Killen's TMX and Tamales Don Pepe Are Welcome Additions to a Packed Field
Chef and restaurateur Ronnie Killen looms large in Houston for a reason. Having grown up around the barbecue grill in Pearland and cut his teeth at Le Cordon Bleu in London, he wows diners with his beef mastery—from barbecue to steak to burgers to all of those things at once. Want smoke? He’s the guy. Craving a perfectly seared ribeye? Go to Ronnie.
Killen is a proud product of East Texas, raised on tacos as much as 'cue. When he announced plans to interpret meat by way of Mexico at Killen’s TMX, his third Pearland concept, it was no surprise. In fact, he’d already been serving up a few Tex-Mex specials at Killen’s Barbecue. The new place opened in December with plenty of fanfare and a menu that did surprise some: It isn’t just Tex-Mex, but also interior and coastal Mexican.
Killen slams several homers here. I’m still dreaming about the masterful refried corn in chile butter that accompanies his succulent, piquant, achiote-rubbed grouper, a nod to Yucatecan cuisine. His queso, full of hunks of chopped brisket, is another favorite, as are the satisfying chargrilled Snake River Farms wagyu-strip fajitas, served with flour and blue-corn tortillas.
It’s hard not to love everything Killen does with smoked meat, especially the chicken tinga enchiladas filled with thick, rich cheese that crisps up on the sides. His mouthwatering smoked pork is the star of the carnitas relleno, jalapeños stuffed with the shredded meat and Oaxaca cheese. That pork, along with Killen’s carnitas and barbacoa, elevates the otherwise clumsy trio of street tacos, whose blue-corn tortillas fall apart after a bite.
Unfortunately those aren’t the only things that fall apart. I’m all for thin corn chips, but here they sometimes arrive in crumbs. There are other consistency issues, too. The salsas vary from meal to meal—the verde is spicy one day, medium the next; the roja sings with smokiness sometimes, but not always.
Other dishes simply miss the mark. I found the popular creamed-corn empanadas to be bland, the shrimp and spice of the aguachile to be lost in a blast of citrus. And while the smoky meat of the short rib tamale didn’t disappoint, the otherwise phenomenal dish was drenched in far too much brisket chili.
Again, though, there is much to appreciate here, especially the stunning margaritas—get the Queen of the Underworld, bursting with pomegranate and reposado tequila—and, for dessert, the spongey, rich, wholly outstanding tres leches bread pudding.
There are moments when it’s hard to figure out what Killen’s TMX wants to be. The modern, blue-lit dining room decorated with candelabras and folk art, and the prices, suggest a polished, chef-driven concept, but the place also has an almost kitschy, family-restaurant vibe. I suppose it can be both things, but the place still needs to iron out some of the kinks.
Over in the Willowbend area, a stone’s throw past the Loop, there’s a new arrival to the neighborhood: Tamales Don Pepe. It’s not much to look at. There are bars on the windows and front door, and the unassuming dining room is adorned with a painting of Homer Simpson as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It’s a long way from the pretty dining room and palapa-shaded patio at the old Maria Selma, site of many a Montrose happy hour (and many more to come, after The Toasted Coconut opens in the same spot).
Tamales Don Pepe marks the reemergence of Rene Hidalgo, who served Mexican food and margaritas at Maria Selma for 14 years, closing the restaurant in 2016 after, he said, the area had become too expensive. He took a little time off, and then, in May of last year, opened Don Pepe. Ever since he’s been quietly serving up homespun Tex-Mex for breakfast and lunch in his spartan dining room with a couple of TVs.
Be warned: Currently there are no margaritas here, or any other alcohol at all. “If I have liquor then I’m going to have to be here all day,” he explained over the phone, adding that he wanted to keep a work-life balance in check for both him and his wife, who also works at the restaurant, along with two other employees. “We didn’t want to go back to the same thing of working all day, every day, and that’s why we decided to do just breakfast and lunch.” (Eventually Hidalgo does plan to offer dinner service with margaritas a few times a week.)
As the name suggests, tamales are the star here: fluffy, slightly sweet, and just crumbly enough, they’re pretty special. The rajas con queso version—filled with roasted jalapeños, onions, and queso fresco—are my favorite among the $2-a-pop tamales; simple black-bean-and-cheese is a close second. The tamale oaxaqueño, filled with smoky wisps of chicken and blanketed by an awesome, bittersweet mole, is a couple of bucks more and totally worth it.
Other specialties include the huarache of crisped masa filled with creamy refried beans and topped with lots of cotija, and the flauta covered in cheese and sour cream, resting on a pool of tangy salsa verde (you can also get roja). Speaking of, ask for a side of Hidalgo’s spicy chile de árbol salsa; it’s insanely good.
Corn is also front and center in breakfast dishes such as the Sope Pepe, a crispy, sturdy blue-corn tortilla full of those superb refried beans, plus red or green salsa and a fried egg. Elsewhere Pepe’s Breakfast Plate, with thin-sliced ham, over-easy eggs, salsa, potatoes, and beans, is also a fine choice. I was less enthusiastic about the breakfast tacos; the chorizo version I had was a little dry, and the flour tortillas weren’t homemade.
What I enjoy most about Tamales Don Pepe is how laidback the place is. Hidalgo or his wife will likely take your order at the counter, but there’s no number to bring back to your table. You just hang out and sip coffee until your plate arrives, and when you’re finished, nobody badgers you to pay right away. It’s tasty food in a relaxing setting, and we can always use more of that in Houston.