Arturo and Tina Vargas have a unique way of celebrating their family's central Mexican roots. They make an annual journey to different locales south of the border, ending each trip with a visit to their hometown of Cuernavaca. But these aren't average vacations. Instead, Arturo and Tina use the opportunity to discover new ingredients or recipes that they can bring back to Cristina's Fine Mexican Restaurant, their flavorful franchise of Texas eateries. Their culinary findings appear throughout the menu of Tex-Mex cooking.
The staff at each of the Vargas' venues wholeheartedly embraces those deep roots, making flour tortillas in-house, hand-rolling enchiladas, and preparing orders of guacamole directly beside diners' tables. But that's not to say the dishes are expected—salmon with pineapple butter and fried chicken breast with white wine-cream sauce demonstrate some of the kitchens' more experimental inclinations. Flavored margaritas and mojitos can add spirited refreshment to meals, as can any of the beers that the restaurants import from Mexico via man with a very strong throwing arm.
Though Luna de Noche's menu doesn't stray far from its Mexican roots, the restaurant’s chefs introduce nuanced flavors in all their dressed-up versions of Tex-Mex classics. As staff members make guacamole tableside for patrons, they may add unique ingredients such as pecans, creating a dish that is as distinctive as it is traditional. Even the margaritas—served frozen, on the rocks, or from a hose—build on the classic recipe by incorporating ingredients such as Kahlúa, fresh jalapeño juice, or housemade sangria.
Since 2000, the cooks at Norma's Tex Mex have brought together Mexican and American food to dance a culinary tango of bold flavors. They sculpt pork tamales, grill shrimp quesadillas on housemade tortillas, and top burgers with avocado slices and jalapeño rings that patrons can also use for spur-of-the-moment marriage proposals. Diners can also slurp bowls of caldo de res, a soup made with beef broth, carrots, zucchini, and cabbage, or savor spoonfuls of deep-fried ice cream. Citrus-toned walls lend a cheerful ambiance to the eatery's clean interior.
The centerpiece of Abuelo's menu is its paella ($13.50 per person; serves 2¬–4), Spain's most iconic, ubiquitous, and hard-to-make-right rice dish. Abuelo's makes its own version with basmati rice and serves it up either Valencia Clásica (saffron, a melody of seafood, beef sausage, chicken, and fresh vegetables) or Roja Caliente (spicy tomatoes, risotto rice, seafood, and fresh vegetables). Paella is naturally made for group dining, as are tapas plates of batata brava (spicy potatoes), carne con escalivada (tender beef with roasted eggplant, Italian squash, and fresh herbs), and Abuelo's plato con queso (a variety of Mediterranean cheeses, grapes, strawberries, apples, walnuts, almonds, and olives). Abuelo's also offers Lebanese mezes such as fried falafel, hummus, and dolmah yalangy (stuffed vine leaves with rice, herbs, tomatoes, and lemon). Tapas are $6.50 each, and you can get five tapas for two people for $19.50 per person.
Led by pillar of the Plano community Fortino Trujillo, the quick-handed team at Tino's Too simmers and sizzles a menu of hand-rolled enchiladas, all-day weekend breakfast, and menudo and caldo every day. The Tino's Special ($10.25) leaves no cornerstone of quick Mexican cuisine unturned with a beef enchilada, deluxe taco, tamale, and a host of fixings, whereas the chimichanga's deep-fried flour tortilla bursts with beef or chicken topped with sour cream and veggies ($8.10). Tender chicken works together with onions and peppers to provide a protective layer between eager tongues and the sizzling skillet that hosts the fajitas ($12.25).
Qdoba's burrito baristas handcraft a menu of Mexican-inspired cuisine, customizable with a panoply of fresh ingredients. Qdoba's culinary crafters create succulent additions to burritos, tacos, and salads, such as slow-roasted pulled pork, adobo-marinated grilled steak or chicken, and spiced shredded or ground beef, with vegetarian options also available for each dish. Diners can bite through the warm shells of three tacos brimming with grilled chicken, steak, or seasoned beef, or mine for black beans and sweet corn within the taco salad’s crunchy tortilla bowl quarry. A festive burrito dinner allows eaters to customize burritos with add-on ingredients, including three-cheese queso or a creamy, hand-smashed guacamole that's ideal for filling up Queen Elizabeth's diamond-studded guacamole chalice. Warm tortilla soup and its crisper cousin, the tortilla chip, let pairs slurp with camaraderie or construct solid foundations for tortilla-chip houses.