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All in the Familia

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

Three business-suited men strolled down Main Street during a recent weekday lunchtime, enjoying the sun and breeze while scouting for someplace different to eat. They stopped in front of the newest restaurant along this feverishly regenerating downtown street and peered curiously inside.

"What sort of restaurant is this?" one of the men asked the host perched just inside the door of Cantina Tres Caballos. "It's Mexican food, very good Mexican food," replied the host.

"Well, then, if it's so good, how come we haven't heard of it?" retorted the man.

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,

"Maybe you have," answered the host, with a sly grin. "You just don't realize it."

Truer words may never have been spoken. Had the host uttered just one more word -- the abracadabra-like "Ninfa!" -- then, poof, the businessmen would have recognized it instantly, even after all these years of decline, bankruptcy and buyout for the Houston-based chain.

Although Cantina Tres Caballos opened with little fanfare just a month ago, this small, already bustling restaurant is in fact the second foothold from one of Mama Ninfa's offspring, operated by oldest son Roland Laurenzo. The first is El Tiempo Cantina [3130 Richmond, (713)807-1600], which grandson Dominic opened in 1998.

Of course, uttering the N-word might have violated the already strained noncompete clause of Ninfa's buyout agreement, which needed to be reinforced this past winter by a court restraining order. Doña Ninfa herself should not greet her family's customers, pleaded the new owners, a partnership known as Ninfa's Holdings L.P., nor should she appear in El Tiempo restaurant more than two times a week.

Even if the Tres Caballos staff is cautiously closemouthed about the owner's family tree, there are plenty of clues for the diner-detective: those wickedly good margaritas, top-notch whether served frozen, on the rocks or straight up, or the great sizzling platters of fajitas flying out of the kitchen. There's that familiar green tomatillo sauce, creamy, tart and irresistible. The tiled floor, dark wood beams and tissue-paper cutouts, too, look very, very familiar. Why, look closely at the pueblo mural painted on the interior wall and you'll discover two cantina names cleverly sketched into its dusty streetscape: Tres Caballos and El Tiempo. It reminds me of that old country and western song, something along the lines of "I'll mention your name in my song if you'll put mine in yoursŠ"

On a recent visit to Tres Caballos (seated just after those tres caballeros), we were impressed by the sheer number of lushly prepared Tex-Mex favorites on the menu. We also couldn't help but notice that, as at El Tiempo, "cantina" doesn't translate as "cheap." Fajita plates, for example, start at $13.95 for a half-pound of chicken and quickly ramp up to $21.95 for the beef and shrimp combinations.

The number and variety of appetizers alone would make Tres Caballos as much fun for after-work cocktails as for lunch, at least on those nights when the cantina stays open late (currently Wednesday through Saturday). We started with a pair of "ratones" ($7.95), mild jalapeño peppers hugely stuffed with shrimp and cheese, battered and deep-fried golden-brown. The jalapeño stems stuck pertly in the air, like, well, rat tails. They're cute little rats, but not worth the sticker at four bucks apiece.

The seviche, on the other hand, was so generously dished out that the $5.95 small serving was plenty for two, and so luscious it's a top contender for the best in town. Firm white chunks of fish and shrimp are tossed with ripe, diced avocados and tomatoes and thin-sliced black olives -- I like a lot of extras in my seviche -- drenched in a drinkably lovely dressing of fresh lime juice, olive oil and cilantro reminiscent of a finely made pesto. I can't imagine how large the $10.95 portion must be -- does it come in a bucket? -- but I absolutely intend to find out.

From Tres Caballos's nine different types of nachos, we settled on the most expensive ($12.95 for ten), made with "jumbo lump" crabmeat. Perhaps because we picked the nachos over the equally tempting list of quesos (made with chorizo, spinach or jalapeño sausage) precisely because we wanted less, not more, cheese, we were dismayed to find the entire plate smothered under a yellow blanket thick as a glacier. Some like a lot of cheese on nachos, but I prefer to be able to locate the perimeter of each chip so I can pick it up. There was enough crabmeat perched on top to stand a fighting chance against the cheese, but the tortilla chips underneath suffered, rendered limp by the load.

One of my guests went for the India pollo guisado ($7.95), and I was glad: Indias are a puzzling item I remember well from that original restaurant whose name begins with N. What exactly is the difference between an India and a tostada?, I always wondered. They both look just like dinner salads to me. Now that I've seen one up close, I can report that a) an India is larger than a tostada, and b) the India has a flour tortilla buried somewhere beneath all the greenery, while a tostada is perched on a corn tortilla. This version had a middling amount of chicken within its mountain of green leaves, lightly moistened with a pale sort of casserole gravy. The net result was a crustless cross between chicken potpie and salad, not my sort of thing at all, but she who ordered it was quite happy.

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.

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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