Karam’s–San Antonio, TX

Karam’s Mexican Dining Room (Closed)
121 N. Zarzamora St.
San Antonio, TX
Date of Review: Jan. 2005

Karam’s has been around for so long it is one of the few restaurants I can say I have gone to for more than 30 years. I also think it is one of the best examples of Tex-Mex food there is. So far, in fact, it has turned out to be the restaurant by which I judge Tex-Mex food. Many restaurants in Austin came close, and some had specific items that were better, but Karam’s seems to have captured the essence of Tex-Mex cooking to a point that it is almost equal in quality to other styles of Mexican cooking.

Known for its Cheese Enchiladas, I think they are some of the best I have had that are not New Mexico or El Paso style. They are interesting because the tortillas are soaked in a sauce that turns them the signature red of true Tex-Mex style.

Although the enchiladas themselves are good, a combination dinner is even better– there may be no better examples of Tex-Mex style Tamales than at Karam’s. These have a masa that is soft and seems to break away the moment a fork touches it, with a flavor that I could almost imagine all the times I had fast food and TV dinner tamales while on a student budget, but which even most Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin could not duplicate.

Karam’s is popular enough to have required building a parking lot across the street. In addition to the restaurant, Karam’s Catering, a separate portion of the building dedicated exclusively to take-out orders, does a brisk business. With the mild weather found in south Texas, the outdoor patio with a fountain is an added attraction.

I think that unless you are specifically hungry for meat items such as the fajitas at Mi Tierra, you really owe it to yourself to make Karam’s your one special San Antonio Tex-Mex meal. It is a San Antonio institution for a reason.

RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican Tex-Mex
Cost: $$
Alcohol: Beer
Special Features: Catering

Chile Index: chile 3

Most Recent Visit
Jan. 6, 2005

Number of Visits: 4

Best Items
Cheese Enchiladas, Tamales, Tacos

Special Ratings

star 5 Cheese Enchiladas
star 5 Chicken Tacos
star 5 Tamales
star 3 Refried Beans
star 5 Chips
star 4 Salsa

Menu (Date Unknown):

Menu courtesy of Eugene F. Michael El Paso Menu Collection, MS499, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department. The University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Note to Readers:

This review is reprinted from my original web site (Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page) and the newer site (OK Gourmet).  By putting it on Steve’s Food Blog I hope to keep it accessible to readers and to preserve the information as something that I think is of historical importance for Tex-Mex restaurants.

Karam’s was quite possibly the best Tex-Mex restaurant I ever found in Texas (there were a couple in Austin that were close).  Unfortunately when I discuss Tex-Mex restaurants I often have to refer to ones that are now closed (of which Karam’s joined the ranks in about 2005).  I wrote a blog post about why I do not think the Tex-Mex food served now is as good as it was at these former restaurants which were considered leaders of the Tex-Mex restaurant world:

Why Does Tex-Mex Not Taste the Same as I Remember Growing Up?

The Karams’ daughter wrote a very informative comment about the restaurant, and it is certainly relevant to this review as well as a discussion of Tex-Mex food in general.

 

Pamela Karam’s Comment (Dec. 10, 2015):

Dear Steve,
Karam’s Mexican Dining Room of San Antonio had the absolute best Tex-Mex in the country.
My parent’s invented the style that chefs tried to copy without much luck.
All over the country to this day when I say I’m from San Antonio, strangers will ask me if I ever ate at Karam’s. Of course they go crazy about the food when I tell them who I was lucky to be.
My dad started me in the kitchen and I know the secrets to the taste of our food.
I miss a Deluxe Dinner as much as the next person.
Thank God I can whip one up when necessary..
I’m glad you enjoyed our place.
I loved it and miss it every day.

Barrigas–El Paso, TX

Barrigas Restaurant
(Closed)
664 Sunland Park Dr.
El Paso, TX
Barrigas on Sunland Park

Barrigas on Sunland Park


Note Jun. 2019: All of the Barrigas locations in El Paso have now closed but it is reportedly still open in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

This upscale Ciudad Juarez restaurant has recently branched out into El Paso, and provides some of the most authentic Mexican food around. Probably the best feature of Barrigas is the varied menu, with many items not traditionally found in the U.S. Mexican restaurants (although this type of menu variety is increasingly found in El Paso restaurants).

Barrigas seems to specialize in meat items, particularly in finding flavorful ways to combine meat, cheese, and other ingredients. It is also a good place to go if you like a variety of salads, appetizers (such as queso fundido), desserts, and shrimp. Margaritas and other drinks are served.

