Cheap Thrills

I've been complaining for years that Houston deserves a great, cheap Mexican fast-food joint. My gripe germinated at a Los Angeles chain taqueria called La Salsa, over a delicate quesadilla, a letter-perfect taco al carbon and three dazzling table sauces. "This is the best fast food in America," I marveled, not quite believing how good La Salsa was, or how clean it was, or how little it cost. Why couldn't my hometown, where we know from Mexican food better than a bunch of Californians, spawn a useful place like this?

Well, now, thanks to a bunch of Dallasites, we have one -- more or less. ZuZu, a five-year-old chain expanding rapidly beyond its Dallas base, landed last month on its Houston beachhead in the heart of downtown Bellaire; a second location will open soon near Shepherd and Fairview. It's good news. ZuZu's salsas may fall short of La Salsa's multi-dimensional brilliance. Its marinated, grilled meats may lack the L.A. chain's meticulous finesse. But overall, the food is gratifying, distinctive and -- true to its Dallas roots -- very, very pretty. With most of the menu loitering beneath the five-dollar mark, the price is certainly right.

Jaunty graphics and crisp design (would you expect less of Dallas guys?) make ZuZu delightful to look at, from its many-paned windows and doors to its streamlined service counter and display kitchen. Where most Mexican spots drench themselves in color, ZuZu is notably white and fresh. Shrewdly calibrated red accents spark a sea of ivories and creams. Amid such niceties as blond-wood, red-bottomed chairs and a white-tiled backsplash lined in red grout, even ZuZu's generic red exit sign seems intentional. It's easy to imagine hundreds of shipshape, blindingly clean ZuZus blanketing the nation, although so far they exist only in Texas and Colorado.

A curious, bean-headed tribe wearing Rainbow Coalition headgear populates ZuZu's zoomy plastic awning -- and its very '90s marketing offshoots as well. Serapes aflow and braids aflutter, the cartoony bean-heads peer from chipper ZuZu T-shirts and cavort on heavy white ZuZu pottery that can be had for princely sums; $48 buys you one of the roomy bowls in which limes, reverse-chic Penafiel sodas and various Mexican foodstuffs (also for sale, of course) repose along the service counter. If ZuZu is cute -- and believe me, it is -- blame it on the bean-heads. Under their influence, even my party of cynics succumbed to the unfamiliar notion that cute is good, grabbing shamelessly for the assorted bean-head refrigerator magnets you can take home as a free souvenir.

We also went after our guacamole and chips like a school of piranha. Tart and rough-textured, the guacamole is an early signal that ZuZu's "Handmade Mexican Food" slogan is more than hot marketing air. Dressed up ZuZu fashion with a drift of deep-green romaine, a crimson tomato confetti, snowy drizzles of Mexican sour cream and a dusting of anejo cheese, this guacamole actually tastes alive -- not like some loathsome pseudo-substance delivered in a five-gallon tub. Thin, crackly tortilla chips stowed in a photogenic wooden berry basket make suitable conveyances.

The rest of ZuZu's menu boasts mildly exhilarating peaks and a few shallow valleys, plus the kind of scenic rabbit trails one hardly expects of a fast-food restaurant. Appealing daily specials, for instance. Killer desserts for under two bucks. Genuine, gentle lemon-limeade. Deeply interesting iced tea -- peach-mango, if you please -- that sings of the tropics.

Said tea is 98 percent decaffeinated, one of the fashionably health-conscious gestures that permeate the menu, on which "salad" is a big word and grilled chicken is a big ingredient. Refried beans a la ZuZu are cumin-spiked, unnervingly smooth and virtuously lard-free -- a little olive oil does the trick quite nicely, thank you very much. The word "fried" is fastidiously avoided. Not that ZuZu doesn't fry when it has to (how else are you going to make a flauta?), just that it prefers to call the operation "crisping," as in "crisped corn tortillas." Still, you can eat more prudently here than at most Mexican spots, if you have a mind to; ZuZu's is a kitchen that would rather depend on a tart jolt of tomatillo sauce and a dry crumble of pungent, aged Mexican queso for flavor than on the usual goopy mantle of calorific melted cheese.

Alas, ZuZu's less virtuous items are my favorites; isn't that always the way? Those "crisped" chicken flautas really are crisp and light and admirable, painted with squiggles of vibrant, cilantro-shot salsa verde and cool white crema. The baby gorditas, similarly crisped, are purely adorable: chubby disks of chewy masa dough whose pinched edges cradle black beans and a discreet dab of cheese, they come buried beneath ZuZu's trademark blizzard of lettuce, Roma tomatoes and cilantro, wafting a funky whiff of that potent queso anejo . (Any fast-food place with the guts to use what a friend of mine affectionately refers to as "stinky cheese" definitely has a soul.)  

ZuZu's plain white-cheese quesadillas fried ... excuse me, "crisped" out of layery, intensely corn-flavored tortillas flower into fat, puffy wonders, anointed with the green sauce that buoys everything it touches. They eclipse a flour-tortilla version stuffed with griddled beef that inhabits some uneasy textural zone between steak and pot roast.

