Three generations ago, most Hispanics in Houston were likely to be of Mexican descent, but today’s immigrants are more likely to come from a variety of countries including Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. With them they bring the traditional flavors of their native lands that add to Houston’s already bubbling, multiethnic culinary stew. An enterprising few have even parlayed barrio cafés into thriving businesses.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, H Texas celebrates restaurants that take taste buds on a culinary tour of Central and South America. So many Latin eateries dot the city’s landscape that even non-natives know that there’s more to Houston’s palate-pleasing restaurant scene than simply Mexican food.
Part of the charm is that global influences mingle into a cuisine that’s uniquely Texan. First it was Houston-based Mama Ninfa’s that fused traditional Mexican recipes with American tastes into a remarkable hybrid. Tex-Mex cuisine has become famous in its own right around the world. One of the latest additions to Houston’s international restaurant scene is Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast-food chain that has expatriates flocking to its fried chicken and providing a connection to their far away homelands. Indeed, nothing brings people together quite like a good meal.
Bossa’s masculine décor harkens to the heyday of Ernest Hemingway. The flavors of Havana fuse a Cuban menu with touches of South American, Caribbean and Asian flair. A perennial favorite entrée is the erepas, a griddled corn cake dressed in ropa vieja, which means “old clothes,” consisting of shredded skirt steak, queso blanco (white cheese) and charred corn salsa. Complement your experience by sipping a cool drink straight from the tropics – a minty mojito, a must-sip Cuban cocktail that refreshes diners like a cool breeze during Houston’s balmy summer. 610 Main St., (713) 223-2622
Mama Ninfa’s (Mexican)
Mama Ninfa’s on Navigation is a local as well as a national landmark. It’s where the national fajita craze started when Ninfa Laurenzo stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla. In 1973, Laurenzo opened a tiny taco stand in Houston’s East End, serving no-frills food – but flavorful nonetheless – based on her own recipes. Today, those famous fajitas are still the house specialty, but the trademark green salsa, fried ice cream and the parilla mixta – a mixed grill offering served with all the fixings – are also popular with hungry diners. A model of entrepreneurial spirit, Mama Ninfa’s gave birth to 40 restaurants that popped up across the United States and as far away as Leipzig, Germany. The chain grew far beyond its Houston roots and was purchased by Serranos Café and Cantina in 1998, but the original flavor of Mama Ninfa’s remains intact. Now, there are 15 outposts in the Houston area, but nothing beats the original. 2704 Navigation Blvd., (713) 228-1175, www.mamaninfas.com
Fogo de Chão (Brazilian)
Vegetarians will do well to steer clear of this Brazilian churrascaria, where meat is the main attraction. Churrasco-style cooking originated with the plains-riding cowboys of southern Brazil who pierced large pieces of meat and slowly roasted them over open-flamed pits. Fogo de Chão introduces this tradition to Houstonians. Brazilian-trained and costumed “gaucho” chefs bearing skewers of meat roam the dining room as their predecessors once roamed the northern Pampas, eager to slice and serve hunks of meat to diners. Choices include leg of lamb, pork loin, pork ribs, chicken and various cuts of beef, from filet mignon to bottom sirloin. It’s a low carb dieter’s dream. 8250 Westheimer, (713) 978-6500, www.fogodechao.com
Bongo’s Latin Grill (Latin fusion)
Come for the food, stay for the dancing. Bongo’s Latin Grill melds entertainment, festive décor and an affordable menu that blends Mexican, Cuban and Caribbean flavors. The express lunch menu includes great deals including ceviche – a lime-marinated seafood blend – with crispy plantains for $6. On Fridays and Saturdays, this downtown eatery morphs into a Latin club with the beats of salsa, merengue and Spanish rock pulsating into the street. Like its sister club, Latin hotspot Elvia’s, Bongo’s rotates live bands from week to week. 818 Travis, (713) 222-2254, www.bongoslatin.com
Tex Chick (Puerto Rican)
Though the name of this restaurant sounds like Tex-Mex, the food is unmistakably Puerto Rican. Unlike some other Hispanic cuisines, Puerto Rican food is more about mellow flavor than tongue-inflaming spice. Adventurous palates will delight in unexpected flavor combinations in traditional dishes like mofongo, a mélange of mashed plantains, bacon and pungent garlic. Little has changed about this Montrose alcove since the mom-and-pop Gonzalez duo commandeered its kitchen 21 years ago, including the name – it’s a lasting vestige of an eatery that previously occupied this space. Be sure to get here early to snag a seat at one of the four tiny tables – despite her restaurant’s popularity, Carmen Gonzalez has no plans to expand the kitchen. 712 1/2 Fairview St., (713) 528-4708
Pollo Campero (Guatemalan)
Customers at Pollo Campero regularly – and willingly – wait an hour plus in the drive-thru lane for a taste of the Guatemalan franchise’s famous fried chicken. For local Guatemalans and Salvadorans, it’s soul food from their homeland. A self-serve salsa bar, pinto beans, Spanish rice and warm corn tortillas set Pollo Campero apart from American institutions like KFC. The impressively non-greasy chicken has the same remarkable power to keep people lining up around the block at its four Houston locations. 5620 Bellaire Blvd., (713) 395-0990, www.campero.com
The Central American menu at Sabor! is an Anglo-friendly, gourmet rendition of ancient Salvadoran cuisine. Colonial oil paintings, granite tables and wooden chairs create an old-world aura in this restaurant that opened in December 2003. Owner Mauricio Funes says that imported fresh ingredients make his dishes truly unique. One of the most popular entrees is the pupusa, a thick corn tortilla stuffed with everything from ground pork and cheese to pumpkin. Be sure to try the fresh juices squeezed from cashew fruit, pomegranate or chia seeds (yes, the same plants that made Chia Pets famous). Diners also rave about the orcheta, a chocolate drink made from cocoa, rice and morro, a coconut-like fruit. 5712 Bellaire Blvd., (713) 667-6001
Taco Keto (taco truck)
Taco trucks are an urban phenomenon where one will find office workers and construction workers standing shoulder to shoulder at stainless steel counters at lunchtime. Gourmets might scoff at these mobile taquerias, but those in the know appreciate the low-cost, high-flavor lunch fare that taco trucks serve around the city. Cullen and Leeland
For do-it-yourself kitchen mavens, Fiesta Mart is the spot to pick up all the ingredients for a fine Tex-Mex dinner. A stroll through the produce section of one of Fiesta’s 34 Houston locations reminds shoppers more of an adventure in a farmer’s market than a typical grocery run. This local grocery chain regularly offers some of the freshest tomatillos, papayas and poblanos in town. Various locations also feature taquerias and salchichonerias, Mexican-style hot delis, that are perfect places for the less culinary inclined to pick up a quick and tasty dinner on the way home from work. Multiple locations, www.fiestamart.com