The background noise and music at Barrigas can sometimes be at such a high level it is hard to hold a conversation. When they have had live mariachi bands, though, the quality of the music has been such I have not minded the temporary inconvenience in trying to converse with others at the table.

Chips and Salsa
The Chips are somewhat greasy and the Salsa has sometimes been too spicy with jalapeno peppers, but the salsa seemed to improve a lot starting about 2006. In fact I would say it is now very close to the classic El Paso and Ciudad Juarez style salsa that is spicy and flavorful, and perhaps a little heavy on extra spices that are thrown in.

The Pico de Gallo that is sometimes served in addition to the salsa is quite good, but it is usually not offered.

Enchiladas
The Red Enchiladas are good, but they are not my favorite in El Paso and I prefer them on a combination plate with other items. While they are a good example of Ciudad Juarez style enchiladas, I prefer the New Mexico style chile that does not have as many spices that modify the flavor as the Mexican style red chile. These enchiladas may be more suitable than the New Mexico style, though, for people who do not like them extremely spicy.

Chicken enchiladas

Chicken enchiladas

Green Enchiladas are made with puréed green chile that is normally very easy to make too spicy and not very flavorful, but the ones at Barrigas are an exception. I find the green chile here to have a flavor that is very similar to the New Mexico style green chile, although milder. These enchiladas also use melted Mexican cheese on top of the chile as well as inside the enchilada, adding to the flavor and making them among the best green enchiladas in El Paso. The green enchiladas seem to taste better with chicken inside and a side order of sour cream to make Enchiladas Suizas, not on the menu as such but is one of the better versions of this dish.

Flautas
Flautas here are well above average using thick, flavorful chunks of chicken and a large quantity of guacamole in which to dip it.

Mole
Chicken Mole is served the traditional Ciudad Juarez style, with chicken mixed into the mole, and Barrigas is one of the best. The mole sauce is not too sweet and I think has a very smooth and delicious taste. Some say mole is an acquired taste, but the one here is a good place to start if you want a more authentic version.

Enmoladas

Enmoladas

Enmoladas, or mole enchiladas, are a way to enjoy the sauce without the chicken (enchiladas are served either with cheese or chicken). With a side order of flour tortillas I really like the mole sauce just as well as on the chicken dinner. To me, though, the enchiladas have a strong corn oil flavor that makes this a less desirable dish than the chicken mole dinner. I am tempted to go on a rant here about the less nutritious and less well balanced food customers frequently receive when they try to order vegetarian dinners, and this is a clear example. One alternative would be to order a mole burrito which is not fried (and would probably have little or no corn oil). In my opinion, though, the best flavor comes with the chicken mole dinner. Mexican food seems to be at its best when you order it with meat.

Chile Relleno
The Chiles Rellenos have been quite greasy at times but other times have been quite good. The yellow tomato sauce served on top of the relleno is flavorful. For the most part I would recommend against ordering it here–other restaurants have much better rellenos.

Puntas de Filete

Puntas de filete

Puntas de filete

Puntas de Filete is a dish of sirloin tips that is served with a choice of several sauces. I enjoyed it not only because of its flavor, but because it is something that is not served in a great number of restaurants. I suspect all the sauces are good, but if you have a hard time deciding I think the waiters will give their suggestions.

Side Dishes
Rice and beans are very good, and overall you should expect a good meal here. Barrigas does not take the time to make Mexican style agua fresca drinks, but I have been pretty happy with the food, and the prices are not bad.

More About the Restaurant
Barrigas is open late (10 p.m.) on weekdays, and later on weekends. The outdoor patio is an excellent idea to take advantage of the El Paso weather, but smoking is allowed making it unusable to me. Because of this, the usually cold air inside, and frequent loud noise, I would have to give low marks for the restaurant’s atmosphere. Still, though, it is one of the better places to get good Mexican food in an upscale setting.


