From steaming tamales to frosty micheladas, coastal Texans have their favorites
Islanders and mainlanders have their long-standing Tex-Mex traditions, and some new ones, too. Here are the essentials.
A tamale tribute
Northerners can have their fruitcake and eggnog. Around Christmastime, The Lone Star State is talking tamales. Texans have happily embraced the tamale part of traditional Las Posadas celebrations. Posada means “inn” or “shelter” in Spanish, and in this tradition, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay is re-enacted. Of course, good tamales are available throughout the year all along the upper Texas coast, made in homes by someone’s abuela, or at restaurants. At Texas Star Bakery, 5425 Broadway in Galveston, Chris Chapa and family make more than 20,000 tamales — primarily pork or beef — at Christmas to meet island demand.
A hit and a handful
In 1991, Adolfo Medellin opened The Donut Shoppe on the island. One day, he decided to make burritos for some friends at the shop. The result was two eggs, potatoes, bacon, cheese, refried beans and chorizo all wrapped in a homemade flour tortilla. The burrito was such a handful, one of Medellin’s friends described it as broncudo, Spanish slang for stubborn, or hard to handle. The Bronco Burrito was born and quickly had a following. To reflect the popularity of the burrito, Medellin changed The Donut Shoppe name to Bronco Burritos and greatly broadened the menu with Tex-Mex fare. Medellin’s daughter, Melinda Quiroga, has since 2000 managed the restaurant, 4917 Broadway.
The oldest of them all
Who’s to say which restaurant makes the best tacos or the most enchanting enchiladas? It’s subjective, after all. But you can’t really argue about who has been on the Tex-Mex scene the longest — at least on the island, where, according to some reports, operates the oldest Tex-Mex restaurant in the state. The Original Mexican Café, an East End favorite among locals and visitors, traces its roots back to 1916, when Raymond Guzman opened the restaurant. While it has changed hands a couple of times since then, it’s still an island tradition.
A welcome newcomer
While the island might be home to the oldest Tex-Mex restaurant around, its newest restaurant has gained an established following for the food and margaritas. Galveston Restaurant Group last year opened Taquilo’s Tex-Mex Cantina, 2101 Postoffice St. downtown. Taquilo’s was the first Tex-Mex concept for Galveston Restaurant Group, of which Johnny Smecca, his brother Joey Smecca and business partner Danny Hart are principals. The group also owns Sky Bar Steak & Sushi; Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar; Nonno Tony’s World Kitchen; and Saltwater Grill. Taquilo’s Mixed Grill — beef and chicken fajitas, shrimp besos and vegetables — is in high demand.
The big enchilada
Benito’s International Restaurant in La Marque has fans in high places. “They have the best cheese enchiladas in Texas,” La Marque Mayor Bobby Hocking proclaims. Hocking is not alone in that opinion. The restaurant, 1309 First St., which has been around since 1968, also is known for its buffet and gets high praise by reviewers for its carne guisada and stuffed bell peppers.
They gather at Gringo’s
Maybe it’s the margaritas, or the free soft serve ice cream. Or, maybe it’s the surprising menu items, like Southwest Eggrolls that coexist with traditional Tex-Mex dishes. Whatever it is, Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen, 10200 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway, has been a lively and very popular Texas City gathering place since it opened in 1999 after a complete remodel of an old Red Lobster building. While Gringo’s is a growing La Porte-based chain, it’s owned by a hard-working family that keeps the feel local and appealing to blue-collar crowds.
You say margarita, they say michelada
When it comes to washing down a good Tex-Mex meal, most people think of the margarita. But many coastal dwellers swear by the michelada, a drink made with beer, lime juice, sauces and spices, served in a chilled, salt-rimmed glass. Versions of the michelada vary by bartender, who are pretty secretive. But Robb Walsh, an islander and author of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook,” offers this version:
½ Key lime
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce
12 ounces light Mexican beer (such as Corona)
Salt the rim of a chilled beer mug by rubbing it with the lime and dipping it into coarse salt. Squeeze the lime into the mug. Add the Worcestershire and Tabasco. Pour in the beer and serve.
Just like your abuela’s
Sara Asocar opened Mi Abuelitas in 2009 after 17 years as a waitress at the beloved island restaurant El Nopalito. Mi Abuelitas has since become an established and bustling island neighborhood restaurant known for authentic dishes.
Enchiladas, steak rancheros, pork chops, fajitas, pechuga de pollo, carne con chile and mole all get rave reviews at the restaurant, 1728 45th S. in Galveston.
“Some people remember the way their grandmother or wife used to cook at home a long time ago” Asocar said when she opened the restaurant. (Abuelita is the affectionate form of abuela, which in Spanish means grandmother.)
Tortillas people talk about
Since 1988, North Galveston County residents have been flocking to Esteban’s Café y Cantina, 402 W. Main St. in League City. They go for the scratch cooking, particularly the hot, homemade tortillas. Margaritas and the red and green salsa aren’t shabby, either.
“I had the great idea to open up a restaurant that served the same great Mexican food that my family had been cooking for generations,” owner Steve “Esteban” Pratt said when writing about the restaurant’s start.