It wasn’t so long ago when “Mexican” food was best represented stateside by a heaping platter of rice and refried beans along with gloopy enchiladas covered in melted cheese, with maybe a couple hard-shell tacos on the side. Thankfully we’ve come a long way, and now the cuisine of just about every region of Mexico is now well-represented in the American culinary landscape. Today, most people realize that the standard menu of burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, and the like are in fact more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican, and that once you head south of the border there’s a whole world of flavorful (and non-cheesy) possibilities to explore. Additionally, while authenticity is prized, some of this country’s most highly regarded chefs, like former pastry chef Alex Stupak and Oklahoma-born Rick Bayless, have also turned their attention and creativity to Mexican, which has become somewhat of a cuisine célèbre.
To assemble our ranking of America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants, we analyzed results from surveys we sent out to some of America’s leading culinary authorities, writers, and critics, used to assemble our rankings of America’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants and the 101 Best Restaurants in America. We supplemented those with best-of lists both in print and online, and rounded it out with our personal favorites from around the country. We also made sure to include restaurants that specialize in authentic Mexican fare; while some Tex-Mex classics on the menu are acceptable if done really well, the main focus had to be on true Mexican cuisine. We found that from a high-end restaurant in Chicago specializing in ribeye carne asada to a modest taqueria in Mountain View, Calif. serving some of the finest carnitas you’ll ever encounter, America has no shortage of great Mexican restaurants—and as it turns out, the eighth-best resides in Houston.
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 food is so good, the restaurant scored the very respectable #8 spot on our compilation, and since it’s the only one from the city to make the list, according to our panel of experts, Hugo’s is the best Mexican restaurant in Houston.