RATING: 23

Cuisine: Mexican Chihuahua
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Beer, drinks

Most Recent Visit: Feb. 27, 2008
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Flautas, Chicken Mole, Green Enchiladas

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: Vegetable

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 5 Green Enchiladas with chicken and sour cream
star 5 Flautas
star 5 Mole
star 4 Enmoladas
star 3 Chile Relleno
star 5 Puntas de Filete
star 4 Beans
star 5 Rice
star 4 Chips
star 5 Salsa
star 3 Lemonade

El Meson de Oñate–Socorro, TX

El Meson de Oñate (Closed)
9993 Socorro Rd.
Socorro, TX

The Mission Trail in the Rio Grande valley east of El Paso is one of the area’s biggest attractions, bringing visitors to the historic churches in Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario. The Socorro Mission forms the heart of the community and incorporated area of Socorro, and next to the mission can be found El Meson de Oñate, a small restaurant that provides a gastronomical experience to complement the cultural one.

Serving comida de corrida lunches, El Meson relies on local patrons to stay in business (a sign that the food is authentic), yet the ambience and the food will please even the most discriminating visitor. The owner used his carpenter skills to construct the entire building in 1999, ensuring that the architecture blended into the historic neighborhood.

When you enter, it looks as if they are serving a buffet– different items are covered in serving trays with a glass window in front. Actually, this is the kitchen which is open to view. On my first visit in March 2005 I was very impressed that the food tasted home made, and the flavor far surpassed the normal “restaurant food.”

Mexican Plate
My inagural meal started out with a complimentary Sopa de Fideo, a soup made with a spaghetti-like noodle, chunks of chicken white meat, and Mexican spices. When I tasted it I thought it must be the highlight of the meal, since it is the best I’ve ever had, but I thought the same thing about the Pico de Gallo served with chips (I liked the regular salsa also, but not as much).

The Mexican plate offered the variety I like and allowed me to review more items. The Red Enchilada was excellent– not the best in El Paso but possibly had the best cheese. I ordered a Flauta that is not normally one of my favorite dishes, but this turned out to be the best item on the plate. Perfectly fried with large chunks of meat, the crema was excellent, and the guacamole turned out to be the highlight. I saw another party who had an order of Guacamole, and I would recommend this if you are not ordering flautas or another dish that comes with guacamole.

Changes in Management
In summer 2005 the restaurant was closed for remodeling, and when I returned after that time I did not find all the food to be the same as before. The fideo and flautas were still excellent. The enchiladas, rice, beans, chips, and salsa tasted more like mass-produced “restaurant food” that you can find almost anywhere in El Paso, and I did not even get the pico de gallo that I had liked so much on my first visit. The Chile Relleno was the biggest disappointment– I had enjoyed it on my first visit but the second time it was bland, greasy, and not very flavorful (although the cheese was still good).

The Latest Information from Other Sources
Other sources said that the owner sold the restaurant after my first visit in 1999, and that is the reason the quality went down. Now, though, the original owner is back (as of 2007). Yelp reviews as of 2015 and 2016 are mostly excellent (as I would expect they would be). I am increasing my rating of the restaurant based on this new information, and I think my first visit was more indicative of the way the restaurant is now.


RATING: 23

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open daily except Sun. dinner
Accessible: No handicapped parking
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Sep. 3, 2005
Number of Visits: 2
Best Items: Flautas, Guacamole, Fideo Soup

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: Vegetable

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 4 Chile Relleno
star 5 Flautas
star 5 Sopa de Fideo
star 4 Chips
star 5 Pico de Gallo

Elmer’s–El Paso, TX

Elmer’s Family Restaurant (Closed)
6305 Montana Ave.
El Paso, TX
Elmer's Restaurant

Elmer’s Restaurant


Established in 1959, Elmer’s seems to have discovered a “time warp” whereby nothing inside the restaurant ever ages. It is still the same 1950’s era diner style family restaurant complete with leather booths, salad bar, juke box, and a pie display case. The waitresses are the only thing in the restaurant that do not look as if they are left over from the fifties. Customers are treated with the same friendliness that the ones among us who are nostalgic would have expected a half century ago.

Elmer's awards

Some of Elmer’s awards on display

The food is also a throwback to the 50’s and 60’s, when there was no such thing as “healthy” restaurant food and restaurants did not have cuisine that was as specialized as it is today. Elmer’s became popular by serving both Mexican and American food, and a wide variety of each, so each person in a family could get what they wanted. If desired a person may order a Mexican plate with a salad bar or an American dish served with chips and salsa.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

Even though Elmer’s serves just about every type of food, I have usually stuck with the specialties– red enchiladas, fried chicken, and breakfast dishes. This is probably not a great restaurant for American food– because of the fact that most things are fried this is not the type of food I would normally eat at home (but it is one of the few options for American food in El Paso). With the exception of enchiladas and a few other items it is probably not a great place for Mexican food either. It is a place, though, where both are served, and in this sense it is somewhat unique.

