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Fish Tacos of the Gods

Whatever did we do before there was Berryhill Hot Tamales?

"What's your favorite restaurant?" people are always asking me. Whereupon my brain freezes. I hem. I haw. I qualify. It's the kind of cosmic question to which I have never had a ready answer. Until the last three months: now I just tell them it's Berryhill Hot Tamales.

Berryhill's, a white-collar taqueria off Westheimer in Baja River Oaks, is one of those rare places that are smartly conceived and perfectly realized. Tiny and snug and eccentrically charming, it has shrewdly modest aims backed up by sure-footed execution. From the forceful clarity of its cold-brewed coffee to the gorgeously art-directed look of its signature fish and shrimp tacos, all the details fall into place. Every time I eat here -- and lately I can't seem to stay away -- I am seized by a single involuntary thought: "This is the best food in Houston."

Berryhill's tacos get their hooks in you and won't let go. In fact, they've made this gentrified hole-in-the-wall the kind of overnight classic that Ninfa's was, back in the days when it was little more than a few tables in the front room of the Navigation original. It's a thought that scares me a little, given that Berryhill's is already popular enough to bulge at the seams at peak hours.

If the thought of fish tacos gives you pause, prepare to suspend your disbelief: Berryhill's version will make you glad that this Baja-to-San Diego phenom has finally made it to Texas. Double-wrapped Mexico City-style in superbly thin, mealy corn tortillas, they sprout a garden of leafy cilantro and red cabbage -- a provocative backdrop for meltingly light and crunchy fried catfish dressed with a pinkish mayonnaise sauce. If it makes you feel better to think of this dressing as a remoulade, go right ahead. But it's really Secret Sauce in the highest and best sense of the term, because the way it transmogrifies these splendid tacos defies rational analysis.

It has the same happy effect on the shrimp tacos, which flout the dreary modern principle that to eat shrimp is to roll the dice. The ones I've sampled here have never been iodiney or flavorless or overcooked; quickly sauteed, they retain their snap and resilience. Like the fish tacos, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts -- so much greater that you won't even be tempted to add Berryhill's red salsa. These tacos are surprisingly user-friendly, too, thanks to clever anti-drip packaging in a fishtailed twist of foil.

There are shredded pork tacos that are
substantially more than a sop to people who don't like seafood: complex and vibrant, with the green-olive-and-vinegar tang of a good picadillo, plus a faint chile afterburn.

That food so soulful can happen in a place
as prim and put-together as Berryhill's never fails to amuse me. The taqueria's white-bricked, dark-shuttered, coach-lamped facade is right out of Ralph

Lauren-land; the lace-curtained front door is the stuff of tearooms; the Aspen Times and au courant cookbooks on the cozy wooden counter project a certain highfaluting tone. Compared to the Baja fish dives enshrined in Berryhill's photo gallery, we're talking cleaned-up and slightly tongue-in-cheek -- safe enough for the elderly River Oaksies who drift in on weekend afternoons; cool enough, with its Penafiel pyramids and neon fish, for the earringed twentysomethings clustered at a high table. The sound system is as apt to be broadcasting Sinatra as Merle Haggard; indeed, on a recent noon, co-owner Chuck Bulnes (a charismatic fellow who looks like he might have been a CIA agent or a surf bum in another life) sang along to "The Lady is a Tramp" while juggling a lunch throng that jammed every last counter stool and all of the half-dozen tables.

"Tiempo no es importante," asserts a small sign behind the counter. It's a good motto for a place where you'll likely have to wait at the counter and wait for a table, and which closes at the what-me-worry hour of 9 p.m. I've learned to come at odd, unpopulated times -- mid-afternoon, very early evening -- when the urge for Berryhill's state-of-the-art tamales strikes me. These slender white-cornmeal bundles verge on elegance, with their crumbly, light-bodied texture and a thin, russet chile sauce that is temperately hot, faintly sweet-and-sour, altogether captivating. The minced-up chicken version may be the best, but I feel compelled to keep trying the beef and bean tamales just to make absolutely, you know, certain.

Unlike most things in Houston, these tamales actually have a history. Sauce and all, the beef version is virtually identical to the tamales peddled in the Montrose for decades by cult vendor Walter Berryhill, who worked his way up from a bike to a full-fledged cart. When Berryhill retired, Houston lawyer and longtime fan Bob Tarrant bought his recipe and his cart, which he stashed in a warehouse for 20-plus years. Last year Tarrant joined forces with Bulnes, a veteran of the Houston restaurant trade (including the Texas Tamale Company) who advised him he'd have to sell more than tamales if he wanted to make any money (ergo the fish tacos). Now Berryhill's historic cart can be seen during the day at the corner of Revere and Westheimer, although city codes keep it from functioning as a working tamale cart. But inside the restaurant, you can pick up bundles of six tamales, with sauce on the side, to take home for $3.95 -- a real public service.

Among the handful of other dishes, there's an eccentric quesadilla that conjures up a rambunctious deviled-chicken sandwich, its baby-food mash spiked with chipotle and poblano, smoothed out with cream cheese. Strange. Good. A very respectable crab cake arrives with nicely singed grilled bread, so that you can turn it into a gratifying open-faced sandwich. Cole slaw irresistibly laced with pineapple comes with it, as do pan-fried potato slices, pale and sodden, that are the only clunkers I've run into here.

Even the desserts get good marks: the flan dense and satiny, with a heady Kahlúa syrup; the so-called creme brulee an intense espresso custard topped with shavings of the rustic Mexican brown sugar piloncillo. I couldn't help wondering what would happen if they'd take a hand-held propane torch to this singular concoction and brulee the hell out of that piloncillo.

Berryhill's small universe is very much of a piece. The piles of piloncillo and clear tubs of spices visible through the kitchen's broad service window; the spiky metal sconces and richly mottled walls; the jar of pickled vegetables on the counter; the rolls of paper towels perched at the ready -- they all bespeak proprietors for whom the little things matter. So does that brilliantly edited menu, the artfully composed plates, the food that has never, on any of my numerous visits, disappointed. Even coffee seems to matter here: Berryhill's is cold-brewed, startlingly strong and pure, a mix of Mexican and Central American beans. Shaken up with cream and ice, deposited in one of those kitschy iridescent-aluminum glasses that hold the chill, and sipped with an iridescent aluminum straw, it becomes iced coffee with attitude, the perfect antidote for the Houston summer that will be upon us in... oh, about 20 minutes.

Did I mention the prices? Considering the quality of the food, they're a steal. Two-fifty for a taco that will knock your lights out ain't bad. You can order a major feast and still get out for ten bucks a head. Maybe you'll have to jockey for a seat or wait in line, but it's worth it.

My friend visiting from Bangkok did have a complaint, though. "Whaddya think?" I demanded after we had demolished assorted crab cakes, tamales and tacos. "I hate it," she whined. "You what?" I sputtered. "Because I can't come back," she amended. Poor thing.

Berryhill Hot Tamales, 2639 Revere St., 526-8080.

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