In 1971, the Herrera family opened its first restaurant, on Maple Avenue. Herrera’s became a Tex-Mex institution with multiple locations, each of which founder Amelia Herrera bequeathed to one of her children.
One side of the family kept the original Herrera’s Café location alive, and in 2014 it moved to Sylvan Avenue. This March, another branch of the clan opened Café Herrera at the Omni Hotel downtown. Ask folks at the “original” Herrera’s on Sylvan, and they’ll disapprovingly note that the new Omni joint is only partly family-owned.
Herrera’s Café versus Café Herrera. This is a family feud built on rice and beans. So which Herrera runs the better restaurant?
Despite the nearly identical names, the two restaurants feel worlds apart. Café Herrera at the Omni has a sleek modern look, with an open kitchen, a modish bar right up against the window and eye-catching multicolored light fixtures. Its Sylvan Avenue rival is old-school Tex-Mex: wooden ceiling beams, Pancho Villa posters and menus that look like they were printed in the 1990s. One restaurant plays slick techno and modern dance music, the other a steady Tejano stream. Both places have charming, sizeable patios. Advantage: neither.
Chips and Salsa
The Omni Herrera offers fairly thick-cut chips with a nice crunch, and three salsas: plain red, roasted red and salsa verde. All are done well, but the best is the plain red salsa, which packs serious heat. Over on Sylvan, the chips come out warm, and the only salsa choice is a simple, fiery, world-class red laden with pepper seeds. Advantage: Café Herrera at the Omni, barely.
The star of the gigantic quesadilla plate ($13.95) on Sylvan Avenue is the flour tortillas. Sylvan Herrera’s has a habit of ever-so-slightly burning its tortillas, and that extra bit of char only adds flavor. But the filling is on point too — ask for fajita beef. Even if the filling doesn’t reach the edges, a quesadilla here makes a full meal with leftovers. Down at the Omni, the quesadillas ($12) have great flavor, too, and using brisket adds a Texas touch. But there is one knock against these quesadillas: they’re prodigiously greasy. Advantage: Herrera’s on Sylvan.
Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas
This is the Herrera family’s most celebrated recipe, a regular on the Observer’s lists of most iconic dishes in Dallas. But that’s impossible to tell from dining at the Omni. They simply shred some chicken, stick it in a tortilla and top it with sour cream, not worrying about details like spices. It’s like if a robot was commanded to make Tex-Mex.
For great sour cream chicken enchiladas, head west to Sylvan Avenue, where they spice the chicken and dust the enchiladas in cayenne. The sour cream sauce is even a different color; it’s made fresh, not from a grocery store tub. This is the compulsively devourable stuff of Dallas legend, and at $10.85 versus $12 at the Omni, a much better value. Advantage: Herrera’s on Sylvan.
Give the folks at the Omni credit. Their fajitas ($16 for beef) are really loaded up with the veggies, including potato and tomato slices, three colors of bell pepper and just the right amount of onion, which is a huge amount of onion. The problem is the beef, an inferior, gristly cut seasoned with indifference. On Sylvan Avenue ($14.50), the meat is given a loving rub of peppers and spices, but it’s still overcooked. Neither restaurant serves up the best fajitas in Dallas. Advantage: neither.
Steak doesn’t seem to be a specialty on either side of the Herrera family. Both joints overcooked the cut, and both try to mask it with a rather faceless tomato-heavy ranchero sauce. But on Sylvan, they put the sauce on the side, and the meat still carries a satisfying hit of the smoky char flavor imparted by the grill. The dish is $18 at the Omni and $13.95 on Sylvan. Advantage: Herrera’s on Sylvan.
Tortillas, Rice, Beans and Guacamole
A friend tried the Omni’s house-made flour tortilla by itself and said, “Wow, they put a lot of effort into making their tortilla taste just like Mission Tortillas.” But the Omni corn tortillas have superior flavor and texture to those on Sylvan Avenue. Both restaurants make fresh, brightly flavored guacamole. Both restaurants serve dry and monotonous rice, and “dry” also describes the Omni’s refried and black beans, which they try to mask by topping the beans with cheese. No trickery needed on Sylvan, where the original Herrera’s beans are clean-the-plate smooth. The original Herrera’s Café brings diners a free bowl of peppery, cilantro-laden bean soup with dinner. No freebies like that at the swish new downtown property. Advantage: Herrera’s on Sylvan.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a reigning king and a pretender to the throne. Café Herrera, the glitzy new upstart at the Omni, may make superior corn tortillas and a wider range of premium cocktails, but it won’t be the real deal until they address underseasoned meat, dry beans and a stinging insult to the good name of the sour cream chicken enchilada.
That leaves the original Herrera’s on Sylvan Avenue proudly upholding the family name. They aren’t the city’s top fajita spot, either, but they are reigning titans in the worlds of enchiladas, quesadillas, refried beans and hot salsa. Oh, and the price tag on a dinner here was about 10 percent less than its Omni rival for the same food.
The worry is that Omni Hotel guests from frigid northern lands will try Café Herrera and get the wrong idea about Tex-Mex food. The new upscale eatery has to combat high rent and MBA-toting management consultants. For the generous big-hearted spirit of family-run Tex-Mex, drive west from downtown to Sylvan Avenue. The original is still the best.
Herrera's Café, 3311 Sylvan Ave., 214-954-7180; Café Herrera 665 S. Lamar St. #140, 214-749-0455.