1. Spanish Village
It’s simple Tex-Mex fare — enchiladas, fajitas and guacamole — served in a colorful and festive setting for more than 50 years. More than a few Houstonians admit their love of Spanish Village is fanned by the house margarita. The slushy margaritas are tart, lively and, yes, intoxicating.
[Photo: A Fajita combo waits to be eaten at Spanish Village.]
2. El Real
This temple of Tex-Mex was built by Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd — creators of Reef and Little Bigs — in collaboration with cookbook author Robb Walsh. Housed in the restored Tower Theater, the restaurant serves vintage fare, such as puffy tacos and cheese enchiladas topped with chili gravy.
[Photo: The main dining area at El Real.]
3. El Tiempo
Here’s the thing, the chow at El Tiempo is outstanding — deliciously charred fajitas, pillowy flour tacos, amazing salsa. The margaritas are potent and tasty, which is a rare combination. But it’s expensive. Like, 24 bucks for a half-pound of fajitas expensive. Find the nearest location at eltiempocantina.com.
[Photo: El Tiempo Cantina's Deluxe Filete Parilla.]
This is no enchilada joint. The upscale regional Mexican dishes — the zippy — are carefully crafted and generally unseen on other Houston menus. Worth a try: the bright snapper-studded ceviche, grilled octopus and sopecitos — trio of little masa pillows stuffed with rabbit, chicharones and duck. And those are just off the starters menu.
[Photo: The Tacos Dorados at Hugo's.]
22 N. Chenevert
Irma Galvan’s legendary downtown lunch spot is known for her comforting Mexican sauces and stews, her gracious hospitality and her homemade lemonade. Sit down in the tiny dining room and you’re likely to bump elbows with judges, City Council members and other movers and shakers. But pay attention to your server. Irma has never handed out menus. Never will. And, if you’re on a budget, ask the price before you order. Irma’s serves high-quality fare, and the prices reflect that.
[Photo: Not a chair is empty during the lunch rush at Irma Galvan's Mexican Restaurant Irma's in downtown Houston.]
6. Molina’s Cantina
In the vast salsa sea of Tex-Mex joints in Houston, Molina’s gets bonus points for authenticity (you gotta try the chili) and atmosphere (the palapa-covered patio is the perfect place to sip margaritas). And speaking of salsa, you’ll be presented with two reds. Insiders know to ask for the green. (You’re welcome.)
[Photo: Molina's Summer Salad -- mixed salad greens, diced mango and avocado, tossed in a sweet and spicy dressing and topped with grilled chicken.]
7. Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
2704 Navigation Blvd.
As the name implies, this is where it all started. If you believe the legend, Mama Ninfa was the patron saint of Tex-Mex. In her tiny kitchen, she cranked out the world’s first fajitas. Greatly expanded in recent years to include a real parking lot and large patio deck, the restaurant still manages to draw hordes who wait patiently for tables.
[Photo: Ninfa's Green Sauce]
While it’s been around since 1984, Pico’s recently moved inside the Loop to a bustling corner on upper Kirby. The digs may be fancier, but chef Arnoldo Richards’ food hasn’t changed. Try the sautéed calamari, cochinita pibil (roast pork in banana leaves) or the colorful chiles en nogada.
[Photo: The ceviche pescador with lime-marinated fresh snapper w/onions, tomatos, serrano peppers and avocado at the new Pico's Mex-Mex restaurant.]
9. Soto’s Cantina
10609 Grant Road
This family-owned Tex-Mex spot on the north side features a cheerful dining room, well-prepared classics, such as chiles rellenos, pork tamales in chili gravy and shrimp in a rich chipotle sauce.
[Photo: Fajita nachos at Soto's Cantina.]
10. Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
Sylvia Casares Copeland’s gracious hospitality has made her two restaurants popular. Her refined plates feature only the freshest ingredients and surprisingly complex flavors. Among her dozen enchilada offerings: squash and corn, crab and grilled pork with a fiery red sauce.
[Photo: Sylvia Casares makes her tamales at Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen.]