Even in a city as rich in south-of-the-border eateries as Houston, there are many who continue to believe (wrongly) that Mexican culinary tradition is based exclusively on chicken, beans, rice, corn and tangy condiments made of tomatillos and peppers. This, despite generations of travelers who have returned from Acapulco raving about the unique renditions of shrimp and red snapper they sampled while on vacation. One factor that's led to this continuing gustatory ignorance is that finding the real deal north of the border has, until recently, been extraordinarily difficult. Although many mainstream Mexican restaurants have experimented with traditional dishes that substituted seafood for meat, the outcome seldom bore much resemblance to Cancun or Acapulco cookery. More often than not, the tinkering produced such bizarre hybrids as the shrimp enchilada. Now, though, several developments -- ranging from health concerns about red meat to the increased affordability of weekend excursions to the Yucatan coast -- have combined to make Mexican seafood downright trendy.
While this fishy emphasis is new territory for some restaurateurs, for the Garza family, it's old hat. Their establishment, 7 Mares, has been serving both traditional and innovative shrimp and fish dishes for years, something that seems obvious from the moment you walk in the door. There's an unmistakable comfort exuded by the place, one that's evidence of its having survived long enough to become a neighborhood institution. The high ceilings at 7 Mares (Spanish for "Seven Seas" and pronounced "si-e-te mar-ez"; your waitress will giggle if you say seven female horses) have overseen countless memorable moments, from first dates to family reunions; the earthenware floors have worn out hundreds of mops. The furnishings are minimalist and modular, with Formica and chrome predominating. The decorations -- a mixture of generic Hispanic-theme and Ye Olde Seafood schlock -- would be kitsch if new, but have acquired a dignity with age.
With age, 7 Mares has also acquired a fierce customer loyalty of the sort evidenced by a longtime patron I spoke with one night. "I grew up in this neighborhood," he explained, "but now I live about 50 miles away, so I only get to eat here a couple of times a month." When asked his preferences, the gentleman mentioned a longtime fondness for the camarones ranchero. A good choice; the ranchero variety holds the middle ground of 7 Mares' shrimp menu. While the fried shrimp are fresh and tasty, the pan-cooked camarones add a delectable mix of tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro. Once past the relative mildness of the camarones ranchero, the heat scale increases, and the sauce becomes an increasingly dominant factor. Not even the most acclimated of Mexican food devotees are likely to find the pungent ranchero sauce boring. It boasts a 110-volt zap to the tongue, though one that's soon overcome, at least in part, by the flavor of the notably fresh shrimp. By contrast, the 220-volt sauce of the camarones diablo overwhelms the shrimp and fully lives up to the waitress's "really hot" warning.
A three-beer plate of camarones diablo such as the one I savored slowly and sweatily is, I have since learned, on the extreme high range of the dish's fluctuations. Despite my fondness for the hot and spicy, the cayenne level of the diablo steered me back to the milder but still flavorful ranchero -- and convinced me not to mess with the camarones chipotle, which the menu lists as the hottest of all.
Diners who don't find salvation in pepper-induced zip can avail themselves of plenty of items that are well-flavored without a trace of chile. The catfish, for example, starts out on the grill and, after being tossed in a skillet with the appropriate variations, is transformed into a wide selection of dishes. I tried the pescado with butter and garlic and a delightfully smoky filete almendrado heavily garnished with almonds, celery and mozzarella cheese; both versions were tender and flaky, with just a hint of pan-induced crust on the bottom to hold in the juices. The flavors of the toppings were admirably merged into the fish in a way that far exceeds the standard catfish fillet.
Those who crave a self-indulgent, hedonistic, damn-the-fat-grams platter of shrimp are advised to sample 7 Mares' camarones rellenos. A dozen of these surreal stuffed shrimp arrive sunning themselves on a golden beach of saffron rice, accompanied by an order of fries and an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage and a tomato slice. Here is seafood as decadent as any steak: large, fresh shrimp slit open and stuffed with queso blanco, wrapped with slices of jalapeno pepper and bacon, battered and fried. Deep fried bacon: that's my kind of health food. And when I had to slice at my grilled-fish-eating companion's knuckles with a tortilla chip after giving her a taste, it became clear that 7 Mares' camarones rellenos have an appeal that can overcome even those who worship at the shrine of nutritional correctness.
Not that there isn't plenty that's both low fat and delicious on the menu at 7 Mares. One of the most alluring items the restaurant offers is the caldo siete mares, a seafood soup that's entrancingly intricate, and commendably heart healthy, in its simplicity. Minced bits of octopus, small shrimp and chunks of firm, flaky, bone-in fish so tender it can be filleted with a spoon float with cilantro leaves in a translucent brown broth. That fragrant broth has just enough flavor of the ocean to remind us that we all (or at least we Darwinists) came from the sea. There are subtleties here that emphasize that the basis of all life is water and salt.
7 Mares' soups are a delight in terms of both taste and cost, with the small bowl serving equally well as a light lunch or an appetizer, while the larger bowl is a meal in itself. The soups come in shrimp, fish and crab versions in addition to the mixed caldo siete mares, and all are served with a toasted half-loaf of bollito and a mound of the saffron rice that accompanies practically everything on the menu. Standard procedure is to, every few bites, sprinkle a spoonful of the rice into the soup. The regulars do it. Learn from them.
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7 Mares is, and always has been, a restaurant with a predominately Hispanic clientele, and the waitstaff reflects this. Although Anglos usually wind up with the most bilingual waitress on duty, language barriers sometimes must be surmounted. That's more likely to be necessary when your dining companion finds it cute to change her (or, I guess, his) mind three or four times while ordering. Though, admittedly, a certain degree of indecisiveness is almost inevitable. The menu at 7 Mares is extensive, ranging from the familiar to the intriguingly exotic. Everything sounds delicious (well, the shrimp in tequila sauce may be an exception), and most of it is.
Not that there aren't disappointments, as I discovered when sampling the langosta Veracrunazo. It took only one experience to realize that ordering lobster at 7 Mares is more of a status celebration than a culinary event. Go ahead and do it if you're in the mood to splurge, but 7 Mares' lobster tail convinced me that much better celebratory fare could be found by revisiting the camarones rellenos, delightful in their unabashed, bacon-wrapped excess.
7 Mares, 4602 Irvington, 692-7776.
camarones rellenos, $12.95;
caldo siete mares, $3.75 (small) and $4.75 (large);
filete almendrado, $9;
camarones ranchero, $8.25.