That same beef, daubed with the vinegary, orange achiote paste that is a ZuZu signature, works better in the so-called nacho salad -- an enormously clever idea that combines the virtues of fajita nachos and Ninfa's India de Res, emerging lighter and fresher than either. What you get is a verdant, unstructured pile of slender tortilla chips, refried black beans, marinated beef, salsa verde and undressed green salad, plus your ZuZu-esque trimmings (cilantro, guacamole, crema, anejo). What you don't get is a lot of gooey, earthbound cheese.

Like most dishes here, the nacho salad comes in a chicken or a plain black-bean version, too. If only ZuZu's more traditional grilled chicken salad were even half as good: my sample included slightly weary romaine and red-leaf lettuces dressed in a surprisingly bland rosemary-lime vinaigrette. Nothing wrong with its spindly tortilla strips, though, or its achiote-moistened chicken, stained orange with the annatto seeds that make achiote paste the poor man's saffron. Blocks of the stuff, seasoned with vinegar and garlic, are on sale at ZuZu's front counter. Are you surprised?

The basic soft tacos that should be this restaurant's mainstay are not as compelling as they might be. While the corn tortillas are great, the handmade flour tortillas are only ordinary. And achiote or no, ZuZu's grilled chicken and beef don't have the authoritative taste and texture that make a palate stand at attention; even with their pleasant cargo of lettuce, tomatoes, crema and anejo, the tacos never quite ignite.

Oddly, the house salsas that should put ZuZu's tacos into orbit don't quite do the job, either. Lord knows the colorful, well-annotated salsa bar is impressive. And the smooth, apple-green salsa verde is first rate: giddy with cilantro, bright with lemon and lime, endowed with a controlled serrano chile afterburn. But the tomatoey salsa Poblana can be, as an astute friend pointed out, all burn, no bite; it made me long for the deep, complex joys of Ninfa's classic roasted-tomato red sauce. And ZuZu's salsa epazote, the most exotic-sounding of the lot, turns out to be the least gripping: textureless, almost watery, possessed of a one-dimensional chipotle burn and just a trace of that singular, medicinal Mexican herb, epazote.

As the salsa bar sign proudly proclaims, the salsas vary in heat from day to day (there's that handmade factor again) depending on the chiles du jour. Their salt content seems to fluctuate, too, sometimes wildly (the handmade factor's dark side). Indeed, on a recent night, less-than-healthy salt overdoses sneaked into salsas, guacamole and beans; enchiladas were in a state of sodium overdrive, their cream-smoothed salsa roja fighting madly with achiote-soaked chicken and white cheese. Using flour tortillas for enchiladas is a pernicious idea, but that's another story. (You can substitute corn, and you should.)

I want to like ZuZu's grilled chicken platters more than I do. The birds' achiote marinade seems to boast a special, tart kick. But the skin can be flabby, and the white meat too dry. I am nuts, however, about the overstuffed chicken chiles rellenos that appear as an occasional special, equipped with salsa roja and a thin, gold-brown crust. At $4.75, with black beans and decent (though tepid) Mexican rice, one of these babies is a bargain; it may be sitting on a sturdy white plastic plate, but it would do credit to a more expensive restaurant.

ZuZu is part of the growing trend that the restaurant biz dubs "semi-service," a price-busting (and frequently confusing) combination of traditional self-serve counter transactions and waiterly ministrations. Unlike such bobble-ridden, recently-opened Houston places as Angelina's and the Empire Cafe, ZuZu has semi-service that actually seems to work. You order and pay up front, fetch your own (real) flatware and beverages, cruise the salsa bar, then wait at your numbered table for your waiter-borne food. It arrives quickly, and in three visits I never saw a screw-up. Staffers, dressed in preppy camp-counselor style, circulate asking if they can get you anything else.

Tell them you'd like dessert: ZuZu's dense, silky flan radiates strong Mexican vanilla, and its ice-cream concoctions are the innocent stuff of childhood. The silly-sounding cajeta nacho sundae is a texture fiesta: cinnamon-sugared flour-tortilla crisps sprinkled with pecans and squiggled with cajeta, the Mexican caramel, are used to scoop up rich vanilla ice cream. The chocolate-and-cajeta ZuZu sundae is almost as much fun.  

ZuZu is both kid-friendly and comfortable for solo diners. There's even al fresco dining in a funny, fan-cooled alleyway gussied up with plants and a mural. Okay, so I still long for some civic-minded Houstonian to answer La Salsa's recent ads seeking well-funded franchisees. In the meantime, ZuZu is a restaurant I know I'll use. I hope the Montrose location will keep more urban hours (here in deepest Bellaire, the witching hour is 9 p.m. most nights). And I want it to open, oh ... tomorrow.

ZuZu, 5124 Bissonnet, 666-6208.

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