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Something Old, Something New

If El Palacio is a dream of the past, Cabo is the cocktail party of the future

They're both new. They both traffic in the now-mandatory fish tacos. They both add fashionable grilled vegetables to the south-of-the-border standards so dear to Houstonians' hearts and minds. But otherwise, Cabo and El Palacio seem to exist in parallel universes: Cabo's in the sharp, smartly packaged world of an urbane mid-'90s taqueria; El Palacio's in a dreamy, tentative realm populated by the ghosts of Houston Past.

Both have their charms. Cabo, in particular, is one of those highly useful eateries that seems tailor-made for Houston tastes -- an instant hit that has already begun accumulating its own folklore. (It was the initial meeting ground for Wayne Dolcefino's Very Bad Date, which led to assault charges against Channel 13's star reporter.)

The food is swell, full of big flavors and tropical grace notes. The prices are right, at least before high-tariff liquids run your tab up. And the border-joint feel of this long, high-ceilinged slot is captivating: all metal-flake red and silver, moodily lit, with a diner-style working grill and shiny, stamped-stainless counters made of non-slip industrial flooring. Blue-neon tubing snakes overhead. A patently unreal sailfish arches across the back wall. Onions and limes swing in miniature hammocks. Reggae thumps in the background, interwoven with Traffic and Steely Dan, as knowingly retrograde as the Cuba Libres that are the house drink.

At 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, Cabo is a loud, youthful cocktail party aswirl with revelers working the Greenbriar circuit, from 8.0 to World Bait to Q Cafe. On a weekday noon, it's a schmoozy yup-crowd lunch spot, its high, chromed stools packed with chattering taco-eaters. But I like it best at mid-afternoon or early evening, when I can duck in for a fast snack or a light meal and imagine that the place is all mine.

The tightly edited menu created by Colombia-born Arturo Boada (tropical-fruit entrepreneur and chef at the late La Mer) puts a South and Central American spin on a repertoire that owes more than a nod to Berryhill's, the popular fish-taco-and-tamale hole in the wall. Cabo's fat, fluffy tamales materialize on a dramatic swath of dark banana leaf, set off by an orange puree that packs an emphatic chile afterburn. Prettiest is the grilled vegetable version, vivid with multicolored peppers and corn kernels that pop out against the inky, subtly sweet mishmash of black beans and rice alongside.

There are quesadillas -- aren't there always? -- of a high order, seared to a crackly gold-brown, stuffed with marinated chicken and a piercingly good serrano-garlic mayonnaise that makes the white cheese come alive. Too bad the grilled marinated beef has a drab pot-roasty texture. And what's that bland charred-corn salsa doing in such fast company? Just sitting there.

Cabo's fish tacos can hold their own with Berryhill's finest -- from their double-wrapped white corn tortillas to their lightly battered tempura fish to their rooftop garden, an exuberant spill of shredded iceberg, red cabbage, cilantro and tomato. The dressing has a tang and a chile warmth that goes Berryhill's one better. For the virtuously inclined, there's a grilled-fish version that even Dr. Red Duke could love.

When it comes to shrimp, Cabo cuts its own path: coating the shellfish in a seriously hot, fruity paste and pan-sauteing them (the menu says they're fried, but they're like no fried shrimp you've ever eaten). How good are they? So good I didn't even care that many of the shrimp involved were fraught with iodine, a condition that normally stops me cold. Get them in a taco, or sprawled in a heap across a silvery aluminum plate, with a tissue-wrapped longneck to put out the fire.

Luxurious roasted-corn and poblano chile chowder is friendly stuff in its oversized ceramic cup, rich and gentle and laced with chewy tortilla strips. There are eccentric sandwiches housed on dense, chewy buns that have an almost flattened quality, like pressed Cuban sandwiches; the one filled with charcoaly marinated chicken and dressed with that splendid serrano mayonnaise has a chopped-barbecue-gone-Latin effect. Long, sturdy strips of fried plantain make it even more exotic.

Those in the cocktail mode that Cabo so clearly encourages will find the margaritas most respectable -- high on tequila and triple sec, low on sugar. The vaunted sangria, ladled from big glass jars, seems strangely wan -- but again, it's not too sweet, which is a blessing. The real winner, though, is the subtle banana smoothie: pure and icy instead of creamy and sweet, the kind of thing that could get you through a Houston summer. I hardly even minded that it cost a stiff $3.75.

Cabo has a buzzy aura that makes it seem alive even when it's three-quarters empty. Friendly floor managers greet you with a disconcerting enthusiasm and nudge you through the counter-ordering drill (soon to be augmented by a full-service dining room -- "1952 Cuba," says the owner -- that's under construction next door). From the owner on down, everyone exudes the confident awareness that they're on a roll.

Over on a midtown stretch of Main Street, behind El Palacio's 1930-vintage red tile and Spanish-style stucco, the mood is more of a brown study. With its low ceilings, thick plastered walls and sculpted wooden beams, the dining room seems adrift on the sea of time; it's one of those womblike, windowless spaces in which Houston used to specialize (remember the old Maxim's?), and it is ineffably comforting. In one corner, a kitschy floor lamp stands with its long shade askew; shiny knobs and curlicues -- embellishments of departed Greek owners -- cavort on the wildly stuccoed surface of a mammoth fireplace. On the jukebox, the Falcons whine "You're So Fine" in timeless falsetto.

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