Best Of :: Food & Drink
by Katharine Shilcutt
The bacalao y mofongo on my plate at Tex-Chick is a brilliant jumble of fall colors: ruby red, auburn, burnt orange and bright gold. A dish originating in Portugal, the bacalao — chipped pieces of salted and dried codfish — ring the mound of mofongo like Matisse's colorful dancers. And the sturdy mofongo, that pile of yellow plantains and crumbs of bacon, rises from between them with the promise of a transporting experience ahead.
Where do you want to go? Puerto Rico? Cuba? Portugal? Spain? China? West Africa? No need to board a plane away from Houston. At Tex-Chick, like so many Puerto Rican restaurants, the marriage of dishes and flavors will fly you headlong from one country to another.
"We have always been a mixture," owner Carlos Pérez laughs about his native Puerto Rico. "We party with everybody."
The San Juan native came to Houston in 1986 to study hotel management. He found some friends and a girlfriend here, but began to get homesick for his native food. An old high school friend took him to Tex-Chick, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and Pérez quickly fell in love.
"The former owners were like grandparents to me," he says. "I came every week, ordered the same thing each time. I brought my girlfriend, who then became my wife, and then we started bringing our kids. Every week."
Tex-Chick wasn't always a Puerto Rican restaurant, however. Back in the 1940s, it was a drive-thru-only stand on Montrose, where burger joint Little Bigs is now located. The owner, from Oklahoma, served old-school American food.
After he retired, in 1982, Tex-Chick was sold to Teo Gonzales and his wife, Carmen. The couple began serving Puerto Rican food, their native cuisine, at the same time they moved the restaurant to its current location on Fairview.
Incongruously located across the street from Black Hawk Leather and Video, in a tiny storefront that houses four tables and a small kitchen, Tex-Chick has become a second home for Houston's small Puerto Rican community. It's endlessly jovial and welcoming inside, with tables full of other Puerto Rican ex-pats and neighborhood residents.
A few years ago, the Gonzaleses decided that it was time for them to retire, too, and decided to close Tex-Chick for good. Pérez was horrified.
"I told them, 'You can't close it!'" he recalls. "'Then you keep it!'" Teo said.
Pérez simply couldn't let his beloved restaurant close, so he worked out an agreement with Teo and Carmen Gonzales: "He stayed on with me and helped me run the place. He was like an uncle to me."
These days, Tex-Chick has had a bit of a facelift. A cheerful blue awning welcomes people into the small restaurant, which is only open each day until 5 p.m. Pérez says that it's because Puerto Rican food is so filling that you won't need to eat again "for a day and a half."
His favorite item on the small menu is the bistec empanizado, breaded steak that he fixes up with a pile of the sweet, vegetal, garlic-tinged mofongo. The mofongo itself has a long history; it was first imported to the island of Puerto Rico by West African slaves. In its native lands, mofongo is called fufu and is made with boiled, mashed green plantains.
Although there are an estimated 7,000 Puerto Rican people in Houston, there are a disproportionately small number of Puerto Rican restaurants. Tex-Chick is one of only two, since Isla Coqui closed a few years ago. Pérez chalks this up to a dining attitude in his countrymen that Houstonians should find familiar: "We mix so well with so many cultures that we'll eat anything. Chinese one day, Mexican the next. It doesn't matter to us."
Pérez keeps the place running now much as the Gonzaleses did, and it's clear that Tex-Chick has retained its immense popularity in Pérez's capable hands.
"I still don't know why I did it," laughs Pérez. "I just love the food."
One of a host of recent "gastropubs" to pop up around Houston, BRC is the only one that truly hits the nail on the head of this culinary trend. BRC — which, yes, stands for Big Red Cock — serves up not only a small but stunning menu of "pub" food (if a traditional pub were located in the Deep South) but has a rotating menu of craft and micro brews that often can't be found anywhere else in the city. With 28 taps and frequently tapped casks, you won't always find the same beer here twice, but you'll most definitely fall in love over and over again with the finds that Lance Fegen discovers and wags back to the bar. Grab a floppy, dog-eared copy of the leather-bound beer list and peruse the clever descriptions ("biscuity nose") if you aren't quite sure what you want. And don't be afraid to experiment: Most draft beers are only $6 or $7 and you can even get a highly affordable beer flight if you just can't settle on one.
Beware: Not all Alma Latina restaurants are created equal. But if you make it to the correct one — the location on Telephone Road in the Second Ward — your journey will be richly rewarded. Stay away from the breakfast tacos and instead focus on dishes like the hot, vividly flavored menudo or the hearty huevos rancheros. Both will either fuel you for a long day ahead or take the edge off that raging hangover and allow you to salvage what's left of your day, even if you didn't get up until noon. That's right: Alma Latina serves breakfast all day, although they charge a little extra after 10:30 a.m. But the free chips and queso you get with your breakfast more than make up for any convenience charges.
Marco Wiles's latest Italian eatery is linger-worthy. The darkened dining room and menu of small plates feel perfectly authentic, despite the fact that Westheimer in all of its local color is whizzing by outside. Poscol does many things right, but its risottos are the best of all, creamy and decadent without being heavy, simple to look at but complex at first bite. Both the valpolicella (made with red wine) and butternut squash (topped with fried chicken livers) will make you consider licking the plate.
After a lovely meal featuring some of Houston's best seafood, go ahead and indulge that aching sweet tooth with REEF's "No Minors" milk shake.This is not your grandfather's milk shake, nor is it fit for the children. Here, the age-old milk shake gets a kick in the pants, adding brandy and Kahlúa to its delicious ice cream base. Yowzah! It's basically the milk shake version of a Brandy Alexander: creamy and smooth — yet not so rich as to be considered sinful. Portions are large and hearty; we like to add an extra straw and share it 1950s-style.
One thing should be perfectly clear when ordering a dish of ceviche at Ocean's, the new restaurant that has taken over the old Bistro Vino space with panache: This is not the ceviche to which you are probably accustomed. The plates that come out at Ocean's are immense platters, artfully decorated with a few spare pieces of raw fish. The effect is more like sashimi than ceviche, but the taste is wholly Latin-influenced. The rasurado plate hums with the intensity of Serrano peppers mixed with chipotle sauce, the fiery flavors balanced by a creamy slice of avocado on top of each velvety piece of yellowtail tuna (which is the fish that Ocean's recommends with the platter). On an entirely different note, the Oriental plate — recommended with salmon — is elegantly seasoned with ginger, orange juice, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. When's the last time you ate ceviche that comes with soy sauce?