu offers what Pico’s owners call a “scrapbook of their favorite meals from the seven regions of Mexico.” Mexican ceviches and seafood cócteles, Oaxacan tamales in banana leaves, and spinach-and-almond quesadillas are among the intriguing appetizers. Entrées worth noting include grilled lobsters, duck in two moles, and beef tenderloin on a broiled prickly pear paddle.  

The original Tacos La Bala was a taco truck on a shipping wharf in Tampico, Mexico. That truck is long gone, but the Houston chain has grown to six locations. Each has terrific tacos, but don’t miss the cochinita pibil torta here. The Mexican sandwich comes on a toasted telera roll topped with shredded, slow-cooked pork swimming in a spicy orange sauce flavored with achiote, orange and lime juice, habanero peppers, and coriander—all topped with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and crumbly Mexican white cheese and a large slice of ham. A stupendous sandwich, and large enough to split with a friend.

Taqueria La Macro specializes in Monterrey favorites like seasoned pork fresh from the trompo. There’s not only a hamburguesa estilo de Monterrey; there’s also a Trompi Burger, a Mexican hamburger with tangy orange trompo meat on top. Try a taquiza mixta platter—five assorted mini-tacos with all the condiments.

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