Cuchara: Montrose Mexican
For more photos from Cuchara's colorful interior, check out our slideshow.
I realized a funny thing during my last visit to Cuchara, on a drizzly Tuesday night spent catching up with an old friend at the bar: Whether or not you like the food at Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel's so-called "Mexico City bistro" is almost entirely beside the point. Usually, this would be a deal-breaker for me. But I like the atmosphere, the dining room and — just as importantly on this night — the drinks at Cuchara enough to completely make up for the uneven meals I've had there.
Cuchara is exactly what this corner of Fairview and Taft needed. It's exactly what Montrose needed. And it's exactly what I needed on that rainy night: a place serving excellent cocktails and intriguing wines; a comfortable spot that was cozy and intimate yet boisterous enough to accommodate the loud peals of laughter that rang from our corner of the bar.
Even on quiet nights, you can feel energy thrumming out of Cuchara's very walls — especially the ones decorated with frenzied, colorful, vaguely Keith Haring-esque scenes from Cecilia Beaven, owner Ana Beaven's sister and a talented muralist from Mexico City — and the open kitchen under chef Adriana Avendaño, which is mostly populated by abuelitas making the kind of masa cakes and sopes between timeworn hands that display accumulated years of knowledge. And as if in counterbalance to the vibrancy of the restaurant itself, the steady hands of the bartenders can always be counted on to turn out the same perfectly balanced panela-and-Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao-laced margaritas and other unique cocktails that drinks consultant Chris Frankel created for Cuchara when it first opened in September.
True to its bistro nomenclature, the casual Cuchara doesn't take reservations, and this sits quite well with the surrounding neighborhood: one that's not quite yet as gentrified as other parts of Montrose, and in which a screenprinting shop and mid-century antiques store share space on Cuchara's busy intersection with longtime Montrose mainstay gratifi (known for most of its many years as Ziggy's) and sultry, gritty wine bar Boheme. When I lived only two blocks away from Taft and Fairview, I clamored for a place like Cuchara — and, indeed, for many years bemoaned the rotting grocery store that sat empty where Cuchara now blazes with a fierce warmth into the night.
And although I was cheerleading from the start when Cuchara first opened, I was curious to see how a Mexican restaurant would pan out in a city already saturated with Tex-Mex joints and in a neighborhood utterly dominated by Hugo's, the city's pre-eminent interior Mexican restaurant that only grows better with age. In what ways would Cuchara distinguish itself? And would Houstonians even like the results?
So far, it seems that they do; Cuchara has been packed nearly every time I've visited or even driven past, its handy parking lot filled up night after night. I do wonder, however, if people are visiting for the same reasons that I do. Because while I always enjoy an evening spent at Cuchara, truth be told, I'm not going for the food.
This isn't to say that the food at Cuchara is bad; it's not. In fact, some of it is what I'd mildly term "addictive." I love crunching through one skinny, soft-boned charalito — deep-fried minnows from Mexico — after another, the vague salinity disappearing beneath the warmth of an adobo-red salsa served on the side. Although the chicharrones themselves are fairly standard issue, I enjoy the delightful crackling sound that they make when dipped into Cuchara's tart, barely creamy green salsa — even if you have to pay $8 for the chips-and-salsa trio that includes that tomatillo-and-peanut-based salsa. I adore the chilled, silky avocado mousse soup that negates any need for guacamole, and the playfulness of sweet corn against dusky, funky huitlacoche inside flaky empanadas.
The entrées themselves, however, can be a little rocky. I enjoyed the Creole flavors of the huachinango — two pieces of fat, fluffy red snapper in a tiny, cast-iron skillet — on my first visit, the fish covered with a traditional Veracruz-style sauce of tomatoes, garlic and onions. But by my second visit, the sauce had become far too sweet, lacking the necessary depth of any saltiness from olives or capers to balance it out. And neither time had the sauce been spicy, as expected.
