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Say what? Only one Houston eatery makes national magazine's list of best Mexican restaurants

Only one Houston spot makes list of nation's best Mexican restaurants

News_restaurant_Hugo's
Hugo's is the only Houston eatery to make Travel+Leisure magazine's list of best Mexican restaurants Photo by Paula Murphy
Backstreet Cafe, Hugo Ortega
The magazine lauded Hugo's chef Hugo Ortega, a finalist for the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, for cooking food that’s elegant, inventive, and inspiring. Backstreet Cafe/Facebook
News_restaurant_Hugo's
Backstreet Cafe, Hugo Ortega

Four restaurants from Texas made another sham list generated by Travel+Leisure, this one covering Mexican food. The "Best Mexican Restaurants in the U.S.," a tedious slide show that warning-warning requires 32 click-throughs, includes Hugo's in Houston, Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Javier's in Dallas and Mi Tierra in San Antonio.

The list is a peculiar mish-mash, extending from high-end options like Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo in Chicago and a "Mexican farm-to-table" restaurant in Oakland, California, to half a dozen taquerias in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Santa Barbara; Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Chicago.

Best-of lists generated by Travel+Leisure never seem to get things right, but this one is especially galling because it steps on our turf.

Best-of lists generated by Travel+Leisure never seem to get things right, but this one is especially galling because it steps on our turf: Mexican restaurants is a category in which we, being a border state with one of the largest Hispanic populations, feel some authority.

If this were a list genuinely dedicated to the country's best Mexican restaurants, then Texas would definitely have more than four slots. We and our border neighbors New Mexico, Arizona and California should breeze past any Yankee state.

California is heavily represented. Los Angeles has five, including Oaxacan-style restaurant Guelaguetza. And yet New Mexico scores only two list-makers: El Modelo in Albuquerque and The Shed in Santa Fe. Arizona has one.

But that's typical of Travel+Leisure to favor LA — a city more important to magazines than New Mexico and Texas, which are both located in socially inferior "flyover country."

You can get a clue as to the inherent bias of this list via the numbers alone. Depending on whose tally you use, Dallas has about 1,000 Mexican restaurants, and Houston has more than 1,100. San Antonio has at least 800; Austin has nearly 500.

Atlanta has nearly 450, and yet it scores two spots on the list. So Atlanta, which has fewer Mexican restaurants than Austin, gets two on the list, and Austin gets one?

Philadelphia and Boston, both with about 200 Mexican restaurants, each get a spot on the list. Philly's entry is Distrito, a Mexican restaurant where the chef is Ecuadorian. The contrivance with a list like this is that it wants to generate clicks from all four corners of the country. And thus you have entries from Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle.

Another clue to the list's weakness is the safe, obvious restaurants that are chosen. Houston's sole entry is Hugo's. Here's the blurb:

Hugo’s opened in 2002 in a restored Latin-inspired building designed by Joseph Finger (also responsible for the Art Deco–style City Hall) and launched into a diverse regional approach to Mexican food. Chef Hugo Ortega, a finalist for the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, cooks food that’s elegant, inventive, and inspiring. Order the much-heralded lamb barbacoa braised in garlic and chiles then slow-roasted in agave, and, for the name alone, the manchamanteles, described on the menu as the 'tablecloth stainer,' a sweet mole stewed pork and chicken dish.

The key words there being "James Beard Award finalist."

Dallas' sole entry is Javier's, the pricey Mexican restaurant for Highland Park. Here's the blurb:

In the land where Tex-Mex is king, Javier's in Highland Park serves Dallas Mexican, focusing its upscale take on Mexico City fare. There's mounted game on the walls, lest you forget that you are still in Texas. Javier's is not necessarily a critic's darling, yet it's the go-to choice for locals when they’re tired of the flashy scene at nearby Mi Cocina — and one that's outlasted many other Mexican upstarts since it opened more than 30 years ago.

Austin's entry is Fonda San Miguel:

Even though Austin has a serious food reputation, its residents can't count that many Mexican joints that stand up as the best in the state, or the country. Fonda San Miguel, while now a bit kitschy (having been founded in 1975), does fit the bill, and it anchors the city as its premier Mexican restaurant institution. Opt for the mole poblano or cochinita pibil, and remember, there’s no charge for handmade corn and flour tortillas with entrées. Bring your friends — tables seat up to 20.

Anyway, Travel+Leisure, more power to you for finding a topic that suckered us in to another one of your lame lists. We hope we won't get fooled again.