There are hundreds of Mexican restaurants on Houston’s north side. How does a humble writer determine which ones are worth visiting? You can try them all, but that takes an incredible amount of time, even if you love Tex-Mex like we do. You can check Yelp, but its reviews simply aren’t that accurate. You can read blog and print reviews, but what if it’s a new place?
I’ve pondered this for quite a while, and I came up with a good shortcut. I created the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and it’s grown to over 9,000 members, many of whom are incredibly knowledgeable about food. One of the most knowledgeable is my friend Bob Frasier. Bob is an incredible cook, and very well versed in numerous cuisines.
Recently Bob posted about a new Tex-Mex restaurant not far from the Woodlands, calling it “My new favorite Mexican spot in my neck of the woods”. Trusting Bob’s palate, I headed out to Rita’s Cantina, located north of Tomball on Hwy 249, near Hardin Store Road.
Located in a nondescript strip center, the outside of Rita’s could be confused for dozens of Mexican spots in the area. But stepping inside revealed a neat, clean interior, with thoughtful little touches. Clearly, the management cares about the customer’s experience, always a good sign.
But how’s the food? Looking across the spacious dining room, I found Bob and his lovely bride Heidi. Joining them for lunch, we surveyed the menu and made some choices. Bob assured us they were good ones. We believe in Bob. Will this trust be misplaced?
First to come out was the ceviche. The presentation was impressive: A hefty goblet filled with fish, shrimp, onion, and tomato, garnished with cilantro and topped with artfully arranged avocado slices.
The marinade used for the fish was a deliciously zingy citrus-based juice, combining with the fresh tangy onions to create a classic Peruvian-style ceviche… which happens to be my favorite. And this was an excellent example, flavorful, generously portioned, and beautifully presented.
As we were finishing the ceviche, the hot plates started arriving.
First out were the beef quesadillas, a standard dish that’s popular with adults and children alike. The formula at Rita’s included sliced skirt steak (as found in fajitas), and plenty of melty white cheese, sandwiched between two thin housemade flour tortillas.
Accoutrements were plentiful: A slathering of sour cream, some beautiful pico de gallo, and a scoop of Rita’s guacamole. The quality of the ingredients shone through on this dish, making it one of the more flavorful quesadillas we’d tried in quite a while.
Next up is a combo plate - in this case Combo #7. Consisting of a pork tamale, a chicken enchilada and a beef enchilada, we felt that it gave us a good overview of what Rita’s chef can do with various proteins.
As an aside, Tex-Mex is often difficult to present. It may be delicious, but on the plate it can be yellowish brown and not incredibly appetizing. The presentation here was different and appealing.
Bright colors made the first impression. Beautifully fresh tomato, diced expertly. A sprig of green cilantro, draped over the green and white arrangement of tomatillo sauce and crema that blanketed the chicken enchilada. This burst of color was flanked by the red Colorado-style chile gravy on the beef enchilada, and the more earthy, dark pork tamale.
Looks are wonderful, but tackling this appealing plate proved that the beauty wasn’t just skin deep. From the pork tamale to the chicken enchilada and finishing with the beef enchilada, all of the components were nicely seasoned, distinctly flavored, and were each excellent renditions of their respective dishes. Together they created a very satisfying whole, one we’d order again. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky.
After finishing the last tasty bite of Combo #7, Bob smiled and with a twinkle in his eye, said one word: Dessert.
Bob, you’re an evil, evil man. That’s one reason why we’re friends. A quick consultation with our knowledgeable server resulted in our order of their Cuatro Leches cake. We’d had Tres Leches from numerous establishments, but Rita’s wasn’t going to be satisfied with tres.
Again, the plating tempted our eyes before the fork touched the cake. A rich, saturated slab of cake was laid upon an artful arrangement of strawberries and blueberries, adrift in the four milk solution that had saturated the cake. Atop this was a crown of strawberries and freshly whipped heavy cream, drizzled with caramel and dusted with cinnamon.
And yes, it tasted better than it looked. No small feat.
