The chips and hot sauce at Europa Cafe & Grill in Rice Village were disappointing. The salsa had zero bite, and the chips, though heated, were extremely stale. Which didn't bode well for the nachos I'd ordered for an appetizer.
When they arrived, Europa Cafe's nachos looked beautiful. They were arranged in a circular pattern around the guacamole salad that occupied the center of the plate. Each chip was spread with refried black beans and topped with Jack cheese and a pickled jalapeo slice. But sure enough, they were stale, with the texture of cardboard.
My companion got the tomato quiche for her appetizer. While the French savory pastry, filled with tomatoes, onions and Swiss cheese, looked and tasted well made, the reheating process didn't do it justice. The crust had become gummy, and the filling was only lukewarm. Perhaps the microwave was having a bad day?
For her entre, she got blackened salmon tacos served on corn tortillas with refried black beans and rice mixed with corn kernels on the side. The salmon was fresh, and although it was cooked to well-done, the spicy topping gave it a peppery kick. I liked the taco, but my companion was more particular. The fish taco was garnished with cilantro sprigs, but they were wilted and dark. She picked every sprig of bad cilantro out of her tacos before she ate them.
My lasagna la Padana was quite good. It had a simple ground meat filling cooked in a mild white sauce layered with noodles. A square of the lasagna topped with mozzarella was served in a pool of warm marinara sauce. I suppose it was also reheated in a microwave, but pasta seems to endure this sort of reheating well.
The food may not have been quite stellar, but where else can you go when you're craving nachos and lasagna or quiche and fish tacos? Europa Cafe may be the only Euro-Tex-Mex restaurant in the city. And what it lacks in food quality, it makes up for in atmosphere.
The cafe is located in a charming yellow brick cottage just off Kirby. It looks like Grandma's house, only with a parking lot where the front lawn should be. The cozy interior is divided into three little dining rooms, two with subdued lighting and hardwood floors and a third in a porch area with big windows and Saltillo tiles on the floor.
The walls are cream-colored with dark green trim, and the rooms are charmingly decorated with bric-a-brac and potted plants, most of it displayed on high shelves. Thanks to the antique-shop atmosphere, the cozy cafe has long been a favorite rendezvous for coffee dates and leisurely lunches.
The Euro-Tex-Mex menu is new, but Europa Cafe has always had a quirky bill of fare. Quiche and empanadas shared billing on the original menu. That's because the first owner was from Argentina. The population of Argentina is almost entirely descended from Italian, French and German stock. So Argentines have no qualms about calling their cheese-, pizza- and espresso-heavy cuisine "European." Hence the Europa Cafe moniker.
The restaurant was popular among Houston's large Argentine expatriate community in its early years. Savoring the irony, I ordered South American stuff when I first visited Europa Cafe a few years ago. The chicken empanadas, stuffed with onions and olives, were first-rate. So was a South American chicken dish called aji de gallina. The menu described it as "shredded chicken with Parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, bread, walnuts and almonds." It sounds weird, but the bread and nuts were pureed with the milk and cheese to make a silky cream sauce that was fabulous with the chicken.
Desserts came from a display case that was the first thing you saw when you walked in the front door. The tiramisu was especially good. Espresso and a pastry was once a common order here. But there aren't any pastries anymore.
Europa Cafe is under new ownership, and the interior isn't quite as attractive as it used to be. The pastry case has been moved to the side, and the contents aren't very well lit -- which is just as well. The tiramisu and the tres leches cake are now displayed in ugly metal baking pans.
Chef Seco Moran, formerly of the now-defunct Jalapeos Restaurant on Kirby, is running the kitchen. To what was once a quaint menu reflecting the South American affinity for European culture, Chef Seco has added such upscale Tex-Mex creations as black bean nachos and his famous spinach enchiladas.
Chef Seco gained national fame when he shared his recipe for these vegetarian enchiladas with television chef Emeril Lagasse. I tried them on my first visit to Europa Cafe since the change in ownership. They were made with flour tortillas wrapped around a delicate spinach and cheese filling, topped with a subtle cilantro cream sauce. It was quite good, but was it an enchilada?
The word enchilada is an adjective in Spanish that means "chilied," a reference to chile sauce. The implied noun is tortilla, so the full name is tortilla enchilada -- chilied tortilla. If you skip the chiles and use tomato sauce, you have an entomatada. Use a bean sauce and it becomes an enfrijolada. So what do you call a flour tortilla in cream sauce? How about a burrito?
On that first visit since the Chef Seco regime came to power, I also sampled the aji de gallina to see if it was as good as it used to be. Sadly, the chicken was no longer served in a rich, smooth cream sauce; rather, it was coated with a thick gunk that used to be cream sauce before it dried out. Clearly, Chef Seco is stronger on the upscale Tex-Mex than on the South American leftovers. The European stuff is a mixed bag. The quiche is awful, but based on the lasagna, I have high hopes for the other pasta dishes.
Europa Cafe has a lot of fans. They go there for the charming eccentricity and because it's such a pleasant place to hang out. The new owners certainly haven't done anything to diminish the eccentric part of the appeal. But the stale chips and wilted cilantro suggest a slowdown in volume and a kitchen that is getting sloppy. It's hard to throw away stale tortilla chips and wilted produce when business is slow. And it kills your bottom line. But if you keep serving it, the cash register gets even quieter.
I also wonder how the bizarre new menu is going over with the regulars. Is Chef Seco really throwing quiche, empanadas, lasagna and nachos together in an attempt to debut a new Euro-Tex-Mex concept? Or is this just what happened when he added his specialties to the already wacky bill of fare he inherited from the old Europa Cafe?
Whatever his intentions, he is having trouble keeping the European, South American and Tex-Mex balls in the air at the same time. Don't get me wrong, I love the aged Gruyre cheese enchiladas in Paris, and the Gouda on the nachos in Amsterdam. I'd love to see somebody do Euro-Tex-Mex in Houston. But what Europa Cafe is doing now isn't working.
Either Chef Seco needs to focus on one cuisine and do it well, or he needs to become a much better juggler.
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