Taqueria Brenda, Houston, Texas
January 2, 2008
If you drove past Taqueria Brenda on your way to or from the Westchase district, you probably wouldn’t stop there. In fact, even if you stopped for gas at the Valero station with whom Taqueria Brenda shares a tiny parking lot, you still wouldn’t make your way across to the slightly shabby little place with the aqua awnings and rows of metal boxes outside holding weekly Spanish circulars and newspapers. But, boy, would you be missing out.
Taqueria Brenda has been a mainstay for me since my post-grad days, when my friends and I all finally got apartments of our own — cheap apartments in arguably bad parts of town — and began exploring the local dining options. Brenda’s was one of our first discoveries and we’ve been devoted to their tacos and tortas ever since.
Brenda’s is always cheerful inside, no matter what time of day or night you go. Even better, it’s open 24 hours, so you’re guaranteed to observe more than a few interesting characters during the graveyard shift. There are typical Mexican restaurant accoutrements inside — sarapis hanging from the walls, a mural of a gigantic guitar, a jukebox full of reggaeton and ranchera music and a mural of an ideastically pristine Mexican village. The waitresses giggle together by the kitchen as they wait for their orders to come up. And the 1994-era television never shows anything aside from Univisión. It’s a happy, comfortable place.
The menu at Taqueria Brenda is a crowd-pleasing mix of traditional Mexican items and gringo-friendly Tex-Mex. I have to admit that even after all these years, I’ve never once tried their Tex-Mex offerings since the interior/more traditional Mexican dishes are too good to stray from. But I’m assured by friends that their quesadillas and enchiladas are every bit as good as their tacos de chicarron and sopa de hongo.
The two items that I’m simply addicted to are the taco de pastor and the gorditas. I wouldn’t say I get them every time I go, but 75% of the time wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Their pastor is the sweet, musky, slighly tangy stuff of dreams. In a hot corn tortilla with a generous sprinkling of cilantro and onions, it’s everything that a perfect taco should be. And at only $1.25 a piece, you can try as many other tacos as you like without breaking the bank.
Their gorditas aren’t much more — only $2.50 a piece — and they pack a wallop. These aren’t your Taco Bell gorditas, so please get that idea out of your head right now or just leave. These are OG gorditas, made with two lovely, fat corn tortillas (think of naan bread, but denser and made from corn) and whatever filling you’d like sandwiched between them, along with beans and white cheese. I’m always torn between the nopales (cactus, which tastes like thickened, spicy okra) and chicarrón (a spicy and sumptuous pork product; that’s all you need to know). The gordita de chicarrón is the more traditional item of the two, especially in central Mexico, but nopales are always good to balance out the other, heavily meat-based foods you’ll probably be ordering alongside your gordita.
And if you’re looking for the ultimate value, you’ll want to order a torta. This is simply a sandwhich — again, with whatever filling you’d like (pechuga de pollo, milanesa, pastor, carnitas, etc.) — on giant piece of soft, French bread with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and a whole avocado, sliced. It’s roughly the size of a Dachshund. And it’s delicious. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend it getting the bistek. It sounds good in theory, but not in practice as the meat is too tough to eat without a knife and fork.
Also a winner in my book: Brenda’s serves a great array of aguas frescas, good for those days when I’m craving an ice-cold glass of horchata. There’s also the fresh chips and two different, help-yourself-style salsas at each table (beware of the green salsa; it’ll temporarily blow out your tastebuds). And — last but not least — let me just paint today’s lunch picture for you: three coworkers, stuffed to critical mass with food, for $15.00 total. What’s not to love?
So the next time you’re over in the Westchase area, go just a little bit outside of your comfort zone — over to Gessner and Westpark — and give Taqueria Brenda a try. You won’t regret it.