To say we were impressed with Rita’s Cantina would be an understatement. To find a gem like this in the far northern reaches of Tomball is amazing. The restaurant can hold its own with any hotspot you care to name in the Houston area.
We confirmed two important rules: Great food can be found all over the Houston Area. And when Bob says to try a place, try it. Now.
Rita’s Cantina Mexican Kitchen | 32015 State Highway 249 | Pinehurst, TX 77362 | (346) 248-5097
Tacos are one of the foods that defines the state of Texas. From the largest city to the tiniest towns, tacos are one of the foods that are enjoyed by everyone young and old. And with this sort of demand, tens of thousands of taco spots have popped up, all promising Mexican goodness wrapped in a hard or soft shell.
We'd been hearing rumblings about a great spot not far from Old Town Spring. Chycho's Tacos is located on Aldine Westfield Rd., in a lightly commercialized area that was bustling with activity when we visited mid-week at 8pm.
The festive exterior was welcoming, as was the proprietor, Edwin Santos. We were greeted with a smile, and when we enquired about his al pastor tacos, he insisted on offering up a sample of his roasted pork. It was very good - dark, savory, with gentle heat from an ancho chile rub. We were sold, and ordered. On a whim, we decided to sample one of the fajita tacos, remembering that it is one of the most popular choices among our readers.
We then retired to the adjoining pavilion, a festive, spotlessly clean place with holiday lighting and a beer garden vibe. In short order a staff member called our name and delivered our tacos.
The plate of tacos appeared, and we were immediately greeted by a delicious, smoky aroma. It was time to dig in. The tacos al pastor were as we anticipated - rich, savory pork flavor, just enough heat to add interest, a very well prepared meat. On top, the typical fresh onions had been replaced with sweet, lightly grilled onions, a substitution we applaud. A sprinkling of cilantro and a dash of lime completed what are very good tacos al pastor.
After demolishing these tacos, we dug into the remaining fajita taco. As good as the al pastor is, the fajita is the star of the show. The beef had the signature flavor of charcoal broiling, with a subtle hint of mesquite to add complexity. This is superbly prepared fajita meat, and combined with the grilled onions, cilantro, and a spritz of lime it created a delicious taco, one we'll be trying again very soon.
We generally don't focus on cost at HTownChowDown, but we'd be remiss if we didn't discuss it here. Regular price for the tacos is $1.49, but on Tuesday, they're $0.99. That's easily one of the best bargains in town for high quality, delicious tacos.
If your idea of tacos begins and ends with a certain high-profile Austin import, you owe it to yourself to visit Chycho's and discover how good real tacos can taste.
Chycho's Tacos | 23206 Aldine Westfield, Spring TX 77373 | 832-566-3022
One of the questions we're asked most often is "Where should I eat".
Here is our list of our favorite Tex-Mex restaurants in the Woodlands area. This list is of full service Tex-Mex restaurants that offer a complete menu; taquerias have their own list.
Alicia's - This local chain excels at its grilled entrees. Our favorite is the Cowboy Steak - a slab of skirt steak, three shrimp, and two very good cheese enchiladas. The energetic bar serves up potent cocktails to thirsty patrons. Alicia's Mexican Grille - 20920 Kuykendahl Rd, Spring TX 77379 - 281-350-8383
Casa Medina - This deceptively low-profile jewel on I-45 impresses discerning foodies with well prepared Tex-Mex classics, solid chips and salsa, and gotta-try-it avocado margaritas, which taste much better than they sound. If Old School Tex-Mex is what you crave, look no further. Casa Medina - 28777 I-45, The Woodlands TX 77381 - 281-298-9866
Guadalajara - The upscale, family-friendly dining room is a great place to enjoy out-of-the-ordinary dishes. Excellent ceviches and outstanding roast chicken enchiladas highlight the diverse menu. Guadalajara Hacienda - 27885 I-45 N, The Woodlands TX 77386 - 281-362-0774
Chuy's - Locals flock to this Austin Icon for reliable Tex-Mex and strong margaritas. Skip the fajitas and go directly to the more unique options, like the Chuychanga and huge combination plates. Insiders know to ask for the complimentary creamy jalepeño dip with the chips and salsa... it's addictive. Chuy's - 18035 W I-45, Shenandoah TX 77385 - 936-321-4440
Lupe Tortilla - Fajitas are the entree of choice at this local chain. The lime marinade's signature flavor keeps regulars coming back, but creeping prices are causing some rumbles on social media. Bring your gold card. Lupe Tortilla - 19437 W I-45, Shenandoah TX 77385 - 281-298-5274
A recent conversation in a foodie discussion group bemoaned the lack of a good Southern California-style burrito in Houston. We have burritos, but they tend to be more of a Tex-Mex style, often with rice and/or refried beans among the ingredients; the Southern California-style is a lighter style, highlighting fresh ingredients with an eye towards more protein and veggies, and less carbs and fat.
