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What went into picking the best Mexican restaurants in DFW

Posted 2:01pm on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010

Picking the best Mexican restaurants in Dallas/Fort Worth is a task falling under the heading of Harder Than It Looks.

Like the three brave souls who covered the rest of the state for the Texas Monthly story on the best Mexican food from Amarillo to Brownsville, found in the December issue that's just hit subscribers' mailboxes, I thought I was up to the job. Thanks to Pepto-Bismol, the gym and some good friends, the four of us survived. But again, not an easy undertaking.

From June through September, we ate and ate, taking copious notes and studying everything on dozens upon dozens of menus. But not until we had identified restaurants that should be considered.

First, we ruled out restaurants that are strictly of the Tex-Mex variety. That meant no places notable for great nachos, queso and other dishes known for yellow cheese. We were looking for restaurants whose specialties are those items originating in Mexico's interior.

Our quest: to find the restaurants in Texas offering exemplary carne asada and arrachera, and not fajitas; mole poblano and mole pipian, not chile con carne; ceviche, camarones al mojo de ajo and the like; cochinita pibil, sopes, gorditas, tacos al pastor and the more interesting chiles rellenos. We really wanted to see where one can find real Mexican food this side of the Rio Grande.

Although certainly not true to restaurants in Mexico, however, we did include chips and salsa in our research, as well as queso fundido and queso flameado. And, of course, guacamole.

Strangely, I had the same problem as did the writers researching Houston, Austin, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso: Often was the case that we'd find a restaurant serving a sensational snapper a la veracruzana, but the guacamole bore the tell-tale hint of preservative - that kind of thing. Consistency was elusive.

But the day I popped into Tipico's, a little restaurant on Dallas' Bachman Lake, a colorful joint inside an old pizza chain buidling, I giggled out loud when the server told me the corn and flour tortillas were both made in-house. And it was with pure joy that I ate some of the best caldo de res (beef soup) and tacos de lengua (tacos stuffed with tender calf's tongue) of my life, both served at Tipico's. I had the same reaction with other superb plates at Cuquita's, a little Mexican cafe in Farmers Branch, the restaurant that came out on top of all the Dallas restaurants we researched.

In Fort Worth, the little-known Salsa Fuego knocked me out: Carlos Rodriguez has struck gold with a tiny cafe, housed inside an old KFC, serving carne asada enchiladas, pork tamales served open faced and a chile relleno with a ranchero sauce that sent everyone at my table into a swoon.

At Paco & John, the salmon enchiladas, duck empanadas and snapper tacos won me over. At Benito's, the pork tacos en salsa verde, the chorizo tostada and the chicken adobo blew me away, as did the sublime posole. At Lanny's, I was wild about the hamachi ceviche, the halibut veracruz over lentils and the huitlacoche tamale, as well as the sweet corn flan. Esperanza's has always kept me interested with its tortilla soup and ceviche tostada, but I was taken also with the tableside guacamole service in the evening (at the South Side location), as well as the carnitas and the tres leches cake.

Of course, plenty of people will rant over the places that we're included. We tried many, many more restaurants and others just fell short here or there. And, in the end, we only had room for a certain amount of copy - and the story remained a question of quality trumping quantity, as should be the case.

If we did nothing more than make people think more about the difference between Tex-Mex (which we will always love, too) and Mex-Mex, good. There's a lot more food from south of the border than we can ever really understand, and we're just happy some of it has made the journey to our backyard.

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