La Big Gringa at Arnaldo Richards’ Picos. Image: Picos
If you know anything about living in the Lone Star State, you know that our Mexican cuisine is top of the line. Although Texas is famously the birthplace of Tex-Mex, and Houston lays claim to the fajita — let’s pour one out for Tex-Mex patron saint “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo — it’s important not to forget the originality and flavors of the many varieties of authentic Mexican food that can be found here, food delivered to our plates perfectly spiced and without cutting any corners. Succulent skirt steaks, fresh chiles, and rustic corn tortillas are all staples of the cuisine south of the border, but if a trip down south doesn't exactly fit into your lunch break, worry not: Houston has the next-best thing.
From the greasy meat fillings of Mexico City street tacos to the thick corn masa of Oaxacan tlacoyo, Houston restaurants have your cravings covered. Whether it’s the finger-licking-good menu of a family-owned taqueria like Tacos Doña Lena or the expansive assortment of dishes from across all of Mexico’s regions offered at Arnaldo Richards’ Picos Restaurant, the city is packed fuller than the portliest of chiles en nogada with authentic Mexican restaurants that will appease your yearning for fresh, flavorful food.
To ease your search for an authentic Mexican bite to eat, we’ve put together a handy guide to the best bona fide Mexican restaurants in the city.
Originally established as a side business to help Ninfa Laurenzo through financial troubles with her tortilla factory, Ninfa’s has far surpassed its humble beginnings. Boasting the slogan, “The best Mexican food in Texas since Texas was in Mexico,” the restaurant's Uptown and Navigation locations offer a wide selection of Mexican food classics, including handmade tamales and the original Taco a la Ninfa, which was first concocted in 1973. If you’re looking for something more experimental, try the award-winning Fajita Burger, featuring authentic Mexican flavors — think queso Oaxaca and Monterey Jack cheese melted atop a perfectly grilled fajita patty — combined with a presentation that is quintessentially American.
This restaurant’s full name is actually Arnaldo Richards’ Picos Restaurant Seven Regions of Mexican Cuisine, and it lives up to its moniker. The Kirby outpost has a sizable menu featuring a section focused on chef specialities from the seven regions, such as Mixiote Hidalgo Style, a spiced lamb shank steamed in agave parchment, from central Mexico. And while you’re there, don’t miss out on the drinks — the restaurant takes pride in its relationship with master distillers, and legend has it that Picos is the birthplace of the shaker margarita.
With a name that literally translates to “spoon,” Cuchara encourages its guests to (both figuratively and literally) dig into its regional cuisine. The Mexico City–inspired bistro in Montrose offers brunch and dinner menus including dishes like esquite, a Mexican street corn salad, and encacahuatadas, in which enchiladas are covered in a spicy peanut salsa. Cuchara does not limit its Mexico City influence to its food, either; murals by Mexico City artist Cecilia Beaven adorn the walls, colorful dinnerware graces the tables, and rough-hewn aprons draw on the restaurant’s origins to create an authentic dining experience.
This classic cantina in Bellaire has everything you need to fulfill a craving for Mexican food: guacamole prepared tableside, tamales, chalupas, and menudo con pozole, just to name a few. While you’re here, make sure to check out Don Carlos’s nachos. From the Supreme Nachos to the Fajita Nachos, this restaurant is sure to please any tortilla chip lover. And if you don’t love tortilla chips, don’t fret — Don Carlos gives potato fries the nacho treatment as well.
A result of the University of Houston’s Entrepreneurship program, 100% Taquito’s mission is to recreate the experience of Mexico City street food, down to the street itself. Tucked away in Greenway, the restaurant’s décor mimics a Mexico City plaza, topped off with a bright green taxi and sidewalk flooring. As the name suggests, 100% Taquito’s menu hosts a long list of taquito flavors, all served in threes. And if you can’t choose, go for the sampler, which afford guests a taste of the beef, spicy brisket, and chicken mole taquitos.
