RETRO DINING: MOLINA’S CANTINA

Molina’s Cantina is Houston’s oldest family-owned and -operated Tex-Mex restaurant.

Recently I was invited to learn more about Molina’s, and came away with a greater understanding of the history of the restaurant, its impact on the Houston restaurant scene, and the origins of some of its most popular dishes.

In the 1920s, Raul Molina moved to Houston from Mexico, in search of a better life.  He worked in small restaurants, working his way up from dishwasher, to busser, to eventually opening the Old Monterrey Inn in 1941 with his wife Mary, which was one of only a handful of Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time.  Eventually, the restaurant evolved to become Molina’s.  Today there are three locations in Houston —  3801 Bellaire Blvd. (or as we call it, “our Molina’s,” where we have been dining for almost a quarter of a century, although it was originally located nearby on Buffalo Speedway), 7901 Westheimer, and 4720 Washington Ave.

A sampling of menus over the years

Molina’s is currently owned and operated by brothers Raul III, Ricardo, and Roberto Molina, Raul Molina’s grandchildren.  In 2009, Raul Molina Jr. was inducted into the Texas Restaurant Association’s Hall of Honor, followed by Ricardo Molina in 2013, in recognition of their significant contribution to Texas’s restaurant industry.

Raul Molina

One of the things we admire about Molina’s is the loyal and cheerful staff.  Two of our favorite waiters are Art and Joaquin, both of whom have been there 26 years:

A frosty margarita — frozen or on the rocks — is always a great start to a Tex-Mex meal, especially this time of year, and Molina’s makes one with a nice sweet/tart balance:

Frozen or on the rocks (photos courtesy of Kimberly Park)

Before you can whip out your phone and check in on Facebook, a complimentary basket of crispy tortilla chips, several salsas, and carrot escabeche will appear on your table.  Molina’s was the first restaurant in Houston to offer escabeche, a zesty carrot relish Raul discovered in Mexico City.

When my kids were little, they used to order Chicken Dinosaurs from the kids menu, which were dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets (I’m not sure if they’re still on the menu, and really chips and queso are so much better).  One day, my then-5-year-old daughter asked me “what’s Mexican about Chicken Dinosaurs,” which was pretty hilarious, and to which I had to reply, “nothing.”  I think that killed it for her, and thankfully, the kids have graduated from the kids menu to the regular menu, which has many dishes they love.

A number of Molina’s signature dishes are named after staff and guests.  Nancy Ames Nachos, for example, are named after Nancy Ames, a folk singer/songwriter/entertainer who had a morning TV show in Houston in the 70s.  Raul Molina, Jr. was a guest on her show demonstrating how to make nachos.  Nancy shared her favorite nacho toppings — each chip layered with refried beans, spicy beef, cheese, guacamole, diced tomatoes, and jalapenos — and Nancy Ames Nachos were born.  They remain a top seller, and we’ve enjoyed them many times over the years.  They’re colorful, delicious, and filling — it’s easy to make a meal out of them.

Nancy Ames Nachos (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Then there’s the famous Jose’s Dip.  Decades ago, a former waiter named Jose began adding spicy taco meat to his guests’ queso.  Soon, customers began requesting “Jose’s Dip.”  I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love Jose’s Dip, which remains a staple on the menu.  In fact, it’s the password for Molina’s complimentary Wi-Fi.  Tip:  If you sign up for Molina’s E-News Club, you’ll receive a complimentary bowl of Jose’s Dip  (you’ll also receive an email coupon for a complimentary bowl each year for your birthday — Happy Birthday to ME!).

 

Jose’s Dip

Another popular item is Berly’s Burrito, named after long-time guest Jim Berly.  One night he came in wanting something different, and requested a burrito filled with fajita meat, smothered with chili con carne and topped with queso.  I assume Mr. Berly was wearing stretchy pants at the time.

Berly’s Burrito (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Williams Special and C.W. Special are two of my family’s favorite entrees.  Williams Special gets its name from William Lyons, a cook who worked for the Molina family for more than 40 years.  One day, Raul Jr. asked William to surprise him with something different, and William brought him a plate filled with carne asada, grilled onions, and 2 cheese enchiladas, all topped with “William’s sauce” and Chihuahua cheese — the rest is Molina’s history.  The C.W. Special was created by Chris Wilson, a childhood friend of Roberto’s, after the two spent a night out on the town.  It includes a taco al carbon, cheese enchilada, rice, beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole.

William’s Special (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

C.W. Special (photo courtesy of Kimberly Park)

Enchiladas a la Michael are named after Michael Garay, a former manager who created a delicious salsa verde that he served on top of the restaurant’s chicken enchiladas, followed by Chihuahua cheese, cilantro, and avocado slices.

Enchiladas a la Michael (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Of course there’s a variety of enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, and other Tex-Mex favorites to choose from.  One dish that I particularly enjoy, which I like to think is on the lighter side, is Raulito’s Shrimp — jumbo shrimp sautéed in garlic butter, served with frijoles a la charra, guacamole, and mango pico de gallo, accompanied by tortillas:

Raulito’s Shrimp (photo courtesy of Kimberly Park)

If you dine at Molina’s on a Saturday night, you may be lucky enough to be serenaded:

At the end of the meal, look forward to a sweet ending of complimentary pralines:

It’s not hard to figure out how Molina’s has stayed in business for over 75 years.  The cheerful staff, the family atmosphere, and the restaurant’s heritage certainly contribute to its longevity.  The food is always fresh, made from scratch in small batches, and is delicious and satisfying, with items to appeal to all ages.  I can’t speak for the other locations, but the Bellaire location has a comfortable neighborhood feel, and it’s a rare occasion when we do not run into friends and acquaintances there.

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