Andes Cafe Chef David Guerrero Proves He's Back and Better Than Ever
Few other places in Houston serve black clams, and at Andes Café, they get the Ecuadorian treatment in ceviche. Go behind the scenes of this week's restaurant in our slideshow, "Andes Cafe: A Closer Look."
We didn't know where to stop, and we didn't know exactly what we'd be getting, so we just kept ordering. First ceviche — two different kinds, one with fish and one with clams — then grilled beef heart skewered and grilled to a perfect char. Then lean, boneless pork ribs and the Latin American version of fried cheese sticks, complete with a sharp, addictive avocado relish. Finally, the show-stopping course, parrillada mixta, a medley of various meats fired on a grill and served on a smaller, decorative grill platter still steaming and sizzling.
The parrillada mixta is a special dish, and it's usually on the menu on Thursdays only, but it's one that chef David Guerrero insists newcomers order if he has everything he needs to make it. It showcases the most traditional cooking style of much of South America — the parrilla grill — as well as the signature cuts of meat and bright, lively chimichurri that is drizzled over everything.
True to the mixta part of the name, the platter contains lamb ribs, beef ribs, spicy red sausage, blood sausage, tenderloin, intestines and sweetbreads accented with a few potatoes and multicolored bell peppers, also prepared on the grill. Everything is imbued with a magical smoky flavor that transports diners to a cookout in Quito, Ecuador, Guerrero's hometown. Two chefs — one from Peru and one from Colombia — staff the kitchen, ensuring that the food is as authentic as possible.
From my seat in the dining room, I was staring straight at the mural of the Andes Mountains overlooking Quito, picturing myself there as I cut into the most tender sweetbreads imaginable. The spicy sausage had me reaching for my water, but I was pleased to find not a bit of grit or chewyness in that or the sweetbreads. The morcilla was crumbly and almost completely black and filled my senses with the dusky flavor of spices marinated in pig's blood, then cased in intestine. Its texture and unusual taste are unlike anything else in the parrillada mixta, but we all found ourselves intrigued by its unique nature. Only the rather unappetizing-looking intestines went largely untouched.
By the time we reached the remaining few cuts of meat on the platter, we'd taken to mixing all the dishes together. A forkful of beef got dunked in the bright yellow aji cheese sauce from the papa a la huancaina. A rib was dragged through leftover crema de huacatay, a creamy green salsa made with Peruvian black mint. A slice of sausage was sprinkled with a teaspoonful of crema de rocoto, simultaneously stifling the meat's spice with mayonnaise and elevating it with the heat of the rocoto chile.
I don't know if this is how people feast in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia, but this is how we do it at Andes Cafe. The entire table became a platter of various meats, vegetables and sauces from which to mix and match, and we tore into it all with abandon, licking our fingers clean of the yellow aji sauce and bits of charred meat as we went. This isn't the typical Latin fare that Tex-Mex lovers have come to expect in Houston. This is a true taste of South America, and it's addictive.
When many Houstonians think of Latin American food, they probably think of Churrascos or Latin Bites, two very different but representative examples. Andes Cafe provides a third type of South American cuisine, neither hearty and bold like Churrascos, nor upscale and delicate like Latin Bites. Andes Cafe is situated somewhere between the two, with an array of dishes representative of every country through which the longest continental mountain range in the world passes.
The menu proves a devotion to all the foods of South America by offering breakfast, lunch and dinner and labeling where each dish comes from. There's a clear emphasis on Peru, whose cuisine Guerrero says is his favorite, even though he's from Ecuador.
Anticuchos and chicharrón peruano are highlights of Peruvian cuisine, small skewers of tender grilled beef heart and boneless pork back ribs, respectively. Both are served with choclo (hominy), giant starchy kernels of corn, along with a few of the many dynamic sauces that I later found myself drizzling on everything.
A soothing new favorite of mine is the tamal de puerco, essentially an oversize tamale stuffed with shredded pork, hard-boiled eggs, and kalamata olives and served with a salsa criolla sprinkled festively on top. Forget all the tough, dry Tex-Mex tamales of the past. This knife-and-fork-worthy tamal is beyond moist, with the traditional Peruvian fillings practically oozing from between cracks in the flavorful masa.
