Loma Linda

PuffyTacos,Loma LindaLoma Linda means “beautiful hill” in Spanish. And though this unpretentious little restaurant in the funky East End doesn’t have a picture-window view of rolling hills, the puffed-up bubbles of the handmade tortillas served here are beautiful hills indeed for those who love old-fashioned Tex-Mex food.

Set in a pink block building trimmed with wrought-iron window bars, Loma Linda’s nothing fancy. In fact, it began its restaurant life as a simple East End lunch counter. In the mid-1980s, however, owners Thad and Joyce Gilliam saw that their favorite Mexican restaurant was closing down (part of a small local chain called Loma Linda—a Houston landmark as one of the very first Mexican restaurants in town). Before the whole chain died, they bought the recipes and equipment and converted their cafe to a reincarnation of Loma Linda here on Telephone Road.

By design, the Gilliamses’ re-created Loma Linda harks back to an earlier age, before the rise of the fajita made Tex-Mex trendy. The tortillas are freshly made on an onsite vintage 1930s tortilla maker—just the right equipment to make old-school puffy tortillas. They start out with an incredibly thin tortilla base that balloons beautifully when it hits the deep-fryer—then presto, there’s your puffy tortilla. It only works with superfresh masa (corn dough)—a finicky detail most newer Tex-Mex restaurants can’t be bothered with. Add to that the Velveeta-like ooze of cheese, the savory smoothness of the pale brown chili gravy and refried beans, and the mix melds together in a subtle way that’s pure retro Tex-Mex—the result when Mexican cooks toned down their pepper quotient for gringo palates long ago.

The dishes to order here are, of course, the puffy chili con queso for an appetizer and the puffy beef tacos, the perfectly seasoned Texas-style enchiladas with chili gravy, and the combination dinners. Along with the tried-and-true dishes, however, you’ll also find some more unusual items such as carne guisada, chicken mole, and chili dulce (stuffed bell peppers). For dessert, their sopapillas are especially sweet and flaky.