An Afternoon of Tacos and Margaritas: La Calle and Juanita’s

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As the weather warms up in Houston, many of us get in the mood for a cold margarita at the end of the work week, and it’s even better if you find a willing partner to convince you to play hooky. Last week my husband and I decided to quench our craving after going margarita free for almost a month. We had been to a Cinco de Mayo event the night before that had beer, wine, an Elote float, pallets and mariachis, but unfortunately no margaritas. We felt it was justified to skip work for Ritas and Chips the next day, so I suggested we head to the newly opened La Calle Tacos on Ella to try their tacos and hopefully margaritas.

My husband and I lived in Oak Forest 20 years ago. So as we drove to La Calle at the Ella Oaks mall, we reflected that in our day there were only fast food restaurants except across the freeway towards Tony’s Mexican Restaurant, Cavatore and Rainbow Lodge.

Now the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest neighborhoods are teeming with restaurants of every cuisine and a few brewpubs too. Saigon Hustle shares the same mall and parking looked difficult coming from Ella but we actually found a space just outside La Calle.

click to enlarge

Parking was pretty easy.

Photo by Robert Ruggiero

This is the third location for the Street Taco concept, which opened its first location in downtown Houston in 2016. It comes from the co-owners Ramon Soriano and Fernando Villegas. The duo opened a second location in Midtown in 2021. The Ella location was only recently opened, as we reported in the Houston Press. Perhaps it was a bit premature to do a first look so early, but the menu looked enticing and the promise of a Friday happy hour lured us in too.

We were greeted as we entered and given a menu. I always like to be prepared, so I had checked the offers online. However, this menu was not on the laminated poster we were given. There was a QR code for a “secret menu” so we scanned it and the online menu appeared, although it was difficult to read on the phone.

click to enlarge Lots of jarritos but no ritas that day.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

Lots of jarritos but no ritas that day.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I wasn’t sure where to order from. There is a long counter behind which the staff cooked and prepared the food. An employee manned a tablet at the other end. Not sure which way to go, we stood behind a woman placing her takeout order while she checked her phone for the menu. Although there were five employees, they all seemed to have their own job, so only one customer could be helped at a time.

When it was our turn after about ten minutes it was a bit difficult to hear because the staff is masked and there is a clear screen separating the customers from the food prep. This is great for hygiene, but difficult when both you and the member of staff you are speaking to are barely over 5 feet tall. We both had to stand on tiptoe to hear each other.

click to enlarge Non-alcoholic sangria just isn't the same.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

Non-alcoholic sangria just isn’t the same.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I ordered the sampler platter ($13.99) which seemed like a good way to get a taste of the restaurant’s tacos. The sampler contains two street tacos, two tostadas and a gringos taco. Then there were many decisions to be made. I chose suadero and roast meat for the tostadas, carnitas and Birria for the tacos and chicken for my gringo husband’s gringo taco. More decisions came with the toppings and the employee was still learning the ropes from another employee. That was understandable as they had only recently opened. I watched pico de gallo go to the gringos, cilantro and onions to the street and tacos cream and cotija on the tostadas. At least I think that’s how it happened.

I also asked for an order of the chips and salsa I saw on the menu and a cup of that cevichito several times, but nobody seemed to hear me. Unfortunately, when we asked for margaritas, the manager at the counter said they didn’t have a liquor permit yet. I had made a rookie mistake. I should have known to double check as restaurants often open before they get their liquor licenses.

I turned and saw my husband’s dejected face. I grabbed a non-alcoholic, sparkling sangria from Jarritos’ cooler and Mexican Coke, but my companion was too disappointed to choose a drink. When our bill totaled, it didn’t include a cevichito or an order of chips, so we figured we could cut our losses and just split the sampler platter.

The tables at La Calle are mostly community tables. The soft drink cooler takes up a lot of space in the small dining area and if the ceilings weren’t so high and there weren’t floor to ceiling windows it would feel a little claustrophobic.

click to enlarge Gringos tacos are loaded with toppings.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

Gringos tacos are loaded with toppings.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

It wasn’t very busy yet, so we didn’t have to share a table. We grabbed a few different salsas from the salsa bar and immediately regretted not having ordered chips. My husband was still depressed about the much-anticipated frozen margarita, so we grabbed our sampler, promising to have a drink afterwards.

