Get a Rope
The plate of fish tacos in front of me at Vida Tex-Mex one recent evening looked so abysmal, I was loathe to even try them. I sat and stared at them, head down, anger building in my chest. It was all I could do not to simply get up and leave. Inside the row of tacos — two with grilled snapper flanking a center taco with a piece of fried snapper — I could see melted cheddar cheese quickly solidifying and melding to shreds of red cabbage. The tempura-battered red snapper in the middle taco looked as over-battered as the tempura-battered oysters on the plate of "Naughty Nachos" that I'd just finished lamenting.
A few bites later, my fears were confirmed: These fish tacos were gnarly, nasty abominations not fit to be served to a dog in the street. The batter around the red snapper was thick, gummy and completely unseasoned; the grilled snapper versions fared a bit better, but were bogged down by the baffling application of melted cheese to the red cabbage underneath, with nary a hint of the menu-promised "mayo" or guacamole to be found anywhere.
"I wouldn't serve these to anyone," I fumed to my dining companion. "They should be embarrassed to even send these out of the kitchen." She nodded her commiserations from across a plate of tough, tequila-drenched steak that Vida is trying to call carne asada. We couldn't decide which "Tex-Mex" dish at Vida Tex-Mex was worse.
Vida Tex-Mex recently dropped the "Sexy" from the middle of its name — but not the adults-only club vibe, which prohibits anyone under 16 years old from entering the restaurant. Nevertheless, the attitude has remained: Vida is like a swinger's club that happens to serve really bad Tex-Mex.
The paintings of mostly naked women on the dark purple walls and the occasional, confusing use of black fringe come off as desperate and cheesy, the restaurant equivalent of a divorcé in his late fifties wearing head-to-toe Audigier while trying to talk his way into a Washington Avenue club. I certainly understand the vibe that owners Yvonne (Evie) Melcher, her husband Magic Schwarz and her son Trey Melcher were going for — no swarms of noisy kids and their clueless parents knotting up tables à la Lupe Tortilla.
But the execution of Vida Tex-Mex went horribly awry from the very beginning. The restaurant was conceptualized as a Houston extension of Vivo, an Austin-based restaurant with a "sexy" vibe that apparently does very well for itself. I can't say personally; I've never been, although I'm still questioning whoever thought to apply the adjective "sexy" to a cuisine that's decidedly not. Rootsy, yes. Authentic, rugged, comforting, yes. Sexy, no.
But the deal with Vivo chef Paul Petersen fell through, and plans for Vivo quickly turned into Vida as Evie Melcher and company decided to go ahead with a sexy Tex-Mex concept to anchor the renovated Melcher Crossing strip center on San Felipe. Melcher owns the shopping center — along with many others in Houston — but has no restaurant experience, and nor does her son or husband.
In a recent interview with the River Oaks Examiner, Evie Melcher explained her reasons for going ahead with the restaurant despite a lack of experience in the industry: "We thought, 'How hard can it be?'" Melcher said. "We thought we'd just open it up and it would run itself."
Her dismissiveness read like a slap in the face to anyone who's ever owned and operated a restaurant of their own.
Melcher did admit that it hasn't been an easy road, however. The kitchen is currently chef-less, and Melcher claimed to the Examiner that the line cooks make food based on old family recipes, although I am just as loathe to believe that as I was loathe to eat my fish tacos or my Naughty Nachos.
I seriously doubt there is a Mexican family tucked away somewhere in Texas frying oysters in clammy tempura batter and serving them atop stale chips and a few pieces of diced mango. I also have a hard time believing that any self-respecting home cook would have a recipe for carne asada that includes a "tequila demiglace"in which the tequila isn't cooked off, and is instead poured on top of a piece of rubbery steak and left to pool disgustingly all around the meat.
