The king of Mexican restaurateurs is Hugo Ortega, our version of Chicago’s terrific Rick Bayless, except he was born and raised in Mexico. Along with his wife, Tracy Vaught, Ortega has created a small restaurant empire that include four of the very best Mexican restaurants in the area that highlights the cooking in many areas south of the border with a welcome refinement. The settings in each are attractive and comfortable, beverages are well beyond excellent margaritas, and service is always nicely professional, something that stands out in Houston. Enticing Mexican fare can be found is much more humble settings and lower price points. There are several counter-service stops that work very well for tacos, tortas and more.
The restaurants are listed below in order of preference.
Hugo’s – Montrose – The restaurant that introduced the authentic fine dining Mexican restaurant to Houston in 2002 is still going strong and a fixture in the heart of Montrose that works well as a stop for dinner, lunch and brunch. Approachable, lively and easily appealing and most everything works well from a menu that takes inspiration from much of Mexico across meats, seafood, vegetables and even chapulines. Crispy duck in mole Poblano, grilled octopus, delectable carnitas, lamb barbacoa and the decadent churros stuffed with dulce de leche served with thick Mexican hot chocolate are just a few of the enticements.
Xochi – Downtown – Xochi opened in 2018 in time for the Houston-hosted Super Bowl – there has never been a Houston team in the Super Bowl, of course – with an array of enticing Oaxacan-themed offerings, most well-suited for sharing that was something a both little different and also quickly familiar. There are crudos, roasted oysters, an array of moles, as Oaxaca is the land of seven moles, after all, and other preparations, all bolstered by excellent sourcing. There are even a few insects on the menu, for the adventurous, even if these tastes might not be too far out. As at their other restaurants, Sean Beck puts together compelling wines and cocktails that makes this a clear winner both dining and imbibing. Located in the Marriott Marquis across from Discovery Green downtown, the interior is quite attractive, more so the further you are from the lobby, though the patio seating can be an invitation to be pan-handled. The cooking is as good as Hugo’s – and maybe more consistently so – though it is less of a value.
Caracol – Galleria – More lively, attractive and atmospheric than Hugo Ortega’s other local Mexican spots, this specializes in seafood preparations inspired from the cooking along much of Mexico’s long coastlines. Crispy calamari with serrano peppers, mussels with distinctly Mexican flavors, wood-fire-grilled butterflied fish, wonderful oysters roasted in a wood-burning oven, and any one of several creatively turned ceviches are a few of the highlights from an expectedly enticing menu.
Maize – West Houston – On the western stretch of Memorial, the kitchen here is headed by Fabian Saldana, a native of Mexico and former executive chef at Xochi, and this serves a well-executed “blend of homage, authenticity, and innovation.” The offerings are familiar and less so. There is a seafood tower done Mexican style, enchiladas with duck confit, vegan items and a section on insect preparations. But there will be plenty to entice even the most casual fans of Mexican cooking on its good-sized menu, and everything is prepared with a greater refinement and complexity than is typical. The setting is comfortable, bright, a few rooms in what was the longtime home of Carmelo’s.
Cuchara – Montrose – Self-described as a Mexico City-style bistro, the preparations here are vibrant, often surprisingly light, and always enjoyable from a menu that highlights dishes not often found in Houston. Portions are sensibly sized, maybe more so than large appetites might appreciate. The setting is comfortable with an industrial and minimalist, urban feeling highlighted with whimsical cartoons that dot the wall from the chef’s sister that is well-suited to its address on Taft and Fairview near the heart of Montrose.