Papa la huancaina, a Peruvian version of potato salad, mixes soft-boiled potato slices with hard-boiled eggs, vinegary kalamata olives and chunks of delicate white cheese, all topped with a creamy sauce made from ground aji amarillo, Peru's "sunshine pepper." I began eating the dish with a sense of decorum. I ended by dipping a spoon directly into the sauce and ladling it directly into my mouth, the bright, sunny yellow peppers dancing across my tongue.
The ceviches most notably demonstrate Guerrero's ability to coax maximum flavor from individual ingredients. The Peruvian ceviche, with white fish, choclo, cilantro and red onions in a heady marinade of aji limo and lime juice, differs greatly from the Ecuadorian concha negra ceviche of black clams, pickled red onions and tomatoes in a thin sauce of lime juice, ketchup, mustard and the clams' own briny liquid. The former is sour, spicy and in-your-face. The latter is more subdued and much more unique, especially for those who have never tasted black clams or Ecuadorian ceviche.
Where Guerrero truly shows his mastery of all things Latin American is in his signature dishes, larger and more meat-centric than the smaller plates and ceviches. It's also, unfortunately, where he loses me a little, since I've never been able to come around to the practice — traditional in many countries — of not fully trimming the fat and sinew from meat.
A marinated roast pork leg, or hornado, an impressive amount of food for $14, lands on the chewy side, though the accompanying gravy and llapingachos (potato cheese cakes) take on the excellent flavor of the meat with a much more pleasant texture. A lunch sandwich with oven-roasted turkey also tastes of smoke and spices, but I repeatedly found myself spitting out bits of gristle I was loath to chew.
More successful is the congrio frito, an eel species common in the Chilean Sea that's been pan-fried to counter some of the toughness inherent in that species. Served with french fries and a salad of tomatoes, onions and cilantro, it's a Latin American version of the familiar fish and chips. A few Chinese-influenced stir-fry dishes also stand out, thanks to the incorporation of shrimp and soy sauce in one and quinoa and miso in another.
Dishes such as these that combine elements of various cuisines are some of the most alluring and authentic — and, dare I say, Houstonian in their embrace of disparate cultures — on the restaurant's menu. In spite of the way many people view South America as a singular entity, Guerrero's small cafe shows that the Andes region is, indeed, a melting pot.
FOOD ART LOVE CULTURE COMMUNITY.
Each large window of Andes Cafe is emblazoned with words that taken together define the restaurant's purpose. Food, of course, is first, as Andes Cafe represents Guerrero's triumphant return to the kitchen after the failure of Samba Grille and critical darling Alma Cebiche & Bar. When Guerrero steps out from behind the counter and away from the hanging pots and pans that divide the kitchen from the dining room, it's with a confidence and joy that are hard to miss. He's back, and he's got the food to prove it.
Art is well represented in the space, from Guerrero's own DIY modern installation of stained plywood rectangles that anchor one wall to the murals by local artist Wylie Robertson depicting the rolling hills and tall mountains of Quito surrounded by abstract hands that seem to be lovingly protecting the city. On another wall, a dark-haired couple embrace, and above the kitchen space, tiny,colorful houses dot a landscape.
Love reflects Guerrero's passion for cooking, which has endured through a brain tumor, a massive stroke and the subsequent loss of his sense of taste several years ago. Through two failed restaurants and seemingly insurmountable odds for a chef (he cooks largely from memory of how things should taste), Guerrero has followed his dream.
Culture is, of course, the basis of Andes Cafe, which draws upon cuisine from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile, all linked by the Andes Mountains. "Andes Cafe hopes to provide the same sense of unity between these distinct cultures and the dynamic culture of Houston," the restaurant's website notes, and so far it seems to be succeeding in linking disparate countries through food.
Finally, community is what has made the restaurant possible. When Guerrero announced he'd be opening a new restaurant, the Houston food world rallied around him and expressed its delight that the talented young chef would once again be leading a kitchen. Based on the quiet but enthusiastic response from the media, diners and Guerrero's fellow chefs, Andes Cafe is poised to rise as high as its namesake.
Go behind the scenes of this week's restaurant in our slideshow, "Andes Cafe: A Closer Look."
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