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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.)

In the puzzling category falls the house specialty, "range beef" cut from the revolving Angus hindquarter and served either fajita-fashion or barbecue-style. Since the beef is slow-roasted over pecan wood, it comes away from the coals as a sort of Yber-brisket: pricey at $12.75 for what amounts to a glorified barbecue dinner. Not bad, but not particularly memorable, either, no matter how striking the spectacle of that hindquarter. As to well-done, briskety fajitas ... no thank you.

More puzzling still are roasted quail swathed in flabby flaps of bacon that defeat any flavor these poor farm-raised birds might summon up. Between all that bacon, and the cornbread stuffing packed underneath, it's hard to find the quail at all. Perhaps mercifully, since they were dry and overcooked one noon last week. Sourish cheese-sauced new potatoes came with them, more's the pity. I longed desperately for those green beans.

Dessert here can be swell, though, if you order the unusual pecan cobbler. It's like a pecan pie without the all-too-fallible crust: crisp, unsweetened shortbread wafers actually perform better than crust, and the filling boasts a distinctive smooth-sticky texture that trumpets the comforting presence of Karo syrup. "Yum" is the word that comes to mind -- again.

Early glitches or no, Rancho Tejas has the air of a smart and promising place that knows the Houston market. The menu is still shaking out: already they've added a much-needed, (relatively) lighter lunch menu with a soup-or-chili-and-salad option that's very attractive, given the classiness of the kitchen's soups. The look is smashing -- pale, serene, solid, sensibly devoid of the Wild Western cuteness that runs rampant at megachef Stephan Pyles' trendy Star Canyon in Dallas and creeps through Robert del Grande's Rio Ranch here at home. The service may be on the bumpy, untutored side, but it's notably cheerful and bushy-tailed.

Harold Farb has already shown up for lunch, minus the eats-like-a-bird Diane Lokey. That says it all.

Rancho Tejas, 4747 San Felipe at West Loop South, 840-0440.

Rancho Tejas: crab nachos, $6.95;
tortilla soup, $3.75;
broiled stuffed flounder, $14.95;
pecan cobbler $2.95

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