Taste of Texas

Rancho Tejas does guy food a gal could learn to love

"This is the Rick's of the Houston food world," declared my friend as she scanned the wide-open limestone spaces of Rancho Tejas on a recent noon. Everywhere in this swank new Post Oak meat palace were guys, guys and more guys: clad in white dress shirts, yammering into cellular phones, addressing plates full of big food in manly shades of brown and white. On-stage, instead of the lean flanks of topless dancers, a humongous haunch of beef twirled invitingly on its skewer in the glassed-in kitchen.

Among all this Texas manliness, however, were things the female of the species could love. Flaky, vividly garnished blue crab nachos that spoke convincingly of the Gulf of Mexico -- and of owner Pat McCarley's years at the right hand of Jim Goode, that inspired synthesizer of Texas culinary genres. Gloriously tart green beans flavored with soulful bacon and onion. A thinnish, creamy oyster stew blessed with tiny poached bivalves and savory scallion. Better-than-classic tortilla soup based on a heady onion broth, crackly tortilla ribbons and plenty of vegetables. A lofty, near-ecclesiastical room hung with shapely brass lanterns. A rustic porch more conducive to counting hummingbirds in Dripping Springs than cars at San Felipe and the Loop.

It is a measure of the hotness of the Post Oak/San Felipe axis that McCarley shoehorned his restaurant onto a grassy verge of the 3D International building that bears more resemblance to a leftover strip of lawn than a piece of real estate. Its access is tricky. Its parking is less than ideal. But the crowds have grown steadily from day one, drawn by the handsome good looks of the place, the comfortable familiarity of its regional Texas menu, the expansive portions and the less-than-scary prices. The food, a joint project of McCarley and chef Jerry Cox (who ran the Quilted Toque kitchen for Monica Pope), may still be unsettled, and the beef-game-enchiladas-seafood repertoire in need of tinkering, but already there are enough high points to win friends and influence Galleria expense accounts.

Take the habit-forming Rancho Tejas breadbasket. Or pastel ceramic breadbowl, to be exact: beneath a white napkin hide crusty white-cornmeal sticks, yellow wedges of jalapeno cornbread and slices of home-style bread swirled with pecans. Faintly sweet honey butter works surprisingly well with these baked goods, since the breads themselves are blessedly unsugared. You can observe them in progress to the left of the entranceway, where resident bakers scrape kernels from ears of freshly roasted corn and haul cast-iron cornstick pans from the ovens. It is an encouraging sight.

So is a Frisbee-sized stuffed flounder -- a superbly fat-flaked specimen brimming with a crumbly crab-and-shrimp dressing lightened by corn and peppers, the whole dish booted clear over the top by a nutty pecan butter. Real neo-Gulf Coast stuff, rich as hell and unrepentant about it. It's even richer (and more delicious) in the company of a double-baked potato that is a prime example of Great American Goop: a guilt-inducing ooze of sharp Cheddar, sour cream, scallion and black pepper all chopped together with the potato meat, so that the texture is interestingly lumpy. "Yum" is the word that leaps to mind.

Such excesses call for astringent relief in the form of the restaurant's vinegary green beans, countrified wonders that ought to be served routinely instead of only on occasion. They bring a much-needed leavening to Rancho Tejas' sturdy brown fare. The dun-colored mushroom caps that passed for the day's vegetable on another occasion only added to the monochromatic drabness. Please, guys! Even Texans cannot live by meat and starch alone.

Nor can they live by fried food alone -- especially if the frying is as ham-handed as it is here. Chicken-fried steak, that sacred Texas cow, emerges in alarming guise: heavy shards of grease-laden batter scooting right off the underlying slabs of gray round steak like so many errant continental plates. Definitive it ain't. Tepid mashed potatoes don't help, and the cream gravy could use more of the advertised pan drippings (and more pepper, too). French fries (here known as "ranch fries") taste marginally and disconcertingly sweet. And fiercely hot jalapenos sheathed in thick, stodgy batter make a gentle chopped-shrimp stuffing virtually disappear. It's too bad, because the corn relish, cooked tomato salsa and cool sour cream that come with these Texas torpedoes are good enough to mop up with spare cornsticks.

Elsewhere the menu wanders between pleasant and puzzling. On the positive side of the ledger are a bowlful of romaine and tomato wedges topped with what amounts to a sprightly chopped chicken-and-green-chile salad, and an endearing 1015 onion casserole remindful of a custardy Southern squash bake without the squash. Nice-enough chicken enchiladas blancas could use more poblano-pepper lift in their suave, Junior Leaguey cream sauce. In fact, the whole plate -- rice, frijoles a la charra and all -- could use more oomph than thimblefuls of lush pico de gallo and basic guacamole provide. I couldn't help wondering what a great salsa verde would bring to the party. (Cox certainly could do one: his green chili, an exhilaratingly spicy pork-and-potato stew, is more than persuasive.)

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