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My companion is late, so I sit by myself drinking iced tea and eating chips on the patio of Mi Cocina on Woodway. The salsa looks and tastes like spicy V8 juice. When she arrives, my lunchmate stands for a few seconds beside my table, staring over my head. "What's up?" I ask her as she slowly sits down.
"They're all blond," she says in amazement. I turn around in my chair, as nonchalantly as possible, to look at the tables behind me. There are five women seated at two tables, and each and every one sports the same blond bob.
"Remind you of Dallas?" I ask. Mi Cocina is the first Houston outpost of an upscale Tex-Mex chain that now has 15 restaurants, 13 located in the affluent Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, including one in Southlake and two in Plano. So I guess you could call Mi Cocina's fare "Plano Tex-Mex," as opposed to "plain ol' Tex-Mex."
If you prefer to eat Tex-Mex in funky environs, you may be disappointed by the tastefully appointed interior of Mi Cocina, with its color-field paintings and sleek furnishings. The menu sports an arty geometric design, and a sunflower arrangement graces the bar. The restaurant's slogan is "Comida Tex-Mex Con Sabor" -- a double entendre that means both "Tex-Mex with taste" and "no Aztec maiden calendars."
I get the No. 2 lunch special, which consists of a cheese enchilada, a beef taco and a cheese taco. It's a smaller portion than I'm used to, and instead of a plate covered in chili gravy, here, each item looks lonely, and there are no rice and beans. The single cheese enchilada doesn't have the crispy edges of a typical Houston cheese enchilada, probably because it's been heated in a steam oven.
That's also where they heat up that odd creation, the cheese taco, an item I've never seen outside Dallas. A tortilla stuffed with cheddar, topped with chile con queso and served without any enchilada sauce, a cheese taco is the Tex-Mex equivalent of grilled cheese sandwich on white bread, only it's steamed instead of grilled.
My lunch companion gets the No. 6, which features a sour cream chicken enchilada along with a cheese taco and a cheese enchilada. Her food is as pale white and bland-tasting as mine. But the patio is packed, the server never lets our iced tea glasses get past half-empty, and the rest of the clientele seems quite content with this whiter shade of Tex-Mex.
Susan Martinez is the marketing director of El Fenix, the oldest Tex-Mex chain in Dallas. Over lunch one day in big D, she told me how every Texas city has its own unique Tex-Mex traditions. In Houston and San Antonio, cheese enchiladas are finished under the broiler. In Dallas, they are heated in a steam oven, which gives them a softer texture.
"They don't call it chili gravy here either; it's chili con carne, and it's a darker sauce with more meat," Martinez said. El Fenix once opened a restaurant in Houston, but it didn't do very well, she said. The DFW conventions didn't translate in the Bayou City. In Dallas, El Fenix used cheddar in the cheese enchiladas. "In Houston, we had to switch to American cheese," Martinez said. Houstonians, it seems, are much more demanding about their cheese staying melted.
But there's one Dallas Tex-Mex innovation that Houstonians, and indeed the entire nation, have all eagerly accepted. It was Mariano Martinez, the owner of Mariano's Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, who first had the brilliant idea of putting margarita mix in a slurpee machine, making Big D the birthplace of the modern frozen margarita.
A second visit to Mi Cocina at dinnertime gives me a chance to sample several, and I must admit, the restaurant is pushing the frozen drink to dizzying new heights. The frozen mango margarita is quite good -- not too sweet, with lots of rich tropical fruit flavor. But the three-tone margarita "parfait" called the "dilemma" is truly a towering achievement. It's made by alternating layers of mango, strawberry and pale green regular frozen margarita in a tall pilsner glass and then putting the whole thing in the freezer.
Like a liquid nitrogen-fueled rocket just before liftoff, sheets of ice have formed on the cocktail's cylindrical exterior. It's pricey at ten bucks, but the dilemma packs more of a wallop than any two conventional margaritas. And then there's the variety -- with the straw in your mouth, just raise or lower your head to change flavors.
Unfortunately, the entrées on this visit are not as entertaining as the drinks. My companion samples the chilaquiles, fried tortillas cooked with eggs, which are timidly seasoned and generally tasteless, especially compared to the awesome version recently encountered at Jarro Cafe (see "Blaze of Glory," April 29).
I get an order of fajitas. The beef, which seems to be mildly seasoned with soy sauce and well charred on the grill, is tender and tasty. It's the onions and peppers that are disappointing. Fajitas, as every Houstonian who has ever set foot in Mama Ninfa's knows, come with caramelized onions and unctuous charred peppers whose combined flavors complement the meat. But the onion and pepper slices here aren't the least bit browned. In fact, they taste barely cooked.
By my third visit to Mi Cocina, undercooked vegetables have become a recurring -- and annoying -- theme. I've got two dining companions this time, and both of them are bitching. One has ordered the camarones chile y ajo from a section of the menu called "The Moderns." The big shrimp, coated with garlic and chile, are terrific. The menu says they come with "Latin stir-fry vegetables and arroz blanco." These turn out to be plain rice and dreadfully crunchy zucchini and carrots. The shrimp are the only thing on the plate worth eating.
Luckily, our mood has been mellowed by another round of Mi Cocina's exceptional cocktails. This time we tried a drink called a "mambo taxi" made by alternating layers of frozen margarita and sangria. I know, it sounds disgusting, but trust me, you'll like it. And you'll also like the "mambo limousine," a taller version of the same drink made with an extra floater shot of Chambord, served straight from the freezer. I think they call the frozen concoction a mambo limousine because on a hot day, you just want to climb in.
My other tablemate has ordered a dish called Mama's chicken con hongos, a grilled and sliced boneless, skinless chicken breast presented fajita-style on a sizzling comal with mushrooms, onions and poblano strips, all of them barely cooked. I make myself a taco out of the chicken and vegetables and nearly choke on it. There's a good reason why poblano chiles are generally roasted and peeled before being used in a recipe, I think to myself as I fish pieces of tough chile skin out of my mouth with my fingers.
I ordered the bistec tampiquena. I hardly ever get a steak in a Tex-Mex restaurant, since it usually turns out to be a thin, gristle-laden slice of chewy beef. But tonight, I make an exception. Mi Cocina's food is designed to please upscale Dallasites, after all. The menu says the steak tampiquena is a filet in Oaxacan mole, so I figure it's a safe bet.
The steak's cut thin for a filet, and I have my doubts when it arrives. But it turns out to be very tender, cooked medium rare. The pale brown mole is delightful, and the Spanish rice and refrieds are just what I want with a Tex-Mex steak. Pretty soon, both of my disgruntled dining companions are raiding my plate to make steak tacos.
I try to protest, but they can barely hear me above the din. A Latino techno beat pounds out of the stereo system, and the noise level rises steadily as the Saturday-night crowd fills the restaurant to capacity. Parents chase their toddlers around the dining room while the bar fills up with middle-aged singles.
On our way out, I notice all the BMWs, Mercedes, Infinitis and Audis parked in front. The restaurant is evidently very popular with the affluent Memorial crowd. And it's ideally located in the same shopping center as Whole Foods.
Modern Tex-Mex is an idea whose time has come. Acenar, Bruce Auden and Lisa Wong's new restaurant on the River Walk in San Antonio, is doing it brilliantly. And so are many other restaurants across the state. Mi Cocina's food is a little bland for many Houstonians, but they're on the right track. Their frozen cocktails are already among the best in the city. Now all they need to do is give their modern Tex-Mex a little "Space City sabor."