Taquerias are a big thing in Houston, thanks to our vibrant Latin American community. Even the worst ones are pretty good, and the best ones are excellent. They're almost all family run, small operations, and in many cases the ability to speak Spanish is very helpful when you visit. We think it's part of the charm, but some less adventurous souls are put off by this.
For these folks, fast food tacos were created. From Jack in the Box tacos (which we admit to liking) to Taco Bell to Taco Cabana, different approaches to offering tacos to the terminally unadventurous have been tried, with mixed results.
Our biggest complaint: None of these chains offers a truly excellent taco.
We'll be back.
Hello Taco | 25114 Grogan's Mill Rd. | Spring, TX 77380 | 832-819-4MEX | hellotaco.com
Houston is a city that's obsessed with the latest and greatest. Along those lines, it's the newest restaurants are the ones that get almost all of the press.
We believe that one of the greatest accomplishments a restaurant can have is longevity. Keeping customers happy is hard work, and doing so for a decade is a significant achievement. Pappasito's has done this, and done it thrice. They're now celebrating 30 years in business, a milestone we think shouldn't be ignored.
“This is a big milestone for Pappasito’s, and we couldn’t have done it without the support of our loyal guests,” said Harris Pappas, co-owner and co-founder, Pappas Restaurants, Inc. “We want to thank Houstonians for their support and invite them to join our family for 30 days of celebration.”
The original Pappasito's opened on Richmond near Hillcroft back in 1983. Since then, the operation has brought its brand of high quality Tex-Mex cuisine to 13 Greater Houston area locations, with 8 others in DFW, Austin, San Antonio, and Atlanta.
In honor of this milestone, the restaurant is offering some awesome weekly specials:
Oct 1-5: Half price beef and chicken fajitas. All day, large size only.
Oct 7-11: Half price happy hour appetizers with beverage purchase. 3p-6:30p in the bar.
Oct 13-19: Half price lunch beef & chicken fajitas. Medium size only, 11am-4pm.
Oct 20-26: eClub free appetizer with Pappasito's Pass (with entree purchase, exclusions and terms apply)
Oct 27-30: Half price beef and chicken fajitas. All day, large size only.
We're big fans of Pappasito's fajitas. We're even bigger fans when they're half price.
During the 30-day celebration, customers of legal drinking age can also enjoy an anniversary drink, the Pappasito’s Reserva Margarita made with Corazon Reposado barrel-aged tequila, which has been hand-selected especially for Pappasito’s Cantina, Grand Marnier, organic agave nectar, and fresh lemon and lime juices shaken tableside and served on the rocks. Guests who order the special drink will receive a complimentary 30th anniversary commemorative glass, while supplies last.
They're also preparing a special dessert, Chocolate Tres Leches, a rich chocolate cake soaked in three milks with dark chocolate, Kahlua, and a hint of cinnamon, toasted meringue and shaved chocolate.
Recently, Marco Torres, a photographer for the Houston Press, announced that he was going to attempt to go a month without eating Mexican food. We'd rather not even think about this, because Houston is home to some of the country's best Mexican food, and it makes up a regular part of our diet. Folks in other parts of the nation aren't so lucky, having to make do with the offerings of national chains such as Taco Bell.
|Breakfast Tacos from Texas Tamale Co.
|Tamales from Texas Tamale Co.
