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By Eating Our Words
The first name is clearly Italian. The last name is clearly French. And the look, as anyone who's spent any time in diners can attest, is clearly that of a Greek short-order cook: bearish frame, arms that would do a wrestler proud, slicked-back hair, even, on occasion, the toothpick caught between the teeth.
Why, then, the food that Guido Piquet prepares is so clearly Cuban is just another of those multicultural curiosities with which Houston seems to abound. That and, of course, heritage: Piquet hails from Camanera, a town in the southeastern region of Cuba where his father had run a grocer's shop before, in 1962, leaving the island for the States and eventually Houston. When the elder Piquet, also named Guido, settled his family in Texas, he re-entered the grocer's trade, and for close to two decades ran a small store on Chimney Rock. It was only when the grocery business began to falter that, around 1989, the family added a restaurant to boost income.
"Actually," says Guido the younger, "what happened was that my mother started cooking for the employees. And everyone liked the food so much that people began asking, 'Hey, can you sell me a plate of that too?' " She did, and the response was so favorable that the meat market section of the store was cleared out, tables were added and a tiny cafe called La Cocina de Ninata christened. It served up country Cuban fare for most of the early '90s, drawing a regular clientele that included then Houston Rocket Carl Herrera and a goodly portion of the city's Cuban-American population. But about two years ago the Piquets lost their lease, mama and papa Piquet decided it was about time to retire and La Cocina de Ninata entered the oblivion that has welcomed too many other pleasant holes in the wall around town.
Houston, TX 77081
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Until, that is, son Guido, along with his wife, Nelly, decided to resurrect the cooking end of the business in a new place under a new name. The location was only a short distance along Bissonnet away from where the family grocer's had been, and the name, Cafe Piquet, was an easy clue to anyone who had shopped at the Piquet Market that the food they'd come to love was available once more -- literally, as it happens, since not only had Guido Piquet learned all his mother's recipes, but he had been running La Cocina de Ninata before it closed. Despite, Piquet says, not being allowed to put up a sign at the old store directing customers to the new restaurant, a number of the previous clientele have found him simply by prowling the neighborhood. Cafe Piquet opened its doors only last October, with Guido in the kitchen and Nelly running the register, and already weekends are crowded with Cuban-American families eating leisurely Saturday and Sunday lunches while catching up on what their friends at the next table have been doing during the week.
But though the word has spread in the Cuban community, Piquet admits that getting the message out to non-Cubans has been more difficult. And in that regard, setting up shop barely a block away from Cafe Miami, perhaps the most familiar Cuban restaurant in town, can't have helped. Folks traveling along Bissonnet in search of a Caribbean fix are much more likely to see the large façade of Cafe Miami than the small sign for Cafe Piquet tucked in the corner of a strip mall cater-cornered across the street.
And that's a pity, not so much for Cafe Piquet, which seems to be doing fine with a primarily Spanish-speaking clientele, but for the folks who miss it. In its half-year of existence, Cafe Piquet has quickly leapt to the front of Houston's Cuban contingent. Not, admittedly, that there's a lot of competition -- unfortunately, the number of Cuban food outlets in town has been shrinking, and some of those that have survived have undergone various upheavals. All of which, to my mind, makes Cafe Piquet just that much more precious.
I will admit to a bias here -- as far as I'm concerned, Cuban food is the quintessential comfort cuisine. That it took me close to three decades to discover that truth I attribute to a benighted upbringing, but ever since I learned the joys of black beans and rice, fried plantains, yucca with garlic sauce and the ethereal lightness with which good Cuban cooks approach frying, I've made it a point to search out Cuban eateries wherever I happen to land. I've found good ones in New York, in Miami (of course), in Tampa and even (for a short time) in Atlanta.
Cafe Piquet could hold its head high in any of those locations. Over the last few months I've probably tried just about everything on the menu, and I have yet to hit a clunker. Oh, admittedly the desserts are less than overwhelming, more pleasant accompaniment to a meal than its high point, and the empanadas could use more filling and less crust, and I'm a little frustrated at having ordered the fried pork skin appetizer on three occasions, only to have it unavailable each time, but in a place that treats its main dishes with such affection, those are passing complaints. There is little fancy here; it's solid food done solidly with solid results. That it's also relatively inexpensive is a pleasant plus.