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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The gefilte fish appetizer at Rustika Café & Bakery consisted of two of the white fish lumps covered with sautéed tomato and roasted green pepper strips. In the years that I was married to a Jewish woman, I ate quite a few of these, usually at Passover Seders.
"Gefilte" is Yiddish for "stuffed." The original gefilte fish was a whole fish that had been boned. The meat was ground with onions, eggs and matzoh and stuffed back into the skin, then poached and served in slices. Somehow the fish skin disappeared, and now the term has come to mean poached quenelles of ground pike, carp or whitefish. The fish is strong-smelling, though somewhat bland-tasting. I became quite fond of these white fish balls over the years. I usually ate them with freshly ground horseradish, which is found in abundance at Passover Seders.
Five of us gathered for lunch on my first visit to Rustika Café & Bakery. Nobody else at the table was interested in the gefilte fish, so I had it to myself. I cut off a large chunk and made sure I got plenty of the vegetables in my first bite. I chewed a little, and my eyes widened. I hiccupped a couple of times. The green pepper strips adorning this gefilte fish were actually jalapeños rajas, and they were hot as hell in August.
3237 SW Freeway
Houston, TX 77027
Region: Greenway Plaza
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Gefilte fish Rustika: $7.85
Guacamole bobe: $6.85
Chicken crepes: $8.95
Chilaquiles and eggs: $8.45
Tortilla Oaxaqueña: $7.85
Why had I never heard of Mexican gefilte fish before? The spicy/fishy flavor slowly percolated through my flavor memory, shattering my Passover preconceptions. The owners of Rustika Bakery are from Mexico City and are Jewish, the guy behind the counter told me when I asked him for an explanation. "Try the matzoh ball soup," he added.
The chicken soup came with a particularly fluffy matzoh ball, but there wasn't any cultural blending going on. The "guacamole bobe" appetizer, on the other hand, seemed like a fusion of Jewish deli-style creamy egg salad and Mexican guacamole. It was served with tortilla chips. I doused it with Tabasco and passed it around our table; it disappeared instantly. This creamy green and white stuff will soon become a standard at my house. It works great as a dip, but I envision it on a sandwich with crispy bacon and tomato.
The sandwiches at Rustika are terrific. They all come on fresh-baked wheat bread unless you specify otherwise, and they're all enormous. The "Rustika Mexicana Melt" was an open-faced sandwich that started with whole wheat toast spread with mustard and mayo and then layered with caramelized onions, sautéed tomatoes and jalapeño. I ordered mine topped with ham and swiss.
The hefty sandwich was run under the broiler until the cheese melted and the ham sizzled. It came with spring lettuce and tortilla chips and salsa on the side. I ate the hot and spicy ham-and-cheese sandwich with a knife and fork. You can also get the melt with chicken or turkey.
The empanadas are also very interesting. Instead of the thin empanada pastry found in the Argentine version, Rustika's Mexican empanadas were made with a thicker dough that made a light, bready crust. The empanadas are huge. I sampled the chicken and ground beef versions and both were tasty. Next time I want to try the chicken mole empanada.
There are a few other Mexican-Jewish items at Rustika, like the lox and eggs on the migas menu. Most of the rest of the bakery's breakfast and lunch menu is Mexican — but it's Mexican through the filter of a Jewish culinary sensibility. It's a take on Mexican food that I never could have imagined, and I can't stop eating.
The velvety overstuffed lunch crepes are filled with moist chicken and spinach and topped with poblano cream sauce. Among the sweet breakfast items, you'll find crepes filled with dulce de leche, crepes filled with bananas and chocolate and Jewish cheese blintzes filled with fruit preserves and topped with crema.
Mexicans generally have bread and coffee for desayuno first thing in the morning; they are more likely to eat eggs for almuerzo at eleven o'clock or so. Americans like eggs first thing in the morning, and pastries and coffee later in the day. Rustika Café splits the difference with egg dishes that are served all day. And there are a lot of them — I stopped counting after 20-something. Along with the migas and scrambled-egg variations, you'll find some favorite Mexican egg dishes like huevos motuleños, a ham and egg dish topped with mole sauce. There is also a section of the menu devoted to omelets and another for the Spanish omelets called tortillas.
A Spanish tortilla isn't made of flour or corn, it is a round of scrambled eggs. Deciding to mix the two kinds of tortillas, I tried the Tortilla Oaxaqueña, a Spanish tortilla served over a pile of ham and cheese topped by a Mexican corn tortilla and covered with mole sauce. It tasted okay, but it wasn't as exciting as I imagined.
The chilaquiles were deftly sautéed so they came to the table wonderfully moist. I tried some with poached eggs. Rustika also offers breakfast croissants, breakfast tacos on corn or flour tortillas, breakfast sandwiches on whole wheat, pancakes, French toast and a full line of espresso drinks. I am told that there is usually a line out the door for Sunday brunch.
"I've been here for coffee, but I always thought of this place as a bakery," one of my lunch mates said when we sat down. Rustika makes custom cakes, and there are always some spectacular examples on display. There are several cakes cut into slices available from the bakery case. You'll also find some exceptional pastries and cookies, like alfajores with dulce de leche filling, moist coconut macaroons and lots of the little Jewish cookies called rugelach.
I was a little underwhelmed by a shrimp and chipotle dish I tried at Rustika. By and large, I would recommend that you steer clear of the more ambitious meat and seafood entrées. Try the pastries, the crepes, an oversized sandwich, a spicy Mexican egg dish, or one of the fascinating Mexican-Jewish fusion items instead.
The first Passover Seder this year is March 29. Better put in your order for a tray of jalapeño gefilte fish now.