Urbe – Uptown Park – Though this does not have the culinary fireworks you may encounter at one of Hugo Ortega’s other three local Mexican restaurants, Urbe is easily the most accessible and maybe the most useful for many diners that is counter-service morning and midday and full service in the evening with pandemic-friendly take-away items easily feeding two. You can your quality Mexican fix here for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week all for a very fair tariff at an enticing, welcoming place that seats almost 300 people plus a patio. Attractively plated dishes inspired by the street foods of a lot of Mexico with maybe an emphasis on its sprawling capital include highlights like the Torta Ahoga, shredded inside a terrific birote bread with a side of chile de arbol-centric salsa, the large fried pork rind with sides of guacamole and salsas, an entire roasted cauliflower with aioli and cojita cheese, and the Arrachera, a tender and flavorful wood-grilled skirt steak complemented by roasted pineapple and mushroom relish. In a testament to Ortega and team, even the roasted cauliflower head here is delicious.
Saltillo – Bellaire – Unfortunately hampered by staffing issues more so than just about any other quality restaurant – there might not be anyone at the hostess stand, tables are not bussed, it can take a long while even in a nearly deserted dining room – but the food is so tasty, interesting and often refined, it is worth the inconvenience (and mess). Cubed chicken breasts in the enchiladas are another demerit. This specializes in very large cuts of steak meant to be shared by several diners. Namesake Saltillo in northern Mexico is cattle country. The setting is quiet, not really charming, and tucked away in a sliver of a nicer strip center in Bellaire, it is visiting for the cooking alone.
Polanquito – Washington Corridor – This full-service spot occupies a bright café-like space in an old house on Shepherd. Taking its name from the upscale neighborhood of Polanco in Mexico City – Polanquito is "little Polanco" – this is a nice, if casual, spot serving up well-made, usually enticing and nicely presented versions of unpretentious dishes from several areas of Mexico, and found in the Distrito Federal. Not ambitious, but it provides a very welcome, often lighter taste of Mexico, with a nice array of choices with preparations that do look and taste like that do in the home country.
Picos – Upper Kirby – This has been favorite of Mexican food fans and discerning margarita drinkers for decades beginning with its more humble location on Bellaire Boulevard and can make for a very enjoyable visit with its well-executed Mexican staples from across its seven culinary regions that the restaurant touts like conchinita pibil, chile en nogada or mole coloradito with a leg of lamb and terrific margaritas bolstered by an impressive array of tequilas. Don’t expect to do much afterwards, as the food can be on the heavy side and portions are usually substantial; the margaritas, too. Amazingly loud with anything approaching a full house.
Counter Service / Very Casual Stalwarts
Tio Trompo – Washington Corridor – A fairly bare-bones counter service taqueria with a limited menu that specializes in cuts of pork from the spinner, the trompo, the vertical spit used to cook pork al pastor, is a key attraction. That slowly roasted pork, which retains its moistness unlike at far too many taquerias in Houston, makes its way into traditional tacos, excellent tortas and the Torta Arabe, a type of gyro or doner kabob from the Puebla area. The Taco Oriental is another oddity from there that is also worth ordering. This is nicely across the small street from Polanquito on Shepherd just north of Memorial Drive.
La Chingada – Heights – The humorous, or crude, name – the successor to its previous cheeky one – obscures that this fairly humble spot serves some seriously good cooking that often references Mexico City and Oaxaca and is a terrific value on Cavalcade just north of the Heights proper. Made to order breakfast tacos provide a draw in the mornings, then there is an array of chilaquiles dishes, excellent enchiladas verdes, milanesas, tacos in a variety of ways, tortas and much more, with nothing topping $20 except for the fajitas and mixed grill. Margaritas, micheladas and other libations, too.
Mexico’s Deli – West Houston – Excellent, hot Mexican-style sandwiches, which are not only delicious, but a tremendous value is the simple reason to visit here. There are roughly two dozen tortas, plus soups, tacos, burritos, grilled items (alambres), pambazos (tasty, but very messy guajillo chile-dipped stuffed sandwiches), and breakfast, all prepared to order on the flat grills and a meat-laden spinner in the open kitchen. This comfortable, low-key and informal small eatery with muted brass and copper hues has a proper modern Mexican feel for its torta-centric menu. These large sandwiches are served on airy telera bread, which is light, relatively thin and quite flavorful, if barely containing the bounteous filling. It might take a while to properly digest the very wide array of tempting sandwiches on this small menu. Don’t worry, it is tough to make a mistake.
