El Queso Grande?
Recently I overheard a local restaurateur whose opinion I respect proclaim that the "best true Tex-Mex" in town can be found at Bravos Mexican Restaurant. This piqued my interest on sooooo many levels. For starters, any randomly selected bunch of Houstonians would be more likely to agree on the number of angels line-dancing on a pinhead than to achieve consensus on a working definition of Tex-Mex. Up the ante with inflammatory language like "best" and "true," and you'd better hope them Bubbas ain't armed.
And, besides, where the heck is Bravos?
Somehow in my 20-plus years of dining all over this town, I've completely overlooked Bravos, perhaps because the original Bravos opened in Texas City, about 40 miles off my trodden path. The south-side location opened a couple of years ago when I guess I wasn't looking -- on Fuqua just off the Gulf Freeway -- in what appears to be a rambling, tin-roofed frame house stranded in a Kroger's parking lot. Three months ago the third Bravos outpost opened, I'm told, somewhere on Highway 6 between Sugar Land and Missouri City.
So it would appear that Guillermo Betancourt, Bravos' owner, has been doing just fine in my absence, without advertising or attention from restaurant reviewers. It seems he would prefer to continue to do so. "Don't tell that woman anything about my restaurants," he threatened one of his hapless hostesses. "Don't talk to her, and don't give her any phone numbers to call. She's just going to try to charge me money to write about them."
Another sign of his success: Despite the spacious dining rooms at Bravos on Fuqua, which I'd estimate hold at least 120 Pasadena-size adults, there are an additional three dozen straight-backed chairs lined up in the entryway, where customers wait to be seated. On a recent weekday lunchtime, the wait chairs were empty, but on weekend nights the place is packed to the rafters. Inside, the decor is as cheerfully awful as I expected, the low ceiling painted a deep, brilliant blue, the floor partially covered by cranberry-colored swatches of carpeting held in place by worn strips of lipstick-red electrical tape. Dusty sombreros dangle from the walls, and a pair of vacuum cleaners lean disconsolately in a corner; wraparound views of the parking lot complete the, um, ambience.
My first benchmark for any Tex-Mex restaurant is a plate of nachos and a cold margarita. At Bravos, there are five different kinds of nachos to choose from, starting with a basic queso and jalapeno version (half order $2.49, full order $3.29) and ramping up to an extravagant potato-skin version called "papa nachos," piled high with fajitas and other goodies for $5.99. I found the nachos de fajitas (half order $4.29, full order $5.99) much to my liking: a monstrous platter of crisp tortilla chips smeared with refried beans and pale, gooey chili con queso, generously studded with chunks of mildly spicy charbroiled beef, fresh tomatoes and jalapeno slices. Twin mounds of home-style guacamole and sour cream rose from the center of the platter, there to be administered as needed. The full order would challenge four ravenous football players; next time, I'll try the more modest half-size model.
I was quite impressed by Bravos' margaritas. The bar specializes in fruit-flavored frozen margaritas ($3.50), a different one on special ($1.99) every day. Sunday, for example, is peach margarita day, Monday is strawberry, and so on, through mango, pineapple, coconut and even banana, in addition to regulation lime. These fruity concoctions should not be dismissed as wussy cocktails. The vivid red strawberry version is drenched in summery berry flavor with a barbwire backbone of tequila. "Mocktail" editions are also available, sans alcohol, for $1.99 each; designated drivers might also try Pancho Villa's Punch ($1.99) or, on weekends only, a cool, cinnamon-sprinkled glass of orchata (99 cents, which includes a free refill), a milky, slightly sweet drink made from rice.
Bypassing the burritos, tacos, chalupas and other Tex-Mex standards available as combination plates, I experimented with more ambitious entrees. I started with Bravos' seriously good cabrito ($7.99), a heaping platter of braised goat lightly seasoned with garlic and cumin, so moist and tender the meat fell from the bones. (Which, in this case, was a particularly good thing: The platter contained more bone fragments than a chainsaw massacre.) On the side were a rough-cut pico de gallo sharply spiked with bits of dark green serrano pepper, plus refried beans, rice, more of that admirable guacamole, and flour tortillas, fresh, soft and steaming hot. I liked the more strongly seasoned carnitas ($5.49) even more, a mountain of maybe a dozen browned and salty pork chunks served with the same accompaniments. True, the pork was laced with fat, but those plump little gobbets had absorbed so much of the flavor of chili powder, garlic and frying that I ate them anyway.
We were delighted by the shrimp enchiladas ($6.99), too, toothsome corn tortillas stuffed fat with fresh shrimp, doused in a smoky red ranchero sauce identified on the menu as "spanish sauce" and swathed in a thick blanket of Monterey Jack cheese. More spanish sauce is available as a side order for only 99 cents, a worthwhile investment for the chicken or beef flautas ($5.49), which are otherwise too plain. The crisp fried flautas are thick packets of unadorned meat wrapped in several small corn tortillas, instead of the slender rolled flutes I've seen elsewhere. As served with guacamole and sour cream, they lack zing; we dipped ours in the noteworthy red sauce that accompanies the basket of tortilla chips.
I like the fact that Bravos' menu lends itself to customizing. There are no rules to follow, except that substitutions cost 79 cents. You can add just about anything you want a la carte -- beef tamales (99 cents), tacos, burritos or enchiladas ($1.59 each), even a taco al carbon ($1.99) -- to personalize a combination plate. Like the spanish sauce, chili gravy is offered as one of the 99 cent side orders. (Fair warning: If you don't speak Spanish, such customizing may not be easy. A surprising number of Bravos' staffers and managers speak only the most rudimentary English. Sample conversation: "What time do you open?" Answer: "Yes." Or: "How many Bravos restaurants are there?" Answer: "Here." Sigh. Outside these "Who's on first?" sort of exchanges, though, I've found the service fast and friendly.)
So, what's the verdict? Bravos is dishing up "true" Tex-Mex, no doubt about it, in portions twice the size and half the price of better-known institutions. I expect that anybody who remembers the glory days of the original Ninfa's will welcome the decidedly ungentrified Bravos experience with cries of joy. But is it "the best"? Well, if not, it's definitely a contender. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Bravos Mexican Restaurant,
10906 Fuqua, (281)484-2697; 4514 Highway 6, (281)494-3340; 2525 Palmer Highway, Texas City, (409)948-2456.
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