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Seafood Enchiladas Seafood Enchiladas Joanna O'Leary

Handmade Tortillas and Heartfelt Traditions at Los Tios

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Sometimes you want to go where everyone knows your number. For more than 40 years, the Los Tios restaurant chain has become legendary in Houston not because its staff greets many customers by name (which they do), but because they have an uncanny ability to remember patrons’ preferred numbered combination plate. And it’s not just regulars (some of whom have been coming weekly for almost three decades) that receive such treatment. On my second visit, the affable woman who waited on me the first time, asked if I wanted to once again have the #14 (a cheese enchilada, a taco al carbon, chicken quesadillas and pico de gallo).

Which brings me to what everyone (especially aspiring regulars) should know before going to Los Tios: there’s a secret menu. Yes, just like Whataburger. NO, NOT LIKE WHATABURGER. Better. Whereas some restaurants deliberately develop or at least encourage a clandestine ordering system as a less-than-subtle PR stunt to increase traffic, Los Tios reluctantly found itself with a secret menu because so many persistent patrons continued to order their favorite platters even after they were taken off the menu. These two combination plates, the aforementioned #14 and the #12 (nachos, puffy queso, cheese enchilada and Mexican rice) are technically absent but present themselves upon asking.

If private codes and double entendres aren’t your bag, there are plenty of other publicly sanctioned dishes at Los Tios, which is known for serving old-school, beef gravy Tex-Mex fare that is deliciously uncomplicated. Some of my favorite selections include the #2 combination plate and the luscious shrimp enchiladas. You should of course also indulge in the anniversary nachos (in which each freshly fried tortilla is individually stacked with refried beans, white meat chicken, melted cheeses, guacamole, pico de gallo, and jalapenos) this November during Los Tios’ 43rd anniversary. In celebration, the restaurant chain is also offering $1 off their already very affordable combination plates (re: that #6 comprising a beef taco, puffy queso, and cheese enchilada is only $7.95).

By now you’re read the words “puffy queso” twice, so I guess an explanation is order. Prior to visiting Los Tios, I had been to my fair share of Tex-Mex as well as Mex-Mex restaurants in Houston, but never encountered such an item. Oddly enough, I did run into something many times while living in India that was very similar, the puri, a type of bread that emerges from the fryer inflated with air. The puffy queso is the Texas version of the puri with a slightly smaller circumference and the addition of some melted queso.

Snobs of interior Mexican cuisine be forewarned: this is not intricate, regionally inspired fare that boasts layers of flavor and sophisticated spice combinations. Los Tios is where thousands of Houstonians have gone for more than four decades for margaritas (my favorite is the frozen mango), border cuisine dressed with copious amounts of cheese, salsa, and guacamole, and servers who are likely to remember a child’s birthday as well as her parents. Follow suit and you’re in for a great time.

Los Tios Mexican on Urbanspoon


Urban Swank did receive a complimentary tasting, but the opinions expressed are our own.

Written by Joanna O'Leary
Joanna O'Leary

Joanna O'Leary

With a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University and a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University, Joanna O'Leary enjoys reading and writing almost as much as she likes to eat. She has worked as a food and travel writer for a number of publications including Let's Go, Wine Enthusiast, Black Book, the Onion, and the Houston Press, and is currently writing a book on amateur turn-of-the-century cookbooks and material culture.