NOTE: This is NOT intended to be an all-inclusive list of Mexican restaurants downtown. I haven't tried to figure out how many there are, and probably never will visit them all. This review also does not cover national chain restaurants. You really are wasting your time if you come to North Texas to eat Tex-Mex at a chain place. Since I'm reviewing several restaurants in this post, I'm doing so on a highly abbreviated schedule, with a standard order (most of the time) of enchiladas (chicken or cheese), chips and salsa or queso, and rice and beans (though since I hate rice, I never actually eat it). And as a reminder, here is my double-secret proprietary restaurant rating system:
5 - I Would Walk 500 Miles (And I Would Walk 500 More) to visit this place
4 - Worth a visit when in town
3 - Meh; I won't object if a friend suggests it, but I wouldn't recommend it on my own
2 - Only if nothing else is open
1 - Run, Sriram, Run!
And with that, off we go! First up...
1304 Elm Street, corner of Elm and Field
11 A.M.-9 P.M. Monday-Thursday; 11 A.M.-11 P.M. Friday and Saturday
Enchilada's is actually a long-time Dallas eatery, having been around since 1979. This is probably the best of the Downtown Tex-Mex bunch, though that's as much by default as anything else, as you'll see below. I really shouldn't put it like that, because I actually do like this place. The chips and salsa are homemade, and the salsa has a decent kick to it. Shredded chicken enchiladas are tasty, with a rich sour cream sauce; I've also tried the burrito, which is very good covered with queso. Speaking of queso, while it's not the best in town (that title is reserved for the Bob Armstrong dip at Mattito's), it is a solid variation, not too runny yet it doesn't immediately turn to glue if not eaten immediately. Service is good. Prices are reasonable. And you're located right in the middle of downtown, making it an easy walk to whatever you're headed to. NOTE: there is also a location at Greenville Avenue and Park Lane, if you want to try this place but don't want to go all the way downtown.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Moving on to...
708 Olive Street, between the DART tracks and San Jacinto Street
11 A.M.-3 P.M. Monday-Friday; 11 A.M.-4 P.M. Saturday-Sunday
Senor Bean is the new kid in town, having opened late last year, if I recall correctly. At my previous place of employment, Senor Bean's opening was long awaited, as the only real walking distance alternative to the truly terrible Mexican place across the street (spoiler alert - I am reviewing that restaurant down below). My former colleagues had said good things about this place, and it is now apparently a frequent hangout for them. It was alright on my visit, though not terrific. I enjoyed the spicy salsa, and the sour cream enchiladas were good, but I wasn't a fan of the refried beans, which seriously lacked seasoning. The server also violated my #1 pet peeve - refilling my glass of Sprite with water without asking, though the service was fine otherwise. Enchilada's is better, but I would come back here again if the opportunity arose.
Rating: 3 out of 5
El Fenix(No photo available)
1601 McKinney Avenue, just off the westbound Woodall Rogers frontage road before Field Street
11 A.M-9 P.M. Sunday-Monday, 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Tuesday-Saturday
Locations throughout the Metroplex if you don't want to come downtown
Some would argue that including El Fenix violates my "no chains" rule, but since it is a purely local chain (except for the odd locations in Wichita Falls and at the Winstar World Casino in Oklahoma), I will make an exception. El Fenix has been a Dallas institution for a very, very long time, having been founded not far from its current downtown location in 1916. Sadly, much like other local restaurants that have evolved into large regional chains like Sonny Bryan's and Dickey's, the original magic has largely worn off, though I will say it's far from terrible. If you have visitors from out of town, and you don't know how they'll react to Tex-Mex, you take them to El Fenix. Nothing here is particularly great, but nothing is particularly bad, either. Pretty non-offensive, in other words. The main problem is that El Fenix tends to get crowded at lunch, so the heat lamps and microwaves are in full use. I've occasionally had food that's either not completely hot, or obviously nuked on high for 2 minutes. This location has the added benefit of being an easy, 5-minute walk to American Airlines Center, and dinner at El Fenix before a Stars or Mavs game is a far better alternative to dropping $20 on two crappy hot dogs and a beer.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Which brings us to...
400 N. St. Paul Street, at the DART rail St. Paul Station
7 A.M.-7 P.M. Monday-Friday
My brother-in-law said this place was good; I suggested he try Enchilada's instead, but I decided to give it a try one day when the catered lunch at the office left something to be desired. This is by far one of the best lunch deals in town - two cheese enchiladas, rice & beans, and a bag of chips and salsa for just $6. You can't do much better than that. I was in the mood for cheese enchiladas the day I visited, and I have to say, the enchiladas themselves were really quite good, with that "partially fried" taste that makes the tortillas moist yet not mushy, even with the sauce. The refried beans were also solid - not watery, and well-seasoned. The problem, though, and it's a major, major foul at that, was the queso. It pretty clearly came out of a can at the grocery store. You know, like the canned nacho cheese they put on your Tostitos at the high school football game concession stand. That was nice when I was 16, but today? Yeah, pass. Major demerit just for that. On the other hand, this is one of the few Mexican establishments downtown that's open for breakfast, and I have heard that their breakfast burritos are good.
Rating: 2 out of 5. They get docked a star and a half for that canned nacho cheese.
And now last, and very much least...
J. Pepe's(No photo available)
600 N. Pearl Street, in the Plaza of the Americas, between the DART tracks and San Jacinto Street
11 A.M.-7 P.M. Monday-Saturday
At my former employer, we used to torture ourselves by coming here, not because we liked it, but because it was the only Mexican place within walking distance. J. Pepe's only redeeming quality is the margaritas, which actually do live up to the billing. Everything else? Pretty terrible. The sour cream sauce for the enchiladas is alright, albeit a bit salty, but the chicken they use is shady (let's just say a lot of dark meat), the beans watery, and the salsa too sweet. I've had the cheese enchiladas with the chili con carne once, and it was pretty obvious the chili came out of a can. It's kind of a shame, really, because the other J. Pepe's, on Stemmons Freeway (IH-35E) at Inwood, actually has a decent reputation. Now I'll never go there because of how bad the one downtown is.
Rating: 1 out of 5. It gets the 1 solely because of the margaritas.
You might remember that I said at the beginning that this was a 5 plus 1 review. The "plus 1" (I'll explain in a second) belongs to...
Jorge's Tex-Mex Cafe(No photo available)
1722 Routh Street, at One Arts Plaza, on Routh Street between Ross and Woodall Rogers
Variable hours daily, see website
I use the term "Plus 1" because Jorge's technically isn't downtown; it's off on the far eastern edge of downtown, and is a bit of a walk from the nearest train station (Pearl), though fairly close to the Meyerson Symphony Center, and you can take the "Art Cart" from Chase Tower or the Plaza of the Americas. But, it's worth investigating if you find yourself downtown, especially on the weekend when not much else is open. Jorge's originally came from Midland, where the restaurant has three locations; other locations are in Amarillo, Austin, and Dallas. Jorge's has the best chicken fajita nachos in town - excellently seasoned chunks of chicken, delicious baked refried beans and melted cheese, and jalapenos and sour cream to top things off. The rest of what I've had is OK, not great. The sour cream sauce for the enchiladas is good, but like J. Pepe's, the chicken used is a bit shady. I'm also not a huge fan of the bowl of queso, which while reasonably tasty, is a bit thick and turns to glue quickly. Jorge's was a godsend when it opened a few years ago, because it meant no more J. Pepe's, but not really any better than Senor Bean to justify the longer walk.
Rating: 3 out of 5