The Woodlands area is not lacking for choices when you're in the mood for Tex-Mex. From Chuy's to Los Cucos to the Rico's empire, there's a Tex-Mex spot on just about any corner.
So you can imagine my indifference when I learned that the large restaurant being built at the intersection of 2920 and Kuykendahl was going to be another Tex-Mex spot. I enjoy the cuisine, but feel that the area would be better served by just about any other type of restaurant.
Nevertheless, a recent weekend found us shopping at Lowe's (across the big parking lot) and hungry. Alicia's building was inviting, so we walked over and entered.
We were immediately impressed by the beautiful setting and attractive decor. The proprietor had clearly invested some money in his new establishment, and the result was impressive. Dining areas were in different rooms (we tire of the single, huge cavern that seems to be popular with many restaurant designers) and an inviting bar was off to the side.
|One of the dining rooms at Alicias (Unused at the time)
We were led to our table, and fresh housemade chips and salsa were quickly brought. Chips and salsa are one's first impression of a Tex-Mex spot's cuisine, and we think they're very important. Alicia's did not disappoint - the chips were thin and crisp, glowing with a thin sheen of oil that didn't result in a heavy taste. The salsa was light, fresh, and had the bite of citrus, an excellent choice for a hot Texas summer.
Perusing the menu, we saw all the traditional Tex-Mex favorites, plus an emphasis on grilled meats. My eye was drawn to one of their combinations. Called simply "Cowboy Steak", it featured a 6 oz. black Angus outside cut of skirt steak, grilled and topped with three chipotle shrimp. A pair of cheese enchiladas, and the de rigueur rice and beans completed the dish.
|Cowboy Steak at Alicia's Mexican Grille
What came out was impressive. An aggressively-charred, lime-marianated slab of honest-to-Robb skirt steak, topped with larger-than-expected, perfectly grilled shrimp. The chipotle sauce provided a nice, smoky counterpoint to both the skirt steak and the shrimp, forming a delightful Gulf Coast / Border version of central Texas BBQ. It was a fusion that worked.
Perhaps even more remarkable were the cheese enchiladas. I consider this dish to be another benchmark for measuring a Tex-Mex spot, and Alicia's did not disappoint. Fresh tortillas rolled around melted, oozing yellow cheese, topped with a very nice housemade chili gravy. None of the mystery red sauce that some places substitute... a revelation. These may be the best cheese enchiladas in the Houston area.
We're looking forward to returning to Alicia's in the very near future. But it's going to be tough to order anything else on the menu.
Over the past few years, The Woodlands has developed a strong dining scene. While it still has more than it's share of generic chain restaurants, there have been several notable independents calling the area home. Hubbell & Hudson, Eden Cafe, Capri, and Crust Pizza Co. are examples of the kinds of places that would be notable wherever they opened, and are causing foodies to make the trek out past 1960.
What the area has been lacking is the kind of tiny ethnic restaurants that one finds all over the Houston area. We were excited to see someone bucking this trend - a tiny taqueria / taco truck on Gosling called Casa del Sol.
We'd passed Casa del Sol several times driving down Gosling, and finally stopped in to check it out. We were immediately taken by the quaint, relaxed atmosphere. Seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion, very inviting on a comfortable spring day.
The kitchen is housed in a food truck parked semi-permanently beside the pavilion. The feel of the spot reminded me of one of the tiny cantinas in Mexico's costal towns... a welcome change from the slick atmosphere that even the independents build in The Woodlands.
Having never visited before, we wanted to sample a variety of tacos. A brief chat with the proprietor gave us our game plan: One each of al pastor, barbacoa, and beef fajita.
