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All in the Familia

Cantina Tres Caballos may be a Tex-Mex newcomer, but you know its Mama

I also remember, at that other place that I really should stop mentioning, that combination plates were named, not numbered, so that 20 years ago I had to learn a long list of seemingly arbitrary appellations to get what I wanted. No "No. 6" platters here, either. Instead it's the "Escaramusa" ($10.95), which combines a taco al carbon and a flauta. We tried the chicken edition and were underwhelmed. Not with the technique, mind you -- the flauta's skin was thin and perfectly crisp, and there was plenty of meaty chicken in the big, soft flour taco -- but with the lack of imagination in putting it together. The chicken cried for marinating, or seasoning, or something, anything, to relieve its vast blandness. I suppose it could be satisfactorily doctored by unwinding the tortilla and dressing it with that wonderful red salsa served stovetop hot, or even less ceremoniously by dunking it straight into the cup, but I wish the kitchen had thought of that first.

The "D'Musica Carnitas Taco" ($7.95) proved a much better choice, if you can only remember the name. It's the same lovely soft flour tortilla, but the pork inside is first roasted, then seared on the grill, then finely shredded. It's flavorful and nicely textured with bits of crisp skin, along with a plentiful but not overpowering dose of cilantro.

I asked our waiter for help with the fajitas nomenclature, specifically, the difference between the shrimp called "Amante" and "Valentia." The first style of shrimp is wrapped in bacon, he explained, while the second is sautéed in garlic butter. I ordered the combination of beef fajita and shrimp Valentia ($21.95), but what came out of the kitchen was an embarrassingly large metal box topped with a platter of four -- count 'em, four -- bacon-wrapped shrimp. (This would be the shrimp Amante solo, at $19.95.) Rather than wait for a replacement, I went with it, but it proved problematic.

No one speaks the N-word at Tres Caballos. But the Ninfa's influence is easy to spot.
Amy Spangler
No one speaks the N-word at Tres Caballos. But the Ninfa's influence is easy to spot.

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(713)221-1695.
502 Main Street,

First of all, those picturesque Tres Caballos tables, sort of a dark-lacquered weathered barn wood, proved way too small for four average diners, much less three normal people and a food reviewer. Then that darn box -- I know, I know, the ovenlike part below is correctly called an anafre -- is too big in both dimensions. It not only crowds the tabletop but also puts the platter awkwardly high under your nose; long on local color, it's short on practicality.

Second, I have the same cost-per-bite ratio problem as with the ratones: Twenty bucks is a lot for four shrimp, even four great big juicy shrimp like these, each with a thin green sliver of poblano pepper tucked inside. I can't imagine the sides of rice and charro-style beans bump the price up that much. And I'd hoped to be just a little fat-consciousŠ well, forget about that with each shrimp tastily wrapped and broiled in thick, smoky bacon. No argument, it was delicious, but is there much wrapped in bacon that isn't? For the final indignity, I admit I dunked each bite into the cup of melted butter and lemon juice provided for just that evil purpose. It wasn't just me: I saw other diners dunking their red meat into that butter, good Lord!

The end of the meal is the clinch that separates the real eaters from the dieters and dilettantes. We lost half our party, but two of us persevered for desserts, and I'm so glad we did. The flan ($5.50), so often a forgettable non-contender, here is heavily fragrant with orange and swimming in a syrup of delicately caramelized sugar. Even more wondrous were the "chocobananas" ($5.95), two huge ripe bananas halved, paired with chocolate, sweetly battered and fried and topped with a premium vanilla ice cream and -- can you stand it? -- drenched in a chocolate-scented sauce.

My final tally for Tres Caballos is three astonishingly good dishes (that seviche, those desserts!), plus several more that are as good as you'd get elsewhere, all washed down with some damn fine margaritas. Some dishes are overpriced, but all in all, it works. No matter whose name is or isn't on the marquee, Cantina Tres Caballos is a welcome addition to the downtown drinking and dining scene.

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