By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
For more photos from Cuchara's colorful interior, check out our slideshow.
I realized a funny thing during my last visit to Cuchara, on a drizzly Tuesday night spent catching up with an old friend at the bar: Whether or not you like the food at Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel's so-called "Mexico City bistro" is almost entirely beside the point. Usually, this would be a deal-breaker for me. But I like the atmosphere, the dining room and — just as importantly on this night — the drinks at Cuchara enough to completely make up for the uneven meals I've had there.
Cuchara is exactly what this corner of Fairview and Taft needed. It's exactly what Montrose needed. And it's exactly what I needed on that rainy night: a place serving excellent cocktails and intriguing wines; a comfortable spot that was cozy and intimate yet boisterous enough to accommodate the loud peals of laughter that rang from our corner of the bar.
214 Fairview St.
Houston, TX 77006
Houston, TX 77006
Even on quiet nights, you can feel energy thrumming out of Cuchara's very walls — especially the ones decorated with frenzied, colorful, vaguely Keith Haring-esque scenes from Cecilia Beaven, owner Ana Beaven's sister and a talented muralist from Mexico City — and the open kitchen under chef Adriana Avendaño, which is mostly populated by abuelitas making the kind of masa cakes and sopes between timeworn hands that display accumulated years of knowledge. And as if in counterbalance to the vibrancy of the restaurant itself, the steady hands of the bartenders can always be counted on to turn out the same perfectly balanced panela-and-Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao-laced margaritas and other unique cocktails that drinks consultant Chris Frankel created for Cuchara when it first opened in September.
True to its bistro nomenclature, the casual Cuchara doesn't take reservations, and this sits quite well with the surrounding neighborhood: one that's not quite yet as gentrified as other parts of Montrose, and in which a screenprinting shop and mid-century antiques store share space on Cuchara's busy intersection with longtime Montrose mainstay gratifi (known for most of its many years as Ziggy's) and sultry, gritty wine bar Boheme. When I lived only two blocks away from Taft and Fairview, I clamored for a place like Cuchara — and, indeed, for many years bemoaned the rotting grocery store that sat empty where Cuchara now blazes with a fierce warmth into the night.
And although I was cheerleading from the start when Cuchara first opened, I was curious to see how a Mexican restaurant would pan out in a city already saturated with Tex-Mex joints and in a neighborhood utterly dominated by Hugo's, the city's pre-eminent interior Mexican restaurant that only grows better with age. In what ways would Cuchara distinguish itself? And would Houstonians even like the results?
So far, it seems that they do; Cuchara has been packed nearly every time I've visited or even driven past, its handy parking lot filled up night after night. I do wonder, however, if people are visiting for the same reasons that I do. Because while I always enjoy an evening spent at Cuchara, truth be told, I'm not going for the food.
This isn't to say that the food at Cuchara is bad; it's not. In fact, some of it is what I'd mildly term "addictive." I love crunching through one skinny, soft-boned charalito — deep-fried minnows from Mexico — after another, the vague salinity disappearing beneath the warmth of an adobo-red salsa served on the side. Although the chicharrones themselves are fairly standard issue, I enjoy the delightful crackling sound that they make when dipped into Cuchara's tart, barely creamy green salsa — even if you have to pay $8 for the chips-and-salsa trio that includes that tomatillo-and-peanut-based salsa. I adore the chilled, silky avocado mousse soup that negates any need for guacamole, and the playfulness of sweet corn against dusky, funky huitlacoche inside flaky empanadas.
The entrées themselves, however, can be a little rocky. I enjoyed the Creole flavors of the huachinango — two pieces of fat, fluffy red snapper in a tiny, cast-iron skillet — on my first visit, the fish covered with a traditional Veracruz-style sauce of tomatoes, garlic and onions. But by my second visit, the sauce had become far too sweet, lacking the necessary depth of any saltiness from olives or capers to balance it out. And neither time had the sauce been spicy, as expected.
Yet on two separate visits, the trio of salsas and the chicken tinga tostaditas contained more than enough heat to make up for the missing fire in the snapper's sauce. The spice level also made both appetizers nearly inedible, however. (And this is coming from someone who sampled nearly 150 salsas at the Austin Salsa Festival one year before crying uncle.) I continuously took refuge both nights in a stunning Xikbal Cabernet from the Guadalupe Valley in Mexico and in a smoky-sweet-tart mind-bender of a cocktail, the Division Bell.
I appreciated the thoughtfulness of including a vegetarian entrée among the main courses, but found the mula de nopal to be a surprisingly thoughtless way to assemble two ingredients which should work together effortlessly: cactus paddles and panela cheese. Instead of stuffing the cactus with the cheese, as the menu had promised, the kitchen simply laid down a thick bulwark of cheese between two paddles and called it a day. The slippery texture of the cactus itself meant that the cheese slipped out almost comically with every cut of the knife, and I eventually accepted that they'd have to be cut and assembled separately — although I couldn't fault the flavors themselves, the slightly charred nopales tasting of grilled okra amidst a dusky, nearly chocolate-brown salsa that threaded its way between the two main ingredients.
This review mirrors my experiences and thoughts. Cute place, good salsas, some fun apps, good cocktails (albeit small), and uneven food. I'm all for a simple focused menu if all the items are well executed, but the cactus and beef dishes just weren't very good. For those prices, I expect better. I think there is room in Houston for more upscale Mexican, but I don't think Cuchara has quite yet hit the mark.
My experience was really good, though I'm one to go for the most expensive items on the menu. I stuck to what I knew and my experience was good, though the wait staff was a little inexperienced.