I first dug into my benchmark - the taco al pastor. Served on a freshly-made corn tortilla, quarter-sized chunks of roast pork were liberally sautéed in a deceptively spicy chile pepper sauce, and topped with the traditional fresh chopped onion and cilantro. Biting into this taco was a revelation - the tender chunks of pork were considerably larger than what we typically find in an al pastor taco, and the seasoning was kicked up a notch, starting with a savory, rich note and building to a slow burn. The cup of horchata provided a welcome relief from the heat; I said a silent thank you to the friend who first suggested this beverage with Mexican food many years ago.
|Tacos al Pastor at Casa del Sol
Next up was the barbacoa. Prepared in the traditional manner using the cheek meat, it was incredibly tender without venturing anywhere near mushiness. After the tang of the al pastor, the barbacoa's subtle smokiness was almost lost, but a quick shot of the housemade red salsa got my tastebuds' full attention.
Finally the beef fajita was up. Knowing The Woodlands, this is probably the most oft-ordered taco, and it does not disappoint. Beautifully charred beef, still moist inside, was accented with a hearty squirt of lime juice and the chopped onion and cilantro. This taco will please the Tex-Mex aficionado, and will remind him just how boring the tacos are from the big national chains. Yo quero, indeed.
|Beef Fajita Taco at Casa del Sol
We really enjoyed Casa del Sol, and recommend that anyone who loves Mexican food stop by. For what you'd spend at Taco Bell, you can enjoy something far more authentic, and most importantly, far more delicious.
Casa del Sol | 22507 Gosling | Mo-Sa 7a-6p, closed Su
(4 mi south of Woodlands Parkway, just past the train tracks)
Chuy's may be the most misunderstood Tex-Mex place in Houston. Some folks love 'em, and some folks hate 'em, and there's very little middle ground. Rarely do we see such polarization in how patrons react to a restaurant.
Why? It's hard to tell for sure, but we think it's a combination of food that's a little out of the ordinary, and an atmosphere that's not typical for Houston. Chuy's is one of the handful of restaurants that we consider to be a little bit of Austin in Houston, and the Austin attitude permeates everything that Chuy's does.
We're firmly in the camp that loves Chuy's. The Austin-based chain opened its first location in 1982, and we've been eating there ever since. Chuy's version of Tex-Mex is focused a few hundred miles to the west - there's a strong New Mexico influence, with plenty of dishes featuring green chiles. Their annual Hatch chile festival features peppers grown by one particular farm in Hatch, New Mexico.
Our go-to dish at Chuy's hasn't changed in 20 years. It's the Chuy's Special, a unique flat enchilada dish made with housemade blue corn tortillas, roasted chicken, white cheese, and Chuy's tomatillo sauce. It's flavorful without overpowering heat, and has long been one of our benchmark enchilada dishes.
But as any fan will tell you, the appeal at Chuy's is more than the food. Ever since the original Barton Springs location opened, the Chuy's experience has been shaped by the zany decor and the often offbeat but dependably friendly staff.
The Chuy's located across from the Woodlands delivers both in spades. Our favorite room there is the bright, airy bar, complete with a thatched roof, some delightfully kitchy chandeliers, and an airborn school of wooden fish. It's a throwback to an older school of restaurant design where the space was more than one big room with some theme-appropriate artwork on the walls. Another thing we love about Chuy's is that as they open more locations, they don't just replicate their design. Each Chuy's has its own feel and becomes a part of its neighborhood.
The final part of the Chuy's equation is their quirky, friendly staff. The vibe of the original Austin location comes through in the attitudes of the servers, but Chuy's has figured out a way to make sure that this doesn't result in the cool-but-lackadaisical service that's all too often found in the River City.
On our last visit to Chuy's, we ran across a particular server who went so far above and beyond what we expect in a family restaurant that she deserves notice. Anjelia Richmond, who's known at Chuy's as "Cookie", was perhaps the warmest, friendliest service person that we encountered all year. Yes, we were in a restaurant, but we were treated as if we were in Cookie's home. And Cookie was going to make sure that we felt welcome.
So thank you, Cookie, for taking such great care of us, and for making us feel more like friends than like guests. Have a Merry Christmas, sweet lady. We'll see you soon.
Chuy's - 18035 IH-45 S - Shenandoah, TX 77385 - 936-321-4440 - Chuys.com