Yet on two separate visits, the trio of salsas and the chicken tinga tostaditas contained more than enough heat to make up for the missing fire in the snapper's sauce. The spice level also made both appetizers nearly inedible, however. (And this is coming from someone who sampled nearly 150 salsas at the Austin Salsa Festival one year before crying uncle.) I continuously took refuge both nights in a stunning Xikbal Cabernet from the Guadalupe Valley in Mexico and in a smoky-sweet-tart mind-bender of a cocktail, the Division Bell.
I appreciated the thoughtfulness of including a vegetarian entrée among the main courses, but found the mula de nopal to be a surprisingly thoughtless way to assemble two ingredients which should work together effortlessly: cactus paddles and panela cheese. Instead of stuffing the cactus with the cheese, as the menu had promised, the kitchen simply laid down a thick bulwark of cheese between two paddles and called it a day. The slippery texture of the cactus itself meant that the cheese slipped out almost comically with every cut of the knife, and I eventually accepted that they'd have to be cut and assembled separately — although I couldn't fault the flavors themselves, the slightly charred nopales tasting of grilled okra amidst a dusky, nearly chocolate-brown salsa that threaded its way between the two main ingredients.
The pollo Adriana suffered a similar fate: The chicken breasts my friend ordered weren't stuffed with calabacita squash and cheese but rather stacked in the same fashion like floppy Jenga blocks. This way, the breasts were tough and dry while the poblano pepper sauce that coated the dish was oddly muted. We both, however, loved the puré de elote amarillo that accompanied it, a slightly sturdier Mexican version of grits with a much finer texture. My tasajo y huarache — the most expensive item on the menu at $24 — was just as dry and tough despite a few lashes of that avocado mousse, the beef filet cutting like leather against the fruitless tugs of my butter knife. The huarache itself underneath was excellent — a testament to those manos de abuelitas — but the execution of the entire dish fell disappointingly short of its vision.
And that's simultaneously the most frustrating and the most hopeful thing about Cuchara: its vision. It is very clear that Beaven, McDaniel and Avendaño are here to stay. They're committed to Montrose and to Mexican food in a way that indicates a passion which shouldn't be discounted, hosting Día de los Muertos parties for the neighborhood and yoga classes during the day, which sees the airy dining room cleared of furniture and scattered with spongy mats.
Avendaño herself shows great promise with the ideas behind her Mexican-gone-mod dishes, all of which perfectly match the vibe and character of Cuchara itself. I even love the little touches like the menu's sorting system of hosting one each of a beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and vegetable dish in the main-courses section, keeping the list of options short and sweet.
The desserts, while also still a little uneven themselves, show a creativity and zest often lost in pastry programs: sugar-coated buñuelos are filled with liquid dark chocolate, which rushes forth onto scoops of ice cream when you puncture the doughy balls, and a warm spice-tinged tortita de plátano is a fun take on the oft-seen fried banana dessert. Order a cup of cafe de olla — the traditional cinnamon-laced coffee of Mexico — to showcase the desserts to their fullest. The must-order bowl of densely creamy chilatole — a corn masa soup fired up with serrano peppers and raw red onions — gives me reason alone to return to Cuchara, and reason to believe that the restaurant still has quite a few tricks up its finely turned sleeve.
For now, however, I'm content to snack on charalitos at Cuchara's welcoming bar and wash them down with the interesting cocktails I explore more and more with each return visit: a Bandido with a floater of Pimm's Cup No. 1 with a refreshing zip that belies the wild punch of Sotol underneath, the whole affair laced with plump chia seeds that give the drink the appearance and feel of a Mexican bubble tea. Or perhaps that Mezcal-enlivened Division Bell with a tart smack of Aperol at the end of each smoky sip, a drink first made by Phil Ward of Mayahuel in New York City but which plays just as well to Houston audiences. Or maybe just a single, perfect margarita — perhaps Cuchara's current and greatest claim to fame — that's best enjoyed on its own, the better to savor the unusual and unusually well-balanced flavors underneath.
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