Family-Owned Houston Tex-Mex Restaurant Celebrates 80 Years In Business

Tex-Mex dish

Molina’s Cantina opened its doors in 1941 and is Houston’s longest-standing Tex-Mex restaurant. In that time, three generations of the Molina family have created a Tex-Mex legacy. The restaurant has an 80-year history that began with Raul and Mary Molina’s Old Monterey Inn in what is now River Oaks. With few other Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time, the family developed the restaurant into Molina’s Mexico City Restaurant, and later Molina’s Cantina as it is known today.

The menu has many recognizable dishes that give Tex-Mex cuisine its unique identity, such as fajitas, taquitos, tamales, nachos, flour tortillas and crunchy-shelled tacos filled with ground beef, plus more than half a dozen varieties of enchiladas, many smothered in melted yellow cheeses not used in traditional Mexican cuisine.

chile con carne
The chile con carne at Molina’s Cantina is a menu staple. Photo by Kimberly Park.

Despite being rooted historically in Mexico and other cultures, there are few dishes as synonymous with Tex-Mex as chile con carne, the meaty, cumin-heavy, chili-style sauce. The version at Molina’s is well-known for its thicker texture that works both as a sauce and standalone dish. At Molina’s, it comes standard on most Tex-Mex style enchiladas, is available as a sauce for tamales and served by the bowl as a side or entrée. The distinctly Tex-Mex chile con queso is a prominent appetizer at Molina’s, too. Over the years, a number of family and friend have been immortalized with name-sake dishes on the menu. One of those is Jose’s Dip, which combines melted cheese, onions, peppers, tomatoes and ground taco beef.

Molina’s dessert menu is short and sweet, but the three items featured are iconic parts of Mexican food culture.  There is dense flan topped with a sticky caramel topping, sopapillas (pillowy, fried dough pockets comparable to beignets) and, of course, tres leches — that rich, dense, sugary vanilla cake soaked in three types of milk.

table with vintage Mexican menus and decor
The collection of menus at Molina’s Cantina that date back to the 1950s. Photo by Ryan Baker.

There is a full bar where guests can find a large selection of tequilas and nearly two dozen kinds of beer. Two cocktails stand out from the crowd: the mojito and margarita. The latter is available in a variety of flavors, frozen or on the rocks.

The interior is inviting and intriguing, too. An eclectic mix of decorative elements makes customers feel like they are traveling through several different restaurants, starting with a front room featuring an indoor awning of adobe-style roof tiles. One area is highlighted by vibrant wall paintings of fauna, while shining white subway tile is the focus in another. In-between spaces are filled with familiar trinkets and homages to Mexican celebrities like comedian Cantinflas.

Today, Molina’s Cantina operates three locations open Sundays and Mondays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The restaurant offers service for walk-ins and online to-go orders.

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