Annie Bulloch is a freelance writer who has lived in Houston most of her life. Her main obsessions are food--both cooking and eating--and pop culture, especially comics, movies and TV.
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Houston’s Enduring Eats: El Patio Preserves Tex-Mex Traditions
In our Enduring Eats series, Annie Bulloch explores Houston-area restaurants that have been in business for 30 years or more.
Fred and Lena Villasana opened El Patio in 1964. Originally located in Rice Village, the restaurant moved to its current location on Westheimer a few years later when Fred’s brother, Richard Villasana, took over the business. El Patio boasts “100% authentic Tex-Mex,” and it certainly is old-school. There’s a lot of melted yellow cheese and chili gravy involved. Fajitas are likely one of the most recent additions to the menu, as El Patio predates their popularization at Ninfa’s in the 1970s. In addition to this critical nod to Tex-Mex evolution, El Patio’s menu preserves a broad representation of classic Tex-Mex.
In a show of real commitment to the Tex-Mex style of the mid-20th century, El Patio now features the Felix Menu. Felix Mexican Restaurant was once Houston’s oldest Mexican restaurant (here “Mexican” absolutely means “Tex-Mex”). Its original location opened in 1937, and moved to its iconic location at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose in 1948. When Felix closed in 2008, El Patio took over its recipes. Now patrons can order items with the special Felix chili gravy recipe, and its famous chili con queso.
Felix chili con queso is roux-based, and it’s easy to detect the roux’s nutty, floury flavor. The presentation is a bit startling because it’s not the smooth queso most of us are used to scarfing down. It’s much greasier—visibly so—than standard chili con queso, and it’s much thicker. The tensile strength of the average tortilla chip can’t handle dipping and scooping Felix queso, so you need to make use of the spoon provided. It’s a tasty queso, but a real departure for those of us under 70 years old.
Speaking of the over-70 crowd, there’s another interesting feature of every menu item I’ve tried at El Patio: it’s not spicy. At all. That isn’t a complaint. The food is pretty good, but if you don’t order something with chopped raw onions on top, the mildness is notable. I was taken to a Mexican restaurant in Sioux Falls a few years ago, which was just okay and not very spicy, but surprisingly tastier and spicier than I ever expected from South Dakota. But El Patio’s food still would be mild in comparison. A decent portion of their clientele seems to be older people, who may appreciate the lack of spice because it allows them to eat Tex-Mex without getting heartburn. It’s a competitive advantage, unless grease is also a problem.
My personal Tex-Mex touchstone is the cheese enchilada. They’re on every Tex-Mex menu, but I don’t much care for most of the modern ones, with their rubbery cheese. I want my enchiladas filled with molten yellow cheese of just the right smooth consistency, topped with chili gravy and additional melted cheese. I first encountered cheese enchiladas in my elementary school cafeteria in San Angelo. I know that doesn’t sound very promising, but McGill Elementary clearly had the greatest cafeteria staff in West Texas. The enchiladas weren’t spicy, so second-graders were happy to eat them, but they were delightful. After years of chasing that particular dragon unsuccessfully, I found the Platonic ideal of this type of cheese enchilada at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin. El Patio’s recipe is the closest I’ve found so far in Houston, and it’s the main thing that will keep me coming back.
The non-Felix chili con queso is just what one would expect from a Tex-Mex restaurant that isn’t jockeying for hipness. It’s delicious, and its consistency is perfect for dipping. It’s not too runny, so you’re less likely to dribble it all over your shirt while trying to get the chip into your mouth, but it’s not so thick that it can’t be dipped easily. Even with taco meat added, it was easy to eat without spectacular chip failure.
El Patio has a party room with a big screen TV, which was showing soccer both times I visited. It’s predictably quiet in the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. I did not visit El Patio’s Club No Minors or try its “absurdly strong margaritas,” but its website heavily implies that patrons can get blackout drunk and dance on the tables there (and recommends that you have a designated driver or a cab handy, of course). So that’s a bonus feature, if that’s your thing. They have mariachis playing at least three times a week.
As a fan of classic restaurants, I appreciate El Patio’s 50-year commitment to Tex-Mex tradition. It’s comforting to know there’s a place I can go to eat food identical to what made me happy 30 years ago. But I’m a grown-up now, so one of these days, I need to get myself a designated driver and try one of those margaritas.
Houston, Texas 77057
Open Sunday-Wednesday 11:00 AM-10:00 PM
Thursday and Saturday 11:00 AM-11:00 PM
Friday 11:00 AM-Midnight