Until that first dinner at Vida, the worst Tex-Mex I'd ever eaten came in the form of a ketchup-topped "chicken enchilada" filled with nothing but dry, shredded chicken and lettuce, served on a bed of white rice and salsa. It came from a garishly decorated, tourist-saturated restaurant in Manchester's city center. I ordered it because — to be honest — I masochistically wanted to see just how bad Tex-Mex food in England could be. As you may imagine, it was abominable: a dish that both looked and tasted like an abortion wrapped in a flour tortilla. I was giddy with the horror of it all. But I knew what I was in for when I ordered it.
I mention this incident for two reasons, the first being that no matter what you may have heard, it is indeed exceptionally easy to screw up Tex-Mex food. It aggravates me to hear people describe Texas's natural-born cuisine as something that any asshole with a cheese grater can make, and make well. This simply isn't true: The best Tex-Mex is made with slavish devotion and attention to detail, with spices ground by hand in molcajetes and masa spread meticulously into corn husks, with hours of cooking barbacoa or carnitas before they end up in their final dishes.
The second reason I mention this prior Tex-Mex travesty is that, for better or worse, I knew what I was getting myself into. Eating the cuisine outside of Texas is often foolish, but you can more or less count on getting the good stuff back home. Especially here in the Houston area, which prides itself on our native cuisine, as seen in such deep-rooted restaurants as Molina's Cantina, Irma's, Ninfa's on Navigation or The Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston, which opened in 1916.
Tex-Mex has been a vital part of our city for more than 100 years. The cuisine's popularity has never waned in that century. It has endured despite blows like the City of Houston banning tamale sellers from Market Square in 1901 or the closing of Felix Mexican Restaurant after 60 years in business, despite health food trends and the influx of more modern, trendier cuisines. The cultural significance of Tex-Mex as a vital touchstone between generations and an expression of our roots cannot be denied.
So to serve bad Tex-Mex in Houston is, simply put, a crime. And Vida Tex-Mex is guilty.
It gives me absolutely no joy to say this. I honestly believe that Vida could do well under better guidance — it shows dazzling glimmers of promise, as seen in a recent lunch, when an expertly made margarita and a perfect bowl of queso blew me away. The chips on both visits have been fine, thin, wonderfully delicate things, perfect for scooping up the red salsa, which tastes of roasted tomatoes and warm hints of chile de árbol. When I complimented the bartender on his strong, nicely sour punch of a margarita, a genuine grin broke across his face.
Magic Schwarz himself was there at the bar that day, bent over a plate of food and looking every bit like the Mickey Rourke character from The Wrestler, a character that Schwarz claimed in an interview with CultureMap was based on his own life. He had been a charming and kind host during our lunch, as had all of the other servers. He checked on our table three times during lunch, the first time to make sure that the temperature in the restaurant was to our liking. Vida has its front-of-house obligations ably filled by Schwarz and his crew; I'm just not sure that any of them have tasted the food.
My cheese enchiladas at lunch were as sorry an excuse for Tex-Mex as the carne asada had been on that first visit: The thin amount of chili gravy on the plate was barely seasoned, with no hints whatsoever of cumin, garlic or chile powder. The cheese was stodgy and heavy, the refried black beans curiously surrounded by a viscous pool of cooking oil that contained odd black dots of some unidentifiable provenance. My dining companion's fish sandwich — one of the many odd, non-Tex-Mex items on the lunch menu — was soggy inside and out, and again suffered from a complete lack of seasoning.
But for all its sins, if the kitchen at Vida can make a great bowl of queso and the bar a commendable margarita, not all is lost. At the very least, Vida makes a good post-work destination for drinks and chips: Its cool, dark environs seem purpose-built for that, if you choose to regard the silly paintings as tongue-in-cheek decor along the lines of The Strip House.
It's possible that Vida — with a serious chef at the helm — could become the restaurant that Evie Melcher and her family had hoped for. But for that to happen, the Melchers will have to admit that restaurants don't run themselves, and that Tex-Mex is not a cuisine to be trifled with.
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