Nobody's ever written a breathless "plywood report" about Lupita's Mexican Restaurant. No name-brand architects or designers had a hand in its color-drenched décor of neon, tropical murals and ceilingful of pinatas.
I doubt that the family-run Sugar Land establishment has ever put out so much as a press release.
All of which makes this fine little spot triply refreshing in this media-mad dining age. For 10 years now, Lupe and Jaime Garcia and their sons have quietly improved the quality of life for their neighbors along Highway 6 just west of the Southwest Freeway.
When I say "improved," I mean in it a quintessentially Texas way: by supplying their clientele with superior nachos, stand-up fajitas and assorted other Tex-Mex necessities of life here on Planet Houston. That's why a line queues up at the door on weekend evenings, when the room smells tantalizingly of grilled beef and fills with a chattering rainbow of regulars.
Is it Friday? The Garcias have them covered with ritual frozen margaritas - not too sweet, and edged with the right bite of lime - plus sizzling Angus fajitas in a vibrant marinade that's simultaneously tart, salty and zapped with a little chile heat.
And the flour tortillas in which to wrap them up, my word. These handmade beauties are thin and pliant and freckled brown from the griddle, not to mention the approximate size of dinner plates. They elevate whatever they enfold.
That might be those excellent beef fajitas; or a simple dish of molten white cheese swirled with bits of chorizo; or a juicy slab of chicken breast grilled to umami summits with portobello mushroom slices held on by a sticky gilding of jack cheese.
With flour tortillas like these, even a spinach quesadilla is delicate to the point of elegance, crisp and elemental, with a big, fresh vegetal flavor so compelling no salsa is required to round things out.
Yet the table salsa here is good enough to eat with a spoon: dark red with dried chiles so toasty the mixture verges on a salsa negra, served warm and bristling with the skin-spindles that denote house-roasted tomatoes. It's tempting to scoop up the whole cupful with Lupita's tortilla chips, so thin and fragile and crackly they seem poised to take flight.
Along with the chips and salsa, Lupita's serves a complimentary cupful of frijoles a la charra that are some of the best in the Houston area, mined with smoky pork and freshened with lively pico de gallo.
You get only one cupful of beans per table - I suppose they intend you to use the beans as a dip - which means some tussling may ensue once your companions snap to how good they are. I quickly learned to wheedle the crew of perpetually rushed but friendly waitresses for an extra.
So far, that shameless tactic has worked. But I wish Lupita's would just bow to the inevitable and give each diner his own little bowl of beans. Either that or put them on the menu as an a la carte item. (Even fajitas here are served with refried beans in a respectable but unexciting version). I eat the beans straight or wrap them into one of the restaurant's thick handmade corn tortillas, pale and comfortingly crumbly.
Enchilada connoisseurs will find Lupita's green chicken variety snappy with tart tomatillo and cilantro, the shredded chicken filling so light it's almost fluffy. The mole enchiladas are unusually good: dark russet and dusky-tasting, with just a bit of chile heat and a bare tinge of sweetness underlying its earthy tones. The sauce actually tastes homemade, and I'd put this mole in my local pantheon.
Would that I could say the same for the basic Tex-Mex enchilada gravy, but it's the sort of cumin-laced, pusillanimous mucilage that gives Tex-Mex a bad name. More ground red chile of a serious nature would help it a lot.
The shredded-beef tamale that came with the cheese enchiladas on a combo plate, however, was a stirring specimen; and a ground-beef, hard-shell taco, though slightly too salty, had notably fresh garnishes. Still, save for the tamales, I'd skip the regulation Tex-Mex combos here in favor of the specialty items.
Too much salt is the sole flaw I've noted in the course of my visits. An excess thwarted the chile con queso dip and the humdrum guacamole, which - to my surprise - tasted drearily commercial. (If they're making it in house, they've found some mysterious way to make it seem otherwise.)
Even such admirable items as the salsa roja and the fajitas skirt over-saltiness without quite getting there. After two of my four visits, I found myself drinking vast quantities of water upon my return home. The salt problem is easily fixable, and if it were addressed, Lupita's would merit two stars in my book.
As it is, Lupita's strikes me as a good, solid one-star place of the useful, family-friendly sort that makes the world go 'round. It's worth seeking out if you find yourself near Sugar Land, where it's one of the better restaurants. It's even worth a drive for the serious student of Tex-Mex, who will want to calculate Lupita's place in his personal cosmology.
That grippingly musky poblano chile swaddled in thin egg batter -filled with a straightforward picadillo and pan-fried to a bronzy finish - ranks pretty high up in my Tex-Mex worldview. But not as high as the Mercy's Nachos, carefully constructed specimens scattered with frizzly hunks of beef fajita over a swipe of refried beans, then cloaked with just enough cheddar.
Just add pickled jalapeño wheels and a dab of sour cream for a stellar nacho experience of the sort that is vanishingly rare these days. I do believe I could eat an entire plateful of these nachos and call it dinner, chased by an order of banana flautas.
You read that right. Lupita's uses its lovely flour tortillas to fry up these long, skinny beauties, so that their sweet-tart banana filling goes half-molten.
It's just one of the many personal touches that makes this restaurant a Houston classic.