This classic comfort food is made heartier and more exciting when stuffed with rich barbacoa and spicy birria, as it is at many restaurants across Texas.
José R. Ralat is Texas Monthly’s taco editor, writing about tacos and Mexican food.
For Americans, there is perhaps no more nostalgia-inducing dish than a grilled cheese sandwich. At many Texas taquerias and restaurants, it’s turned up a notch with a Mexican influence, which can mean anything from fillings like birria and barbacoa to using queso blanco to hold it all together.
I’ve spent months scouring Texas for Mexican grilled cheeses, and while they seem to be offered in nearly every corner of the state, great ones are surprisingly rare. Perhaps the most traditional and influential Mexican grilled cheese is the one sold at Barrio Barista in San Antonio. “That barbacoa grilled cheese was a go-to meal for me,” says Tony Luhrman, a San Antonio native who frequented the cafe while attending nearby St. Mary’s University. The sandwich affected Luhrman so deeply that when he opened his El Topo truck in Houston, he put an homage to it on his menu. (It’s also available at the El Topo brick-and-mortar.) Luhrman’s sandwich, appropriately called the San Antonio, is a worthy tribute to the Alamo City stalwart. But there are a few more grilled cheeses worthy of making pilgrimages for.
Barrio Barista was opened in 2014 by Gilbert De Hoyos and his sons, Brian and Gilbert Jr. The West Side institution has the look of an antique shop, as it’s packed with knickknacks like typewriters, but it’s also a gallery, with the work of local artists for sale. Belly up to the coffee bar and order the sandwich made with griddled Texas toast, a layer of beef barbacoa, and perfectly melted American cheese. It’s a surprisingly light and lean dish, but you can add avocado for a boost of creaminess—or ask for the Westside Special, which includes a warming bowl of tomato-basil soup. 3735 Culebra Road, San Antonio, 210-519-5403.
Birriería El Güero’s grilled cheese is stuffed with birria de res, which is spiced with a trio of chiles, cumin, black pepper, and cinnamon. Mozzarella holds all that rich goodness is place, and the charred corners of the bread provide crunch. The menu item is insanely popular, says co-owner Leonard Paredes. “People are surprised that it’s a thing and order it,” he explains. For an added bump of flavor, peel back the top slice to sprinkle in chopped cilantro and red onion. 3800 N. Zaragoza Road, El Paso, 915-232-7364.
Tucked behind Equal Parts Brewing in Houston’s East End, El Pobre Tex Mex BBQ doles out a bevy of noshes perfect for washing down with a mild pilsner or lager. The grilled cheese features smoky pulled pork or achiote-infused al pastor in a net of stringy queso blanco between slices of golden Texas toast. The thin but punchy mole poblano–inspired salsa made by owner Alfredo Martinez’s mother, Teresa, makes for an ideal dipping sauce. 3118 Harrisburg Boulevard, Houston
Straddling rustic and fine-casual dining, El Topo, in the Houston area’s West University Place, takes food very seriously. Owner Luhrman oversees the nixtamalization process for the tortillas and makes the restaurant’s Japanese milk bread in-house daily. For approachability, the bread is listed as “Texas toast” on the menu. It’s a delicate but sturdy bread seared in clarified butter and packed with milky queso quesadilla that stretches into stalagmite-stalactite formations and beef barbacoa that spills out from the sides of the sandwich, reflecting light in its knotted strands studded with small bits of fat. 6119 Edloe, West University Place, 832-795-7251.
In Austin, there’s no better birria grilled cheese than the one at La Tunita 512, which is also home to the best birria taco in town. Both are served with a mouth-coating consommé punctuated with cilantro and onions. You might want to tuck a paper towel into your shirt to prevent from staining it with the vermilion broth as you dip the sandwich, which features guajillo-marinated brisket birria and costralike griddled cheese. 2400 Burleson Road, Austin, 512-679-0708.
The weekends-only Sarah’s Barbacoa is named after owner Sarah Hernandez, who was sixteen years old when she opened her small joint in 2019 along De Zavala Road. At the strip center shop, lean beef barbacoa is served in a pressed, oblong telera that shines like the jewel it is. If you don’t wash down the sandwich with a Big Red, you might want to consider turning in your Texan ID. 6330 De Zavala Road, Suite 103, San Antonio, 210-263-9955.
While customers schlep to this nearly two-year-old Buda trailer (and its second location in Austin) for the cheesy, orange-colored birria tacos, it’s the birria melt that is the true star and tied for second best-seller with the birria ramen. Inspired by co-owner Alex Hernandez’s four-year-old son’s love of grilled cheese, this sandwich is thick, comforting, and fun to pull apart. Who doesn’t love a good cheese pull? 2775 FM 2001, Buda; 10701 Menchaca Road, Austin.
José R. Ralat is Texas Monthly’s taco editor, writing about tacos and Mexican food.
José R. Ralat is Texas Monthly’s taco editor, writing about tacos and Mexican food.
José R. Ralat is Texas Monthly’s taco editor, writing about tacos and Mexican food.
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