Cuban Comfort

The first name is clearly Italian. The last name is clearly French. And the look, as anyone who's spent any time in diners can attest, is clearly that of a Greek short-order cook: bearish frame, arms that would do a wrestler proud, slicked-back hair, even, on occasion, the toothpick caught between the teeth.

Why, then, the food that Guido Piquet prepares is so clearly Cuban is just another of those multicultural curiosities with which Houston seems to abound. That and, of course, heritage: Piquet hails from Camanera, a town in the southeastern region of Cuba where his father had run a grocer's shop before, in 1962, leaving the island for the States and eventually Houston. When the elder Piquet, also named Guido, settled his family in Texas, he re-entered the grocer's trade, and for close to two decades ran a small store on Chimney Rock. It was only when the grocery business began to falter that, around 1989, the family added a restaurant to boost income.

"Actually," says Guido the younger, "what happened was that my mother started cooking for the employees. And everyone liked the food so much that people began asking, 'Hey, can you sell me a plate of that too?' " She did, and the response was so favorable that the meat market section of the store was cleared out, tables were added and a tiny cafe called La Cocina de Ninata christened. It served up country Cuban fare for most of the early '90s, drawing a regular clientele that included then Houston Rocket Carl Herrera and a goodly portion of the city's Cuban-American population. But about two years ago the Piquets lost their lease, mama and papa Piquet decided it was about time to retire and La Cocina de Ninata entered the oblivion that has welcomed too many other pleasant holes in the wall around town.

Until, that is, son Guido, along with his wife, Nelly, decided to resurrect the cooking end of the business in a new place under a new name. The location was only a short distance along Bissonnet away from where the family grocer's had been, and the name, Cafe Piquet, was an easy clue to anyone who had shopped at the Piquet Market that the food they'd come to love was available once more -- literally, as it happens, since not only had Guido Piquet learned all his mother's recipes, but he had been running La Cocina de Ninata before it closed. Despite, Piquet says, not being allowed to put up a sign at the old store directing customers to the new restaurant, a number of the previous clientele have found him simply by prowling the neighborhood. Cafe Piquet opened its doors only last October, with Guido in the kitchen and Nelly running the register, and already weekends are crowded with Cuban-American families eating leisurely Saturday and Sunday lunches while catching up on what their friends at the next table have been doing during the week.

But though the word has spread in the Cuban community, Piquet admits that getting the message out to non-Cubans has been more difficult. And in that regard, setting up shop barely a block away from Cafe Miami, perhaps the most familiar Cuban restaurant in town, can't have helped. Folks traveling along Bissonnet in search of a Caribbean fix are much more likely to see the large façade of Cafe Miami than the small sign for Cafe Piquet tucked in the corner of a strip mall cater-cornered across the street.

And that's a pity, not so much for Cafe Piquet, which seems to be doing fine with a primarily Spanish-speaking clientele, but for the folks who miss it. In its half-year of existence, Cafe Piquet has quickly leapt to the front of Houston's Cuban contingent. Not, admittedly, that there's a lot of competition -- unfortunately, the number of Cuban food outlets in town has been shrinking, and some of those that have survived have undergone various upheavals. All of which, to my mind, makes Cafe Piquet just that much more precious.

I will admit to a bias here -- as far as I'm concerned, Cuban food is the quintessential comfort cuisine. That it took me close to three decades to discover that truth I attribute to a benighted upbringing, but ever since I learned the joys of black beans and rice, fried plantains, yucca with garlic sauce and the ethereal lightness with which good Cuban cooks approach frying, I've made it a point to search out Cuban eateries wherever I happen to land. I've found good ones in New York, in Miami (of course), in Tampa and even (for a short time) in Atlanta.

Cafe Piquet could hold its head high in any of those locations. Over the last few months I've probably tried just about everything on the menu, and I have yet to hit a clunker. Oh, admittedly the desserts are less than overwhelming, more pleasant accompaniment to a meal than its high point, and the empanadas could use more filling and less crust, and I'm a little frustrated at having ordered the fried pork skin appetizer on three occasions, only to have it unavailable each time, but in a place that treats its main dishes with such affection, those are passing complaints. There is little fancy here; it's solid food done solidly with solid results. That it's also relatively inexpensive is a pleasant plus.

Piquet added to his mother's repertoire by serving a short stint with a restaurant in Port Aransas, where he picked up experience not only in the business end of things, but also in seafood. The result is seen in the breaded red snapper fillet ($8.95), the fried whole red snapper (market price) and the Cuban shrimp and lobster Creoles (the former $11.95, the latter market price). Piquet obviously learned his lessons well; the snapper is flaky without being overdone, and the Creoles boast a creamy sauce that, minus the shrimp and lobster, wouldn't make for a bad soup (or at least that's what I told myself to excuse avidly spooning it into my mouth). But despite Piquet's fine hand with fish, what I find myself turning to instead is the Cuban verities of pork, chicken and beef.

The latter is done especially well. The breaded steak ($7.95), in particular, should be studied by any Texas cook wanting to learn the secret of perfect chicken fried steak. The beef, which comes in a platter-size portion, isn't served with cream gravy -- a little garlic and a little lime take its place -- though it easily could be. What distinguishes this steak from its frequently lesser Texas counterparts, though, is the delicacy of the breading and the frying. There's no thick covering here and no evidence of grease; rather, the deep tan coating seems almost spray-painted on, so thin is it. Nonetheless, the impact of the breading is obvious the moment you take a bite, adding just enough texture and taste to the inexpensive cut of beef it covers to justify its existence -- and to justify mine, I've thought as I chewed.

The breaded chicken breast ($6.95) is done with similar elan, the breast first pounded flat, then covered with the paper-thin coating, fried, and served up with a side of lime which, when squeezed on it, makes you wonder why lime hasn't always been served as an accompaniment to fried chicken. The fried pork chunks ($5.95) are a different kind of revelation, lightly fried only after being cooked through in the oven so that the outer skin crisps and the inner juices are sealed. Here, too, as in many of Cafe Piquet's dishes, garlic is the not-at-all-hidden secret that makes the good into the marvelous.

As much as I admire Piquet's way with meat, I could be just as happy eating nothing but a selection of side orders (which come with the entrees, but can also be ordered individually) -- assuming, that is, those orders included the yucca with garlic sauce ($2) and white rice with black beans ($2.95). Piquet offers its mix of rice and black beans in two forms, either pre-mixed or separated so you can do the mixing yourself. While I can see the advantage of the pre-mixed in that it allows the flavors to marry more completely, I prefer to do my own combining. There is something primal in spooning just the right amount of black beans on top of a mound of white rice and letting its broth seep down before digging in; there's also the guilty pleasure of eating the black beans straight before going back to the rice.

I was doing just that, letting the mix take place in my mouth, a week back when I heard two customers at a nearby table talking about their meals. Or one was talking -- he had obviously followed the Piquet family from Chimney Rock to Bissonnet, and was letting his apparently out-of-town guest know the entire history of the cafe. The more he talked, the more adamant he got. He was almost pounding the table when he got to his final statement: There are no other good Cuban restaurants in Houston, he said. This is the only one worthy of the Cuban name. There are none better.

Listening and chewing, I pondered his claim. No, I decided, he's wrong; there are other good Cuban places in town. But as to whether there's none better ... well, on that, I decided, he had a point.

Cafe Piquet, 6053 Bissonnet, 664-1031.


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