Mexican Food

Mexican plate

Taco, rice, chile relleno, red enchilada, beans

The Red Enchiladas served at Elmer’s are some of the best in El Paso. While there is nothing exceptional about them, it is rather strange that so many restaurants in the city fail to make enchiladas that match up with Elmer’s and the handful of other restaurants that set the standard for this dish. The red chile at Elmer’s is spicy but not overly so, and they have the deep red flavor and color that is almost New Mexico style. The cheese is Mexican style, and this is just a good all-around enchilada.

The Chile Relleno is good by El Paso standards, but still a little greasy. It is topped with green chile that is flavorful but pretty generic. The main thing I did not like about it was the chile relleno itself– the topping neither detracted nor added much to the enjoyment of the dish.

The Beef Taco was plain and lightly spiced but good quality. It comes as part of the Mexican plate, which I would recommend as a way to try a variety of Mexican items.

Refried Beans were flavorful and not greasy. I would guess that they are cooked in vegetable oil. The Rice was not very flavorful, and could have been a lot better.

Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is the most famous dish here, and the menu proclaims it is the “best in the Southwest.” I might believe it is the best in El Paso, mainly for lack of competition, but I found it dry with a thick, greasy crust (a lighter crust might be better). The main disappointment came from the side dishes, though, since the whole point of eating fried chicken is to have a “fried chicken DINNER” (not just the chicken itself). It’s cheap, though, and well worth what you pay.

Additional Comments
Mexican breakfast dishes likewise are excellent and cheap– not the best in the city, but definitely better than average.

I have been going to Elmer’s for so many years I was afraid my past experiences might cause me to overlook some of its current shortcomings. The food I have eaten recently, though, has been pretty much like it always has been, so the shortcomings of Elmer’s have probably been there from the beginning. The good thing about Elmer’s is that you get exactly what you expect– a diner style restaurant that is better than the chain restaurants and less expensive.

Pie display

Elmer’s famous pie display greets customers upon entering

To go along with the mix of Mexican and American food, customers will likely want a slice of Elmer’s pie. The pie display located next to the front door creates a double temptation, both when entering the restaurant and before leaving. Several varieties beckon the diner, and few are able to resist.


RATING: 19

Cuisine: Mexican & American
Cost: $
Hours: Open Daily 6:00 am to 9:00 pm
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Serves breakfast

Most Recent Visit: Feb. 10, 2007
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Red Enchiladas, Fried Chicken, Refried Beans

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: Vegetable

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchiladas
star 4 Chile Relleno
star 4 Beef Taco
star 4 Fried Chicken
star 5 Beans
star 3 Rice
star 3 Mashed Potatoes
star 3 Cole Slaw

620 Cafe–Round Rock, TX

620 Cafe & Bakery (Closed)
910 Round Rock Ave.
Round Rock, TX

Note: This restaurant apparently closed in 2017

When I lived in Austin one of my greatest passions as far as food was seeking out good chicken fried steak. By going to some of the popular restaurants I got the impression that good chicken fried steak was rather plentiful and ubiquitous (sort of something you would expect to find in the Austin area). I soon discovered, though, that this was not the case. Yes, CFS (as it is affectionately called) was plentiful, but not of uniform quality.

Worse still, though, was the fact that the quality seemed to diminish as I returned to Austin for visits in later years. Some of my favorite restaurants were no longer as good as before, and others had ceased to exist. After some disappointing experiences, I finally found one place that had chicken fried steak as I remembered it. This was the 620 Cafe & Bakery in Round Rock (located on FM 620 a short distance west of Interstate 35).

Many recent reviews of this restaurant have led me to believe that the chicken fried steak is still as good as I experienced it, so I thought I would include it in my list of reviews. My visit was in the 1990’s, but it appears that the 620 Cafe is pretty much the same now as it was then. It is an American style restaurant, and I am not sure that CFS is even their specialty. It is what I ordered, though, and I was quite happy with it.

The hours may have changed, since the information I have seen says that they are only open for breakfast and lunch (and I ate there in the evening). There were only a few customers when I was there, and I suppose it is even more impressive that I got such a good meal at a slow time of the day.

I have been somewhat disappointed by many versions of chicken fried steak I have gotten in other cities, and getting one in Austin is something I would really recommend. The 620 Cafe is one place where I have confidence it will be the classic Austin style.


