Come Fry with Me

Crazy for the parrillada loca: The grilled shrimp, chicken and fajita meat are a safe bet on a sometimes risky menu.
Troy Fields

When you cut into a fried green tomato slice at Valdo's Café, you can't help mopping up some of the overlapping puddles of warm red gravy, chunky pico de gallo and cool sour cream beneath it. The batter-crusted tomatoes are not only amply sauced, they're also topped with lots of chopped parsley and squiggles of shredded mozzarella. The texture of hot, crunchy batter and tart tomato meat with this blend of sauces and toppings is terrific. Add some fresh-baked French bread on the side, and the huge appetizer plate is a meal in itself.

If I were to tell you that this dish is a sterling example of the new Mexican-Italian interpretation of Louisiana cooking that is sweeping Galveston Bay, I wouldn't expect you to believe me. So instead, I'll describe the Valdo's phenomenon this way: What do you get when you take a classically trained chef from Mexico City, send him to work in Louisiana, Las Vegas and Landry's Seafood Restaurant for a couple of years, and then give him his own kitchen in Pasadena, Texas?

The chef's name is Victor Hernandes. And here's his mission statement as printed on Valdo's menu: "Join us on a culinary voyage around the world with flavors from Louisiana (Cajun & Creole), the Italian cuisine, a French touch, and of course 'La Cocina Mexicana.' " (You thought I was kidding, huh?)

There are actually three Valdo's, one in Pasadena, one a few miles down the road in Deer Park and a brand-new location in Bacliff. "Valdo" is short for Valdovino, the Mexican family that owns the restaurants. (Hernandes is part of the family, despite the different last name.) They were called Valdo's Mexican Cafés when they first opened three years ago, but seafood became the most popular item, so they dropped the "Mexican" part. I haven't visited the Bacliff location yet, but the menu is exactly the same in Deer Park and Pasadena. Both restaurants are also equally eccentric in their approach to decorating.

Valdo's Café in Pasadena resides in a converted Dairy Queen. A gaudy Mardi Gras mask hangs on the wall above the cash register (a souvenir of one of Hernandes's wild nights in New Orleans, no doubt). Aztec emblems pop up here and there. And along the top of the waist-high brick wall, there's an array of papier-mâché figures with elongated bodies and Spanish costumes in that mass-handcrafted style so common to gift shops on the Mexican border.

Valdo's Café in Deer Park is a virtual jungle, with over 30 fake plants and 23 landscape prints on the walls, not counting the trompe l'oeil beach scenes in the bathrooms. The bathroom wall paintings show the bricks of the building broken away to reveal an idyllic beach scene in the distance. "People in Deer Park must fantasize about nature a lot," one dining companion quipped.

The restaurant also has apparently decided to make a bold decorating statement by ripping up the carpeting to reveal the grubby concrete floors beneath. While the industrial look is much in vogue these days, it generally works better if you polish the concrete and remove the water-stained acoustical tile ceiling. Not that I'm ready to open an interior design consulting business in Pasadena. And anyway, as somebody somewhere once said, you can't eat decor.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend that you eat much of what's on Valdo's menu, either. But don't worry. With 18 appetizers, 13 soups and salads and a staggering 37 entrées, plus six sandwiches, on the dinner menu, it's pretty easy to find a great meal here. And even when the food falls short, it's obvious that chef Hernandes is really putting his heart into it.

In order to report fairly on Valdo's culinary voyage around the world, I felt it was my duty to sample a little something from each region represented. This proved to be a daunting task, but I methodically ate my way through as much of the mongrel menu as I could manage. Meanwhile, everybody else in the restaurants seemed to be feasting happily on overflowing plates of fine-looking fried seafood.

Valdo's appetizer menu includes escargots, which were wrapped in spinach, swimming in garlic butter and generously served with several snails to each section of the divided dish. The oysters Rockefeller were similarly sauced and came with two small oysters to one oversized shell. Both were passable but nowhere near as tasty as the fried green tomatoes. That covered France and Louisiana.

For Mexico, I tried an entrée called parrillada loca. And yes, I was crazy about it. Tender grilled chicken, well-seasoned fajitas, juicy grilled shrimp and just average sausage were served over a pile of sautéed onions and green peppers on a sizzling iron comal, with guacamole, charro beans, pico de gallo and sour cream on the side. To top it all off, there were fresh, hot, handmade flour tortillas. Based on the grilled medley, I'd recommend anything from Valdo's "Carnes de la Parrilla" department, which features fajitas, chicken and pork chops, as well as several steaks.

I also sampled an outstanding whole flounder, lightly coated with seasoned bread crumbs and broiled. The fish was exceptionally fresh and quite large, so each side yielded lots of flaky white meat cooked so that every bite was juicy. The entrée came with five -- count 'em, five -- sides: rice, roasted red potatoes, garlicky green beans, sweet carrot soufflé and sautéed squash. No one could have finished the whole plate.

My dining companion got the same five sides and the stuffed flounder, which was not nearly as exciting as it sounded. We made the mistake of ordering it blackened, and the combination of peppery spices on the outside and piquant stuffing on the inside was way too much seasoning for the delicate fish.

The worst thing I sampled at Valdo's was the French-sounding shrimp Dijon. I thought it was going to be shrimp served in a mustard-accented sauce, but I should have paid more attention to the menu description, which said: "pan sauteed...and coated with dijon mustard." Yes, somebody literally picked up the half-cooked shrimp, spread mustard on it, and threw it back on the grill. And yes, it tastes as bad as it sounds.

The beverage situation is very annoying. There are photos of glasses full of wine on the menu at the Pasadena location, but you can't order wine there -- in fact, you can't even bring it in. Likewise, the Deer Park location has a bottle of wine pictured on the menu, but they don't serve wine there, either. They had already printed the menus when their request for a special permit was denied by the authorities, I was told. At least you can bring your own bottle to Deer Park, and the new restaurant in Bacliff does serve beer and wine. All I really ask is that you don't tease me with pictures of crisp Sauvignon Blanc while you pour my iced tea.

On my final visit to the Valdo's in Deer Park, I asked the waiter to bring me the deluxe fried seafood platter, which comes with shrimp, fish, oysters, crab fingers, stuffed shrimp and a fried, stuffed jalapeño, with a side order of jambalaya. I was eager to finally try one of the seductive-looking fried platters that the other customers seemed to love so much. Alas, I was denied. The waiter argued that the shrimp special -- shrimp cooked six different ways -- was a better idea. With one cast of the net, I would get a taste of all of Valdo's shrimp preparations. It's the kind of opportunity a food writer can't resist.

As I suspected, the fried shrimp were spectacular. Huge butterflied specimens fried to a perfect golden shade -- endlessly crunchy and juicy at the same time. And as I feared, none of the other five varieties could even compete. When you've just tasted a perfect fried shrimp, the grilled variety tastes woody, the stuffed versions seem overcomplicated, and shrimp in cheese sauce and shrimp au gratin just taste like terrible mistakes. And with that much shrimp on your plate, having five side dishes seems like a waste of food.

The portions at Valdo's are so enormous that you'll probably never get around to trying the desserts -- which is for the best. I ordered key lime pie and got some silly frozen lemon-and-lime chiffon that bore no resemblance to the real thing. A slice of pecan pie arrived microwaved into mush.

There are a lot of missed connections on Valdo's "culinary voyage around the world," but the kitchen is right at home with la cocina mexicana and fresh Gulf Coast seafood. Young chef Hernandes is trying to make a statement with the epic menu. Someday he'll learn to stick with what he does best. Luckily, most of his customers already have.

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