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Mex, Not Tex

La Valerosa runs from the border to find what's haute in Mexican cuisine

In a town filled with 99-cent taquerias, where enchiladas in their brownish-yellow sauce are king, the concept of upscale Mexican food may seem not just an oxymoron, but unnecessary. With so much good, cheap Mexican food available, why bother with anything more expensive?

Actually, anyone who's eaten at Las Alamedas on the Katy Freeway already knows the answer to that question. But for those who need more convincing, the new La Valerosa should do the trick. The restaurant -- named after Valentina Zuniga, who during the Mexican Revolution stood out for her bravery and was named La Valerosa (The Courageous) -- occupies the space in the ritzy Pavilion center on Post Oak that was formerly occupied by Sfuzzi. The signature look of that restaurant has given way to another signature look; when you walk into La Valerosa you can't help but feel that you're entering a hacienda. The Spanish colonial look of both the exterior and interior is the work of Alex Robles, a Mexican architect now living in Houston. On the left as you enter is a well-stocked bar that would be inviting were it not for the ever-blaring television. The main dining area, though, is eminently more peaceful, its centerpiece a beautiful, soothing terra-cotta fountain.

Whereas many Tex-Mex restaurants have an almost gaudy interior, the interior of La Valerosa is subdued, with lots of beige, sand and rust tones. Mariachi music gives way to strolling guitarists at night, while bare tables yield to white tablecloths and hand-painted crockery. At lunch, the clientele is a mix of businessmen and women; evening brings an interesting mix of the young and the old. On each side of the main room are two smaller, more intimate dining areas. One is a covered veranda, illuminated during the day by natural light; on the opposite side is the smoking section, where a series of alcoves cover a wall.

Owner Jorge Sneider and his son Alex have given much thought to the interior decor, especially the lighting. In addition to traditional Mexican wooden and glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, subtly placed ceiling spotlights illuminate each table. Additional spots are used on the pottery and works by Mexican artists that adorn the walls. While the saltillo-tiled floor rounds out the hacienda effect, it does little to abate the noise level, which in the evening can rise to a screaming pitch. (Lunch, thankfully, is a quieter affair.) As at many of Houston's newer restaurants, a loud atmosphere seems almost a prerequisite.

The noise level, though, is the only part of the atmosphere that doesn't seem to fit. Food and service most assuredly do fit. It's something that obviously runs in the family. Jorge Sneider honed his culinary skills at Las Alamedas, which he has owned since the early '80s, when he moved to Houston to escape from Mexico's economic crisis; his divorced wife still runs an upscale restaurant called Finesse in Mexico City, where son Alex cut his teeth. After graduating from the UH school of restaurant management, Alex became the manager of Las Alamedas. Last October, when La Valerosa was opened, he took over the helm of his family's newest venture, though still under the watchful eye of his father. Every evening, Alex can be seen schmoozing with the customers, ensuring that everything runs smoothly -- a relatively simple job, as it turns out, since the number of attentive, well-trained and knowledgeable waiters is more than enough to set La Valerosa well above the average in service.

What the Sneiders and their creative chef, Eduardo Padilla, have brought to the Galleria area is an adventurous menu full of complex dishes, a bill of fare with a continental touch that utilizes indigenous ingredients in novel ways. The only surrenders to Tex-Mex standards are the nachos and the fajitas; the rest of the offerings will likely seem foreign to all except those who have dined at Las Alamedas. Some of the dishes made popular there have made it over to the new location. Other dishes, such as the frog leg appetizer or the use of cuitlacoche, show courage for Houston. On La Valerosa's menu, the cuitlacoche is euphemistically referred to as corn mushroom rather than its other names, corn smut and corn fungus. This bulbous fungus, which attacks ears of corn, is considered a plague by U.S. farmers, but was prized by the Aztecs. It's enjoying a gourmet rage at the moment as people come to know its smoky-sweet flavor, a cross between the tastes of corn and mushroom.

The chips and salsa are both served warm, and except for some tomato skins, the salsa is particularly smooth. It's a bit on the mild side, but if it were too hot it would ruin your taste buds for the upcoming and memorable feast.

There are currently three soup offerings on the menu, each different yet similar. All come in traditional earthenware bowls; they also come with a generously sized soupspoon, a small but appreciated touch that makes them easier to enjoy. The house specialty, the sopa de tortilla, is a warming and comforting chicken broth laden with strips of corn tortillas. A garnish tray consisting of avocado, sour cream, finely diced onion, cilantro and cheese is provided for a little do-it-yourself doctoring. The sopa Tarasca, named after a nomadic tribe from Michoacan that enjoyed the legume, is a wonderfully smooth black bean soup. In fact, it is so velvety smooth that I wonder how they puree the beans. The rich dark purple color contrasts well with the finely grated strips of queso blanco that adorn its top, along with strips of corn tortillas. The cheese melts into a gooey mass, and on occasion hangs down from the spoon as you attempt to elevate it to your mouth, leaving you to ponder what to do next -- slurp it up, put it down and try again or twist it onto the spoon like spaghetti. The caldo loco is a dense chicken broth made with grilled chicken breast. A stir or two quickly brings to the surface some rice that lies on the bottom of the bowl. Another garnish tray comes with this soup, this one bearing avocado, grated cheese and finely grated jalapeno peppers and onions.

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