In Houston, a town not particularly lacking in Latin-American eats, it's easy for diners to get jaded, to think that they know everything that's going on, food-wise, south of the border. That's why it's instructive every so often to stumble across a place such as Mama Judy's Tropical Cuisine and be reminded that there's a whole continent of cooking between here and Tierra del Fuego, and that hidden away on that continent are more than a few surprises.
At Mama Judy's (named for Judy Ramirez, who runs the restaurant along with husband Luis), those surprises are Venezuelan. There are a few familiar items on the menu -- fried plantains, for one, honey-colored flaps that fry up firm instead of mushy and whose sweetness is a perfect foil to the saltiness of the meat dishes -- but even these can be given an unusual twist. Try them with cheese: a thick layer of melted, slightly congealed mozzarella that turns the expected into something new and delightful.
Meat receives preferential treatment here, and the perfume of grilling permeates the renovated and repainted Taco Bell building. (The new color scheme of whites and bright pastels is inviting, but as the Taco Bell setting makes clear, the dining is far from formal. Plastic cutlery and Styrofoam dishes are the order of the day.) Parilla criolla, sort of a catch-all sampler platter, is a good place to start exploring. Peppery chunks of surprisingly tender and juicy grilled chicken, beef and bright pinkish-red circles of sausage are piled over cubed yucca. The look is artless; the taste is not. A racy little thimbleful of jalapeno sauce comes on the side: thick, olive-green but nearly translucent, it's like jelly married with fire.
One lunchmate says he'll go back to Mama Judy's if for no other reason than to devour more of her astonishing cornbread -- a type he says he'd never before encountered outside two tiny towns in his parents' native Alabama. It's made from white cornmeal and is fried into finely crumbed patties, golden on the outside, snowy and dense and mushy on the inside. It accompanies many of the meat dishes and also serves as a bun in the equivalent of a Venezuelan hamburger: arepas rellenas. I ordered the beef (it also comes in cheese, pork and chicken) and was presented with a compilation of stringy, flavorful beef topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a bit of ketchup. The sandwich was drippy enough to obliterate completely the possibility of eating it by hand.
Not that I'm complaining. When I added to that sandwich an order of fried plantains and a large cup of agua de panela -- an amber-hued drink made from sugarcane whose grassy, earthy sweetness is fine when tempered with a squeeze or two of lemon -- I was reminded of one reason why we try something new: it's the only way to discover items that are sure to become old favorites. -- Kelley Blewster
Mama Judy's Tropical Cuisine, 6523 Westheimer (at Hillcroft), 975-6882.
Mama Judy's Tropical Cuisine: parilla criolla, $7.99; arepas rellenas, $1.75.