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The Not-So-Grand Canyon

At Post Oak and Westheimer, Mark Miller meets Wally World

You'd think the Canyon Cafe would have everything in the world going for it: location, Southwestern decor, location, Southwestern cuisine and location. Directing an out-of-towner, you could truthfully say, "You can't miss it." Prominently located at the high-visibility intersection of Post Oak and Westheimer, the place works to draw even more attention to itself: At night, it's lit not just by spotlights and floodlights, but by torches.

On our first visit, our little group quailed on the sidewalk below the second-story restaurant, as intimidated as Dorothy and company before the Wizard. "Ooooh, do you think we should have made reservations?" whispered one. "We should have dressed up," moaned another, eyeing fashion plates descending to their valet-parked cars.

We gathered our courage and mounted the steps to the restaurant, careful to avoid the wind-whipped flames of those open torches on the landing.

Inside, the place was equally dramatic. An outdoor deck wraps around the indoor semicircular dining area, which contains a spectacular mirrored bar. Southwesterny objets d'art adorn terra-cotta-colored walls. We were relieved to find that the patrons were casually dressed, there were no howling coyote figures and, no, reservations were not necessary. We were immediately escorted through the clamorous main dining room into a quieter four-booth cul-de-sac, conveniently near the stairs down to the restrooms.

Here we were promptly forgotten. The good news was that the delay gave us plenty of time to study the menu, which is almost two feet long. Of the 44 items listed, 36 either contain or are served with peppers in some form: jalapenos, poblanos, chipotles, bells or chiles. I counted. I had time.

I also noticed that the Canyon Cafe offers an $8 cheeseburger. I once ate an $8 cheeseburger in Manhattan, and for many years it served as my personal benchmark for arrogant overpricing. Perhaps this $8 cheeseburger signifies that Houston's made it into the bistro big leagues.

Eventually we received the freebie snack plate. The chips were accompanied not by salsa, but by a variant of pimiento cheese made from cream cheese and an insipid pico de gallo. I had my first inkling that all was not well in the kitchen.

My next clue: the quesadillas. We tried both the "Southwest Special" ($6.95) and the "Portabella [sic] Mushroom and Spinach" ($6.95) renditions before abandoning our efforts. Both dishes were served cold; the cheeses were only partially melted, the spinach was stringy and the dreadful pico de gallo put in another appearance. (This time we were able to determine that it was made from chopped red and green bell peppers, corn and chopped red onions. Period. I would call that a relish, or a salad, not a pico de gallo.) To add insult to injury, the clammy quesadillas came with a little cup of cold barbecue sauce for dipping. Yech.

The trouble grew deeper with the entrees. Moving more cautiously now, we contemplated the ominous-sounding "Tudie's Chicken Fried Tuna" ($13.95). Who on earth would chicken-fry a tuna? I wondered. The menu's answer: "Originally created for a former governor of Texas." Hmm, would that be Dolph Briscoe? Or Mark White? And was it grounds for impeachment?

We were equally stumped by the "Tomato Fettuccine with Sausage" ($11.50), which has the sausage and pasta "simmered in chicken broth" and topped with vegetables and mushrooms. What exactly is the sauce? "Chicken broth!" chirped our waitress. When we gasped, she rushed to advise us that this dish is not on the list of entrees the management gives her to recommend, so maybe we should skip it. No problem.

"Adovo" is a recurring theme on the Canyon menu, used to describe appetizers ("Adovo Mushroom Casserole"), tacos ("Fajita Beef Tacos with Adovo Mushrooms"), pasta ("Adovo Chicken Pasta") and sandwiches ("Southwest Chicken Sandwich with Adovo Marinade"). I wondered if perhaps the word were a misprint of "adobo," but, no, the waitress assured me, "adovo" is a combination of soy sauce, olive oil and chipotles. She hadn't tried it, she said, but she'd heard it was good.

My husband, who loves pasta, gallantly tried the Adovo Chicken variety ($11.95), which is penne noodles and adovo-grilled chicken in a bell-pepper-cream-sauce-with-julienne-vegetables-topped-with-pico-de-gallo-and-Parmesan-cheese. Then, still gallant, he tried not to spit it out. "There's just too much stuff in it," he complained. "It's like they're afraid to leave anything out." The melange of Asian, Italian and Mexican flavorings was an unfortunate one, and the blend wasn't helped by the gratuitous heat of too many peppers.

He was equally upset to overhear a nearby diner offered jack and Cheddar cheese to sprinkle on her pasta order. She was quite pleased; he turned pale.

My friend, who volunteered for "Hannah's Roasted Chicken" ($11.95) was repulsed by the weird crunchy lumps in the chile-mashed potatoes. On closer examination, those unidentified food objects turned out to be chopped celery and carrots. The odd concoction was served repellently cold (maybe that was supposed to read "chilly" mashed potatoes). And the chicken's barbecue dipping sauce was cold, too.

Another friend sampled the chile-rubbed tuna ($13.95), which, although it also suffered from the gratuitous heat syndrome, was within the edible range. And my dish was even better. The "Tahoe Tenderloin" ($16.95) an excellent eight-ounce steak, was grilled with restraint and enhanced by a spicy marinade with garlic and smoked jalapenos. In the face of my friends' suffering, I felt guilty about such luck. I'm sorry, though, that I tried to eat anything else on the plate. The onions advertised as caramelized had never seen the heat of a skillet. And the same nasty, cold mashed potatoes with their lurking surprise ingredients ... well, enough said.

The only thing not listed on the menu are the desserts. Our waitress offered us a dessert tray, but by then we were scrambling for the door, the torches fluttering in our wake. I've since tried to think what I might have missed. Chipotle mousse with chocolate adovo mushrooms? Poblano peaches with tequila and queso blanco?

Perhaps the Canyon Cafe used a computer to generate its entire menu: Feed in a list of cliched Southwestern ingredients, click the "Churn" button and out spew endless variations of garlic-smoked, jalapeno-garnished, chile-mashed fill-in-the-blanks. I've heard the Mexican government used similar software to create Cancun.

Or, speaking of Cancun, perhaps the Canyon Cafe is cynically playing the big-city game of "get the tourist." Hotels engaged in this wily gambit spend all their decorating dollars on the lobby; you sign in amidst marble and brass, thick carpets and smoked glass, then discover that your room is a bare broom closet next to the clanking elevator. In the restaurant version, the owner contrives to capture a prime location, on the ocean, say, or the boulevard or the wooded peak. That's all he need do: Tourists flock, drawn by the venue. It doesn't matter what he feeds them; they'll never come back anyway, and there are always new tourists off the next flight.

Even if I never return to the Canyon Cafe, and even if no one from inside the Loop ever sets foot in the place, I'll bet the place stays in business. There are plenty of people too intent on seeing and being seen to notice the food, and some who actually like jack cheese on pasta. And there will always be more out-of-towners -- dazzled Galleria shoppers from Peoria or Newark; expense-accounters or tipsy Chicago conventioneers -- to fill the tables.

After all, you can't miss it.

Canyon Cafe, 5000 Westheimer, 629-5565.

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