In a city now rife with Tex-Mex restaurant options on nearly every street, once upon a time Houston boasted only a select few options. When a skinny 18-year kid named Raul Molina decided to seek a better life for himself, that all changed. Raul struck out from Laredo, Mexico, for places unknown in Texas, but potentially to work on a pipeline. Over eight decades later, the restaurant landscape has changed in Houston, however, Raul created a popular, and delicious, stalwart.
Eventually, Raul found his way to Houston, where he had a brother who found him work at local restaurants. One such job was at the Old Monterrey Restaurant on West Gray. He worked here as a dishwasher, busboy, and as counter staff and met his future wife, Mary, during this time. Together, the new couple saved their money and on June 12, 1941, the Molina’s purchased the Old Monterrey Restaurant, ten years after Raul had started working there.
When the Molina’s opened the doors to the public, Houston only had four or five Tex-Mex restaurants. Many of their dishes still seemed exotic and new to diners; introducing them to now time-honored classics like chili con carne, enchiladas, guacamole and more. Raul would wait tables, Mary would cook, and their sons Raul Jr. and George would wash the dishes; all while living in one room above the restaurant.
The process worked; the restaurant wasn’t just successful, it thrived. After two years, the family added the Mexico City Restaurant location on South Main. However, the couple would lose the help of their sons for a short while. With World War Two in full swing, both sons ended up leaving first for college, then for a stint in the United States Army. While both boys were serving in the military, Raul made them partners in the business. Then, in 1945, Raul renamed the operation to Molina’s Mexico City Restaurant, moved to a new location on South Main, then changed its name again to Molina’s Restaurant & Cantina.
This long-standing heritage at the restaurant is important. On the menu, next to each original dish still being served, a little red marker “since 1941” sits next to it. Some of those long-standing favorites include their chili con carne, enchiladas de Tejas, and the generously portioned Mexico City dinner plate (which includes a beef taco, a cheese enchilada, a bean tostada, a chili tamale, guacamole, chili con queso, rice, and beans). The chili con carne comes from a recipe that was being used the day Molina opened the door for his first customer in 1941 and the salsa is the same recipe that they used in the beginning as well. The same can be said for the escabeche and tamales. Names on the menu aren’t always just “fajitas” or “enchiladas” either. No, many of the menu items have a person attached to them, such as the “Nancy Ames’ Special Nachos,” the “Berly Burrito,” and “Enchiladas a la Michael.” It all comes back to the people.
Throughout the successive decades, Raul and his sons opened and relocated their restaurants, making sure they took advantage of Houston’s population explosion and staying on top of the city’s ever-changing demographics and growth. During the 1970s, the company began catering – something they long said they did not wish to do – following multiple requests from both longtime customers and even American presidents. Molina’s had quickly become one of the most popular Tex-Mex Restaurants in Texas.
Raul Sr. eventually announced his retirement. In 1977, Raul Jr. took over full interest in the business. He himself has children, none of which he planned to have joined him in the family business. However, all three sons – Raul III, Ricardo, and Roberto – have all chosen to work in the family business. Today, they all three co-own and maintain day-to-day operations of the restaurant. After more than eighty years, Raul Sr.’s, deep love for his family and their customers is evident and permeates throughout their locations.
The Molina family now operates three locations in the Houston area, having relocated multiple times during its evolution. The oldest location, opening in 1966, is in west Houston on Westheimer; a location in Southside Place on Bellaire has been in operation since 2011; while the Fulshear location opened in 2021. Visitors to any of these locations will quickly see how important their family, employees and diners are. Family photos abound as do shots of diners enjoying their meals, including guests such as Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
It’s impossible to count the long heritage and lineage of diners who have continued to return over the years. However, many of the Molina’s Cantina employees have been a part of the Molina family for years, if not multiple decades. Children and grandchildren of both employees and patrons now visit the cantina. Raul Jr had an old axiom that “…we may operate restaurants, but we manage people.” As a matter of fact, to this day, a member of the Molina family will visit each restaurant location daily not only to meet and greet patrons but also to check in on their employees. ”We take our guests cradle to grave, but it really is true. Different generations of folks; they’ve raised their kids and now their kids are coming in,” Roberto Molina jokes about their connection between the restaurant and its people.
“We try to treat people like family. We try to give personal service; service first,” explained Roberto about their secret to longevity and success. “We don’t worry so much about losing the sale as we do keeping the guest. That’s real, real important to us. We also try to treat our staff like family. We have some long-term staff members; they’re becoming harder to find and harder to keep these days and that’s what we are trying to accomplish.” It truly is a family deal here, and that family spans beyond those with the Molina last name. With more than eighty years of service, spanning multiple generations, Molina’s remains Houston’s oldest family-owned and operated Tex-Mex restaurant.