The gringos taco was decent. The chicken was well cooked and the flour tortilla had been grilled which gave it a little extra flavor along with a sprinkling of bean puree and the salsa rioja that we added ourselves. The street tacos from Carnitas and Birria were very good, although the small corn tortillas didn’t stand up to the large portion of meat that was given. Trying to delve into the birria consome was very difficult but boy oh boy was that birria good. And spicy. It can also be ordered in cups or bowls with meat of your choice. It was definitely a highlight and I think that might be a contender for the next visit.

click to enlarge Tostadas are the way to go.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

Tostadas are the way to go.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

For me, the tostadas were a better choice than the street tacos. The fried corn tortilla was a much sturdier vessel for the meat and toppings, and the texture of the crunchy tortilla against the tender meat and salsa to your heart’s content was better balanced and easier to eat. Besides, who doesn’t like fried tortillas? That made me think I really missed not getting the house fried fries. The tostadas each had a large slice of avocado, which quickly put them at the top of my favorites.

The salsas were also a highlight. That Salsa de aguacate, or avocado salsa, was so fresh and delicious I could have it alone in a tortilla and be happy. The Rioja Salsa and Chipotle Salsa had just enough spiciness without being dangerous.

click to enlarge The retro TVs are a nice touch.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

The retro TVs are a nice touch.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Although I was annoyed with the margaritas, the food was delicious and freshly made to order. However, the ordering experience itself was quite inefficient. As we headed out, the lunchtime patrons walked in and everyone seemed unsure of how the process worked. And the “secret” menu has far more options than the menu we were given. The sampler was a good way to find a favorite. I’m going with the tostadas next time and will definitely order some freaking chips. And I’ll make sure the margaritas, which I’ve heard great things about, are available. On the second look.

So we left La Calle in search of a frosty margarita in the area and found ourselves at Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant on TC Jester. We had only been once before but we remembered the margaritas as decent and that was all we needed. Or so we thought.

click to enlarge The Holy Grail.  Sort of. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

The Holy Grail. Kind of.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Within minutes of ordering, we had two huge mugs of soggy margarita on the table. My companion was happy now and we sipped on chips and queso. It was pretty standard stuff, but it hit the spot. We also ordered a mixta platter ($17.99) because we’re all about tasting, and thought we could take the leftovers home for his teen’s garbage disposal dinner.

Juanitas is pretty much textbook Tex-Mex. Pastoral murals of rural Mexico line the walls and the chairs look like they’ve been around for a while, but it’s clean and colorful. The restaurant has been part of TC Jester since 2000. There are two other Juanita’s locations in Cypress, but they are no longer affiliated with the TC Jester restaurant.

click to enlarge Mix it up with a mixta plate.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

Mix it up with a mixta plate.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Our sampler platter was a mix of steak quesadillas, steak nachos, and steak flautas, along with two chicken and corn empanadas. The steak was seasoned well but on the chewy breadth. I was impressed by the ease of the fried flour tortilla on the flautas, but it was the empanada that surprised us. The pastry was fried to perfection and the filling tasted like a spicy chicken tortilla soup. It was a treat that I would definitely order again.

click to enlarge The Mangonada is a tropical treat in a busy city.  - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO

The Mangonada is a tropical treat in a busy city.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I then settled on a small mangonada, but it was a bit too sweet, so I just added it to the melted leftovers of my lime margarita. Juanita’s has weekend happy hour from 11am to 7pm, but we went on a Friday and our large margaritas were only $5.95 and the small mangonada was $3.95. Our earlier disappointment was allayed and we had the best of both worlds that afternoon: a modern street taco joint and an old-school Tex-Mex joint.

And while Juanita’s margaritas looked pretty harmless, this writer needed to take a little nap when he got home. Daytime drinking is not for wimps and apparently I am.

La Calle Tacos
3321 Ella Boulevard
713-497-5502
lacalletacos.com

Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant
2728 WTC Fool
713-680-8011
juanitastcjester.com

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