"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape our history."
La Mexicana. I had lunch today at La Mexicana Restaurant in Montrose. When I first went there in the mid-1980s, it was called La Mexicana Food Market. Much has changed in 20 years. La Mexicana has transformed from a convenience store to a swank hacienda. Originally, it was a single-room store that looked like any Stop 'n Go, except for one wall that had the cash register, a bakery counter with sweet Mexican breads, and a steam table where they assembled tacos. At some point, La Mexicana added a few tables for people who wanted to eat the tacos in the store. Back then, La Mexicana was the best bargain for tacos on the west side of Houston. For breakfast, they had tacos with eggs and bacon, eggs and chorizo, eggs with ham and potatoes, and eggs "a la Mexicana" with onions and peppers. For lunch, they had tacos with picadillo, tacos with carne guisada (beef stew), and tacos with guisado de puerco (pork stew). Although they would build tacos with the more traditional soft corn tortillas, the default tortillas were some of the best soft flour tortillas in Houston. The tacos were flavorful, authentic, filling, and incredibly cheap at just over $1 per taco -- a college student's dream.
Today, La Mexicana is completely transformed. The room that was once the convenience store now contains one wall with a spectacular carved wooden bar that looks like it was transported there from a Mexican hacienda, another wall covered in tile with a doorway that includes a faux tile roof, and another wall with photos of Pancho Villa and reviews of the restaurant. The bakery counter (and the wonderful Mexican sweet breads) disappeared a few years ago. La Mexicana also has added two hacienda-like dining rooms behind the main restaurant and, in front, a palapa-style patio dining area with a thatched roof and a fountain.
The menu has grown too. Instead of 7 - 8 different kinds of tacos, La Mexicana now serves dozens of dishes, such as Pollo en Mole and a half dozen seafood entrees. Now most entrees are over $9, with many in the $15 range. Breakfast plates cost as much as $8. The expensive items are passable, but do little to distinguish themselves from the many other Mexican restaurants in Houston that cater to a largely gringo crowd.
After 20 years of success, extensive interior decorating, and explosion of menu choices and prices, has La Mexicana escaped its past as a convenience store and taco stand? Fortunately, not completely. The steam table where they make the tacos is still there. And so are the tacos. If you look carefully at the bottom left of the menu, you will still see the same breakfast and lunch tacos listed, with most tacos sold for $1.75. For breakfast, one taco is enough. At lunch, two to three tacos are completely filling. The dirty secret is that the tacos are still, by far, the best items on the menu. Of course, the waiter may give me a sour scowl if I order two $1.75 tacos instead of that $15 entree. So what? I know La Mexicana's history. I know what La Mexicana really is. Like the original Doneraki and 100% Taquito -- good restaurants that began as little taco stands and grew -- La Mexicana is still best as a cheap taco stand. So as long as they sell those tacos, I will return.