RATING: N/R

Cuisine: American
Cost: $$
Hours: Open daily (breakfast & lunch only)

Most Recent Visit: Feb. 23, 1994
Number of Visits: 1
Best Item: Chicken Fried Steak

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Chicken Fried Steak

La Hacienda–El Paso, TX

La Hacienda (Closed)
1720 W. Paisano Dr.
El Paso, TX
La Hacienda

La Hacienda


La Hacienda was one of the most well known and popular restaurants in El Paso until it closed in 1996, and was known for literally being on the border, with the banks of the Rio Grande located just past the edge of the parking lot.

An article from the UTEP Encyclopedia outlines the history of La Hacienda, and how it was located in one of the oldest homes in El Paso.  In 1940 it was turned into La Hacienda Restaurant, and was operated by the original owner until he passed away in 1981.  The restaurant continued with the same food and the same employees until 1993 (1993-1996 was the first of several subsequent periods in which the food was changed).

The restaurant reopened after 1996, and had several reincarnations with different owners.  I visited La Hacienda in 2004, but the food bore little resemblance to what I had remembered.  I heard that the restaurant closed for good in 2007.

Amigos dinner salad

The dinner salad at Amigos is a larger version of the salad that came with La Hacienda’s lunch specials

I never wrote a formal review of the original La Hacienda restaurant, but it was known for its lunch specials.  I believe there were daily specials (as there are at Amigos today) as well as combination and specialty plates that were always served.  Freshly baked bread and a small but tasty soup and salad were served as appetizers.  The portions of food were not huge but they were just right for lunch.  The waiters had worked at the restaurant for their entire careers, and they knew the customers as well as knowing how to give the “old style” service that was the traditional Mexican style.  I usually tried to go about 11:00 am because the restaurant filled up fast.  The last tables at the end of the dining room had a view of Paisano Drive instead of the more tranquil view of the “Peace Grove” in front of the restaurant, but the service was good anywhere you sat.

La Hacienda from the Peace Grove

View of La Hacienda from the Peace Grove in 2006

I did not know until I talked to the people at Amigos that the recipes for the red enchiladas came from New Mexico, and this is why they were spicier than most others in El Paso.  Many dishes served on the daily specials seemed to come directly from Mexico, while other items such as the chile relleno, taco, rice, beans, and salsa were what I would call the iconic El Paso style.

Amigos Restaurant Combination Plate

The combination plate from Amigos continues the tradition of La Hacienda’s food

My review of La Hacienda from 2004 does not give a picture of the original restaurant, but it is part of La Hacienda’s history.


Review from my visit in 2004

I ate at the “old” Hacienda dozens of times before it changed management and the whole staff left to start Amigos Restaurant. The restaurant closed and then reopened in its current incarnation. I had heard many bad reviews that frankly scared me away, but I finally decided it give it a try.

My assessment is that it is neither as good as the people who like it a lot say, nor is it nearly as bad as the bad reviews would lead you to believe. In fact, the Chile Relleno is actually quite good. I say “chile” (singular) because one will just about fill you up. Although I don’t like the El Paso style of pouring ranchero sauce on top of it, this one actually has very good sauce (and cheese). Moreover, the egg batter was so good that it dominated the sauce, causing a really good balance of flavors. It was refreshing to have food that was hot enough to use the chips to cool it down a bit.

The Enchiladas were dark red, and although not the best in El Paso, were satisfying.

Probably the best part of going here is being in the historic building; it is almost like being in Santa Fe (actually you are a couple of hundred feet from Mexico).

The waitress I had was reviving something that is almost dead in El Paso–providing good service.

Normally I don’t care much for mariachi music but the band here is actually very good (and enjoyable).

Although I didn’t try the more expensive items on the menu, I suspect they are a lot better than the standard fare of tacos, enchiladas, etc.


Amigos Restaurant
2000 Montana Ave.
El Paso, TX
(915) 533-0155

Amigos started with almost the entire staff from the original La Hacienda, but on my last visit there were only two that were still there (and one of them only worked at lunch).  The food carries on the La Hacienda tradition, though, particularly on the lunch specials.  Amigos has added several authentic Mexican dishes, but some are served only occasionally as specials.

I think if you want to try the old food from La Hacienda it is best to ask the staff at Amigos what to order.  I don’t know if the rolls are still the same at lunch since the original source (La Ideal Bakery) is now closed, but I am sure they are staying as close to tradition as is practical and as customers still want to order.