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By Eating Our Words
When you cut into a fried green tomato slice at Valdo's Café, you can't help mopping up some of the overlapping puddles of warm red gravy, chunky pico de gallo and cool sour cream beneath it. The batter-crusted tomatoes are not only amply sauced, they're also topped with lots of chopped parsley and squiggles of shredded mozzarella. The texture of hot, crunchy batter and tart tomato meat with this blend of sauces and toppings is terrific. Add some fresh-baked French bread on the side, and the huge appetizer plate is a meal in itself.
If I were to tell you that this dish is a sterling example of the new Mexican-Italian interpretation of Louisiana cooking that is sweeping Galveston Bay, I wouldn't expect you to believe me. So instead, I'll describe the Valdo's phenomenon this way: What do you get when you take a classically trained chef from Mexico City, send him to work in Louisiana, Las Vegas and Landry's Seafood Restaurant for a couple of years, and then give him his own kitchen in Pasadena, Texas?
The chef's name is Victor Hernandes. And here's his mission statement as printed on Valdo's menu: "Join us on a culinary voyage around the world with flavors from Louisiana (Cajun & Creole), the Italian cuisine, a French touch, and of course 'La Cocina Mexicana.' " (You thought I was kidding, huh?)
804 Preston St.
Houston, TX 77002-1809
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
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Fried green tomatoes: $5.25
Oysters Rockefeller: $7.95
Parrillada loca: $13.95
Deluxe fried seafood platter: $16.95
Whole Gulf flounder: $15.95
Fried Gulf shrimp: $11.95
Shrimp Dijon: $11.95
There are actually three Valdo's, one in Pasadena, one a few miles down the road in Deer Park and a brand-new location in Bacliff. "Valdo" is short for Valdovino, the Mexican family that owns the restaurants. (Hernandes is part of the family, despite the different last name.) They were called Valdo's Mexican Cafés when they first opened three years ago, but seafood became the most popular item, so they dropped the "Mexican" part. I haven't visited the Bacliff location yet, but the menu is exactly the same in Deer Park and Pasadena. Both restaurants are also equally eccentric in their approach to decorating.
Valdo's Café in Pasadena resides in a converted Dairy Queen. A gaudy Mardi Gras mask hangs on the wall above the cash register (a souvenir of one of Hernandes's wild nights in New Orleans, no doubt). Aztec emblems pop up here and there. And along the top of the waist-high brick wall, there's an array of papier-mâché figures with elongated bodies and Spanish costumes in that mass-handcrafted style so common to gift shops on the Mexican border.
Valdo's Café in Deer Park is a virtual jungle, with over 30 fake plants and 23 landscape prints on the walls, not counting the trompe l'oeil beach scenes in the bathrooms. The bathroom wall paintings show the bricks of the building broken away to reveal an idyllic beach scene in the distance. "People in Deer Park must fantasize about nature a lot," one dining companion quipped.
The restaurant also has apparently decided to make a bold decorating statement by ripping up the carpeting to reveal the grubby concrete floors beneath. While the industrial look is much in vogue these days, it generally works better if you polish the concrete and remove the water-stained acoustical tile ceiling. Not that I'm ready to open an interior design consulting business in Pasadena. And anyway, as somebody somewhere once said, you can't eat decor.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend that you eat much of what's on Valdo's menu, either. But don't worry. With 18 appetizers, 13 soups and salads and a staggering 37 entrées, plus six sandwiches, on the dinner menu, it's pretty easy to find a great meal here. And even when the food falls short, it's obvious that chef Hernandes is really putting his heart into it.
In order to report fairly on Valdo's culinary voyage around the world, I felt it was my duty to sample a little something from each region represented. This proved to be a daunting task, but I methodically ate my way through as much of the mongrel menu as I could manage. Meanwhile, everybody else in the restaurants seemed to be feasting happily on overflowing plates of fine-looking fried seafood.
Valdo's appetizer menu includes escargots, which were wrapped in spinach, swimming in garlic butter and generously served with several snails to each section of the divided dish. The oysters Rockefeller were similarly sauced and came with two small oysters to one oversized shell. Both were passable but nowhere near as tasty as the fried green tomatoes. That covered France and Louisiana.
For Mexico, I tried an entrée called parrillada loca. And yes, I was crazy about it. Tender grilled chicken, well-seasoned fajitas, juicy grilled shrimp and just average sausage were served over a pile of sautéed onions and green peppers on a sizzling iron comal, with guacamole, charro beans, pico de gallo and sour cream on the side. To top it all off, there were fresh, hot, handmade flour tortillas. Based on the grilled medley, I'd recommend anything from Valdo's "Carnes de la Parrilla" department, which features fajitas, chicken and pork chops, as well as several steaks.
I also sampled an outstanding whole flounder, lightly coated with seasoned bread crumbs and broiled. The fish was exceptionally fresh and quite large, so each side yielded lots of flaky white meat cooked so that every bite was juicy. The entrée came with five -- count 'em, five -- sides: rice, roasted red potatoes, garlicky green beans, sweet carrot soufflé and sautéed squash. No one could have finished the whole plate.