Following the success of its first location in Missouri City, Ula's Mexican Restaurant & Cantina recently opened another branch on Washington Avenue in the space that formerly housed Coppa Ristorante.
Several features of Ula's prevent it from being classified as just another Tex-Mex/Texican restaurant, the first of which is the stunning, and at times clever, details of its interior design. Cast-iron chandeliers cast a soft glow on the brick archways that section the dining room, whose red and yellow walls serve as a backdrop for a collage of local and regional art. A large gilded mirror is skillfully positioned so as to make one area of the restaurant seem larger than it actually is, a creative trick that allows patrons to feel as if they're eating in a pleasantly crowded (rather than uncomfortably packed) space.
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Like virtually all Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston, Ula's vends a selection of margaritas, my favorite of which is the bold "Platinum," made with Milagro silver tequila, cointreau, lime juice and house-made sour mix. However, while many establishments serve one (if any) light version of the margarita, Ula's has two options for the calorie-conscious: the "Sienna Skinny" (Pura Vida silver tequila, Grand Marnier, lime juice, sour mix) and the "Skinny Margarita" (Cuervo Silver tequila, triple sec, lime juice, sour mix and Splenda). This simple act of offering patrons multiple lighter cocktails suggests a sensitivity to the diner on a diet who would otherwise be deprived of choice.
Ula's further distinguishes itself from other run-of-the-mill Texican joints with its singular culinary offerings. Of course, there are the satisfying albeit predictable standards such as queso, nachos and guacamole (made table-side for a nominal additional charge). But what caught my attention was the campechana, ostensibly not an unusual appetizer at a Tex-Mex restaurant though at Ula's it is singular for its dominant tropical notes. Its components are those of the typical campechana (gulf shrimp, crab, tomato, avocado, spices), but something in the proportions gave rise to a unique sweet yet not saccharine flavor that wonderfully complemented the briny crustaceans.
Another menu item that made me blink twice in a good way was the "California Burrito," a large flour tortilla jammed with rice, beans, cheese, lettuce and chicken fajita meat (oxymoron noted) and doused in a creamy cheese sauce. Unfortunately, this dish little resembled those regionally inflected burritos I've enjoyed in Cali because there was too much rice and too little veg and meat. But with a little tweaking and maybe the addition of some sour cream, this burrito could be a California classic.
If these reasons aren't enough to choose Ula's over [insert other local reliable Tex-Mex restaurant here], then consider what is now currently my favorite combination plate, the "The Three Amigos," a bountiful compilation of three tender grilled shrimp resting under a quilt of Monterey Jack cheese, three slow-roasted pork ribs redolent of nutmeg and four ounces of juicy skirt steak. Oh! And rice and beans. Indeed, the amount of delicious fare one gets with this platter means it should in theory be consumed with two friends. In reality, one gluttonous reporter can easily handle 83 percent of the food, throwing a (rib) bone or two, literally, to her husband.