If you’re looking for an extensive menu full of Mexican food classics in the Museum District, look no further than La Tapatia. Featuring a mix of traditional flavors and contemporary techniques, the cantina’s signature dishes include eight kinds of enchiladas covered in toppings like ranchera sauce, avocado, and cheddar cheese. Looking for variety? The menu also offers combination dishes, such as the Tampiqueña, which comes with beef skirt steak, a cheese enchilada, and a crispy ground beef taco.
Founded by the sons of immigrant farmworkers from Mexico, Fiesta en Guadalajara prides itself on its family recipes. The Heights restaurant boasts an assortment of traditional dishes, including fajitas accompanied by charro beans and tilapia stuffed with sauteed shrimp and mushrooms. And for those looking for a full plate, the Mexican Favorites section of the menu promises to excite with its grilled chicken and skirt steak meals.
Locally sourced ingredients and welcoming service combine to create an excellent Mexican dining experience at Ambriza’s two north Houston locations. The menu reflects the restaurant’s commitment to taking traditional Mexican flavors to new levels through modern styles of cooking. Standout dishes include the restaurant’s tuna tostada, which combines Asian spices with refried beans, as well as its signature burger, which includes the basics of a Mexican meal transmuted into burger form.
Home to authentic Mexican food with a twist, Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe in the Heights has a unique menu including dishes like their infamous Caliente Shrimp, chiles rellenos, and Mexican-style tortas. Perhaps most impressive on their menu are the Parrillada Plates — assorted meat plates to share. The restaurant’s signature, the Parrillada Teotihuacan, consists of chargrilled quails, beef short ribs, grilled jumbo shrimp, beef and chicken fajitas, and one chile relleno.
For those seeking a meal that sticks to the traditional techniques of Mexican cuisine, Hugo’s is the restaurant for you. With a menu designed for lovers of seafood, diners can enjoy oysters, scallops, shrimp, and the catch-of-the-day, all with a familiar Mexican taste. The Montrose stalwart also offers the unique opportunity to experiment with new foods. Dishes like the Chapulines — sautéed grasshoppers served with chipotle salsa, guacamole, and tortillas — are sure to tempt guests looking for new flavors.
Named after Polanco, a Mexico City neighborhood known for its upscale cuisine, Polanquito brings to Houston a little piece of Mexican cuisine, all gathered across several regions. Along with a dinner and lunch menu, the restaurant also offers brunch late into the afternoon. So, late risers, have no fear, as you too will have a chance to try a Mexican breakfast, complete with huevos rancheros, fried tortilla chips, and rice pudding empanadas.
Using flavors from Mexico City and Oaxaca as a cornerstone, this charming north Houston taqueria prides itself on dishes that taste like home. Fan favorites include the restaurant’s tlacoyo, masa filled with cheese and beans, and its menu of flavorful tacos. For those interested in a more personalized meal, La Chingada’s huaraches can be customized with an extensive selection of toppings.
The recipes for Lena Cabrera’s award-winning food come straight from Mexico, where she first began selling her tacos before moving to the United States. Now, Tacos Doña Lena, located in Spring Branch, is the go-to for street tacos, homemade salsa, and local Mexican favorites like chilaquiles. Most of the menu is customizable to guests’ preferences, including the choice of meat (or meat substitute), so no one will leave Tacos Doña Lena unsatisfied.
Nana’s Mexican Cocina’s 100 percent homemade guarantee is just one testament to the restaurant’s authenticity. At the Oak Forest favorite, tacos are a speciality, and they come served on freshly baked tortillas and paired with toppings like tortilla chip eggs or longaniza sausage. And if the delicious food isn’t enough, the restaurant also offers an everyday special on their breakfast tacos in addition to a rotating weekly special, allowing you to get a mouthwatering meal for a reasonable price.
Indigenous Mexican flavors and techniques are front-and-center at Downtown’s Xochi. The vibrant dishes and distinctive flavors here play into the restaurant’s mission to celebrate the Mexican region of Oaxaca and its endemic cuisine. At Xochi, guests can expect an abundance of mole, house-made chocolate, and masa, as well as delicious vegetarian selections. And if you’re interested in a traditional Oaxacan breakfast, you won’t be disappointed with its Sunday brunch buffet.