100% Taquito – Upper Kirby – The fare here is the street food of Mexico City: tacos, quesadillas, tortas, sopes, molletes, banderillas, etc., though done in a slightly more upscale and air-conditioned fashion. The tacos here are taquitos, small tacos in Spanish, and n order consists of three small tacos filled with a choice of usually excellent ingredients: chicken, regular brisket (barbacoa de brisket), spicy brisket cooked with chipotle peppers (tinga), and pork al pastor. You can get these with either small fresh corn or flour tortillas, which seem to taste a tad better with the more traditionally Mexican corn tortillas. All taquitos are garnished with just cilantro and onions, and he complimentary salsas, red and green, of course, are excellent and helpful, as is the suitably vibrant and zesty pico del gallo. With these atop, you will likely have an excellent dish.
La Guadalupana – Montrose – Though not much to look at, and really not much at all in terms of size, this is nonetheless an excellent neighborhood place for a pleasing Mexican meal in the morning or afternoon, or to grab some attractive and scrumptious pastries, Mexican and otherwise, and coffee. The dumpy little dining room has become increasingly more crowded, and less dumpy, in recent years as more have discovered the considerable charms of the inexpensive breakfast and lunch spot. For around ten bucks or so, you can get lighter-than-typical enchiladas verdes or poblano enchiladas – with a proprietor from Puebla, the mole poblano are worth ordering – or, for about the same price, the terrific stewed pork slathered in a verdant spicy salsa, asado de puerco. The breakfast tacos are not what they once were, but the other, dine-in-type morning preparations are worth a stop.
Solecita – Downtown – This slick and friendly counter-service spot opened just in April 2022 and provides the heart of downtown with well-made versions of tortas and tacos filled with a small number of more traditionally Mexican items: the recently popular birria, carnitas, chicken tinga, Campechanos (fajita beef, chorizo, topped with dried chicharron), poblanos and potatoes, and barbacoa de borrego. It's odd to see stewed goat in the heart of the office towers and expensive high-rise apartments a block from Market Square, but it is very welcome and delicious. The large tortas are served on the softer telera bread and the tacos come first with corn tortillas but flour can also be had. Cool and breezy open-air seating is upstairs and there is a patio out front that shares space with the churro cart, a welcome addition to the nighttime street scene. Those are also worth an order.
La Vibra – Heights – A unique taco specialist offering something a little different, this mostly serves three different styles of tacos from Mexico City: costra, volcan and classico. The unusual costra, which here means Gouda cheese cooked on the flattop grill to create a shell, traces its origin directly from a taco spot just outside of a club in Mexico City in the early part of the century. These can be fun. The volcan is a lot like a tostada and the classico is the familiar type. The tacos are on the small side but fillings – beef steak, shrimp, fish, pastor with pineapple are tasty – and the complementary salsas like mole poblano, tamarind, roasted tomato and tomatillo are generally mild but particularly flavorful. In a strip center not far north of I-10, this is in a fairly slick counter-service space well-suited to a prosperous more youthful Heights.
Master Taco – Montrose – This food truck that’s been park on Richmond and Woodhead since March of 2020 is run by a friendly family originally from the state of Guerrero, home of Acapulco. “Taco” is in the name for a reason. With both the flour and corn tortillas made in-house and well-done, and with a well-prepared, interesting array of fillings, tasty salsas and the necessary lime quarters and chopped cilantro and onions to complement, the small tacos, taquitos, actually, are why you should stop here. An order of five or six will be necessary for most. Tasty but tiny. The non-taco items are not as reliable.
The Green Pipian Mole with Pork Ribs at Polanquito