To see photos of Macondo's cheerful, busy dining room and its equally busy kitchen, check out our slideshow.
On a dreary, rainy Saturday morning, the last thing I expected to find at a restaurant on a quiet downtown street was a packed house. But that was exactly what greeted my breakfast companions and me one recent weekend at Macondo Latin Bistro, a bistro in every sense of the word — from the petite and tightly packed dining room to the drinks listed on a chalkboard behind the bar — that has already found a thriving niche for itself since opening last August.
The receipts still bear the name of Macondo's predecessor, Don Diego Coffee and Wine Bar, which was run by the same Colombian owners. And although the wine is gone now (Macondo's is BYOB, with no corkage fee), the coffee has happily remained on the menu. We certainly needed it that morning, a startling, blustery day that had somehow mistaken Houston for Chicago and March for January.
Macondo Latin Bistro
208 Travis, 713-229-8323.
7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
Colombian breakfast: $8.25
Perico colombiano: $7.95
Morning melt panini: $7.95
Ceviche peruano: $10
Tostones cubanos: $7
Pollo guisado: $8
Macondo del mar: $11
We set about ordering a round from Diego, the always-smiling man behind the bar who I'm guessing might be the once-eponymous "Don Diego." Two lattes and an espresso cubano into our order, my friend asked about the "milkshakes" that Macondo offers. Fresh fruit juice — the maracuya, or passion fruit, is my favorite — is shaken together with milk, making it a "milkshake" in the truest sense and oddly sort of perfect for breakfast: juice and milk in one glass. We ordered that, too, for good measure.
After rushing to order breakfast (it's served only until 11 a.m., and we'd gotten there at 10:45 a.m.), we took our seats — the last ones, as it was — and my breakfast companions were finally able to take the entire scene in. Even on a gloomy day, Macondo is sunny and warm inside. Smiling, chubby faces beaming from the Botero prints on the walls don't hurt, either, and serve to emphasize the truly Colombian nature of the place.
Breakfast arrived rather clumsily and piecemeal, but a full house and the lack of an ordering system almost ensured it. Although you can order at the counter or sit down and receive full service, Macondo would do well to give numbers to those who order at the counter — it would cut down considerably on the confusion when food is brought out from the kitchen. As it is, the current system resulted in one dining companion looking mournfully on at our full plates of breakfast while she waited patiently for hers. Ours simply got a bit cold.
But what breakfasts they were. My Colombian breakfast was a busy plate of fried eggs, Colombian chorizo, rice and beans, an arepa and a few stocky slices of queso blanco: a complete calentado. The chorizo here isn't as familiar to Houstonians, with a much milder and more herbal taste than our greasy breakfast taco fare. The fat sausage had been cut open while it cooked, its tight skin barely containing the meat inside and snapping pleasantly with each bite. The rice and beans tasted leftover in the right way, the pinto beans and rice nearly fused together, soaking up every last bright bit of egg yolk. Only the arepa, overly thick and dried out, was disappointing.
Meanwhile, my friend had finally received her perico colombiano and was alternating bites of the scrambled eggs with bites of fat, fried maduros. "These are just like my mother would make at home," she said as she pointed to the diced tomatoes and green onions in her eggs. My other friend had chosen something more traditional, and that's what sets Macondo apart at breakfast: options.
His breakfast panini with ham, tomato, eggs and cheese could have been sloppy or dry or uninspired. But the restaurant puts as much emphasis on its American items as it does its Colombian, Peruvian and Mexican dishes. It's a smart move to capture a downtown breakfast crowd hungry for pancakes or French toast as much as they may be for breakfast tacos or chilaquiles.
At lunch and dinner, however, the menu is strictly Latin American. While there are a few "standard" options, like a chicken pesto panini, why would you want them? Colombian (and Cuban and Peruvian) is where Macondo shines.
The ceviche peruano here is a rough-hewn dish that rivals far more upscale places in town for depth of flavor and character (I'm looking at you, Américas). I thought of Jonathan Jones's wonderful ceviche at Xuco Xicana as I dove into a plate of Macondo's ceviche one recent afternoon. While Jones uses black drum and Macondo tilapia, the roundness and fullness of the leche de tigre here was virtually the same in its mouthfeel: a robust liquid that doesn't just serve to cook the fish, but is rich and booming on its own. Here, lime juice is tempered with the grassy flavor of cilantro while brassily displaying undertones of sweet, fiery habanero.
Tostones on another visit weren't as striking, the plantains cooked to a toughness that couldn't be parted with either incisors or a knife, but I haven't yet found fault with any of the entrées.
The pollo guisado here might come off as too sugary for those not accustomed to the criollo-style sauce, which is listed on the menu as "Yucca creole sauce." That's a bit of a misnomer, as it's just hogao with a piece of yucca simmered in it. The sweetness comes from that hogao and its generous allotment of tomatoes cooked down with onions, cumin and garlic. It's not as sweet when eaten with the dark meat of the chicken drumsticks and instead becomes tangy and playful, a sumptuously light way to enjoy a drumstick or two. And you certainly don't need dessert when there are juicy, caramelized maduros waiting patiently on the side of the plate.
Fish tacos, too, were both refreshing and satisfying: battered tilapia fillets tucked inside broad tortillas with peppery homemade guacamole that viscously overwhelmed the mango salsa. It was so creamy and well made, however, that I didn't mind. I only wished the fish were grilled instead of battered, as it said on the menu; I noticed, however, this was rectified on a return visit.
The Macondo del mar is — according to the menu — the restaurant's signature dish, and the one I easily enjoyed the most, with tender bites of tail-on shrimp and tilapia in rice thickened with coconut milk and bright saffron. But as much as I loved the sweet, vegetal bites of carrot and pea that mingled with the entire affair, almost like a Thai curry, I still wished for more from the seafood in a dish "del mar." Some sweet, soft, tiny bay scallops — easily obtained from the Gulf right this minute — would have taken this dish to the next level.
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I was surprised to go to Macondo earlier this week and find it closed for dinner. My friend and I had a bottle of wine and were fully ready to take advantage of its generous BYOB policy, but the hours had changed from closing at 9 p.m. to closing at 4 p.m. without much notice. But a sign explained that Macondo will be closed from March 14 to 16 for remodeling.
While I'm not quite sure what we'll find when Macondo is finished with its quick, three-day remodel, I hope that the things I do love about it remain the same: the cheerfully Caribbean paint colors, the drowsy bar that invites you to linger at lunch, the tall windows that stream light onto every surface and those roly-poly Botero paintings.
One can hope, however, to see larger tables and more patio furniture. It's too nice not to sit outside these days. And the tiny tables have a tough time accommodating two diners and their plates if you're eating inside. But there is still some charm even in that small detail, forcing you closer to your friends as you eat and making even a weekday lunch at Macondo seem like an intimate affair or a vacation in a sunny, tropical land.