Hooked on La Fisheria
Take a tour through the vibrantly colored dining room and fish-filled kitchen at La Fisheria in our slideshow.
The first and most important thing to know about La Fisheria is that there's absolutely nothing else like it in Houston, and likely never has been. Walking into La Fisheria — with its electric blue-and-orange cottage and its mustachioed, dreadlocked celebrity chef — is akin to walking off a stuffy plane and into a vibrant, wholly modern beach town in Mexico. Adjust your expectations accordingly from there, because this is not Tex-Mex, and it's not your typical coastal Mexican vacation food, either. Chef Aquiles Chavez wouldn't have it that way.
It's appropriate, in a way, to begin a review of his restaurant with a look at Chavez himself, a celebrity in his native Mexico with three television shows to his name who remains sort of an enigma to most Houstonians. One of those TV programs is a reality show, Aquiles en Houston, about opening La Fisheria in Houston. (I gave my on-camera opinions on Chavez's food for the fifth episode of the show.)
His name — his trademark, as it were — is on nearly every surface of La Fisheria, from the sign out front to the Charlie Chaplin-style photos of Chavez on the walls inside. The restaurant sells Chavez-branded merchandise, from hats to cooking utensils to even the very furniture you dine upon, and Chavez is usually seen in and out of the dining room every single day and night. If I didn't know better, I'd think he lives in the second story of the brightly painted house.
On the surface, it seems as though this would be incredibly obnoxious — and yet it's not. There is an ineffable measure of acceptance of Chavez's in-your-face celebrity, in part because he's so guileless about it — as if he'd been born into the role and can't help but be a celebrity chef, like Elizabeth can't help being Queen — and in part because his boisterous and kind personality draws you into the restaurant as much as the food itself does. The food here is an expression of Chavez, of his home state of Tabasco and of all the misunderstood or poorly interpreted facets of modern Mexican cuisine.
You will not find chips and salsa on his menu, nor enchiladas, nor more typically "authentic" dishes like chiles rellenos or cochinita pibil. You will find instead the updated Mexican cuisine that Chavez left behind when he departed his home country to make a new life for himself and his family in Houston: fresh mussels cooked in red wine and served with a beet coulis; yellowfin tuna steak served on a bed of nopales and lentils, the latter a nod to the Middle Eastern influences in Mexico that brought the country favorites like al pastor; duck stew with chorizo; and a small but smart array of ceviches, carpaccios and other raw seafood treatments.
This is the modern Mexican food that Chavez wants to show the rest of the world: food that's influenced by other cultures but also by their own native ingredients, like an alligator gar-topped tostada he served recently as an amuse-bouche. Gar, he explained as he delivered the tostadas, is prized in Tabasco and rarely found in large sizes — they eat it too quickly for the fish to mature to greater lengths. He was thrilled to find that Americans view the gar as cheap trash fish, and quickly set about buying enormous, five-foot-long filets of the ugly, snouted fish with reptilian scales and transforming it into an elegant homage to his homeland.
Chavez also takes traditional ingredients like hoja santa or xnipec (pronounced "shnuh-peck") and uses them to great effect in elevating simple standards, like a shrimp cocktail with homemade tomato sauce. That sauce is polished and burnished to a gleam with the xnipec, a sort of Mexican mirepoix made with red onions, cilantro, tomato and habanero peppers, and is maddening thanks to the realization that all other shrimp cocktails — even the great ones like those served at Connie's or Tampico — will taste duller by comparison.
I find this to be the case with many of La Fisheria's dishes. I'm currently spoiled rotten by its homemade churros served en croute with a side of homemade chocolate dipping sauce that hides a boozy treat underneath its calm, ochre surface: xtabentún, a fermented honey liqueur that's infused with the herbal bite of anise and punch of rum. Mix the chocolate together with the xtabentún and lose a good ten minutes of your life as you black out with the sweet rush of it all.
I'm also completely smitten with the duck, chorizo and mussels stew that La Fisheria calls pato mariscal. The immediate vinegar and chili powder bite of the fatty pork sausage will easily draw in a Houston palate trained on breakfast tacos full of the stuff, the flavors seeping into the soft bites of duck and soaking the plump, onyx-shelled mussels swimming in the russet broth. And the grilled octopus with confit potatoes in a softly fragrant Mexican vanilla oil may just be the best octopus treatment in the city.
For a while, I was convinced that the yellowfin tuna was one of the best dishes in the city. The first time I had it, the fish parted a rosy-pink over a bed of nopales and lentils that was both earthy and tangy at once — the cactus providing a particular sharp sweetness that caught my tongue like a fishing lure — all finished off with soft butterbeans and carrots.
My dining companion's pasta dish that night was very good — angel hair pasta coated with a smoky chipotle cream sauce and topped with fat flakes of coral-colored salmon — but it was my tuna that stopped the show. I talked about it for days afterward, and when a friend suggested ordering it again on a return visit a month later, I jumped at the chance. I was shocked to receive a mildly overcooked piece of fish this time, with no nopales anywhere to be found. The vegetable mixture that remained was flabby and bland.
On another visit, the otherwise excellent achiote-rubbed red snapper on a bed of sweet potato puree that bore a rich, almost caramel-like flavor was marred by a jarring mishmash of scattered vegetables underneath that confusingly included corn, peas, green peppers and dried cherries.
Rocky dishes like this are liable to scare away brand-new customers who are just sniffing out La Fisheria, trying to figure out its complex cuisine for themselves. Service can also be wildly inconsistent, swinging from happy and helpful one day to rushed and harried the next night. Three times now, I've been seated, asked what I wanted to drink — and then had to prompt the guayabera-shirted servers to bring me a drink menu. And although the long bar is welcoming in its moddish tropical vibe, it can be nearly impossible to get a drink there on busy nights, so overwhelmed are the bartenders.
On the other hand, La Fisheria's management seems to have listened to the early criticisms of the restaurant. Namely, the once-confusing menu has now been streamlined into more understandable sections: appetizers here, entrées there, soups and salads here, desserts there. It's still a little dicier at lunch, however, when the menu splits into bizarre categories such as "the fresh thing," "the ones from heaven and earth" and "the unforgettable ones." But if you can manage to parse through the sections, you'll actually find far better deals at La Fisheria during lunch than at dinner, which makes it worth the extra bit of effort.
At lunch, you'll find a greater array of ceviches and cocktails (not just shrimp, but also oyster and vuelve a la vida) than at dinner. And the prices are lower, too, enabling you to enjoy some simple tacos de camarón with battered shrimp in a creamy chipotle-tamarind dressing or a vibrant bowl of tortilla soup for less than $10. The only problem with eating at La Fisheria is the sad feeling of having to tear yourself away from the relaxing, vacation-like dining room and shuffle off back to work, ignoring the siren call of comfortable Acapulco chairs on the broad front porch as you go.
Lunch also makes it more difficult to enjoy La Fisheria's excellent wine and cocktail program, which should be commended for incorporating Mexican products into even the most unexpected areas: Chavez's ongoing tribute to his home country means that the entire wine list is Mexican. Stop and consider that for a second. Did you even realize that Mexico made wine? Let alone good wine? La Fisheria works with local importer Baja Wines to bring in some of the best from the 1.5 million cases of wine the country produces each year, including a hearty but fresh Xikbal Tempranillo-Grenache blend that's served wonderfully cool (another point on which La Fisheria should be complimented) and an MX Sauvignon Blanc that's a steal for $32.
Traditional Mexican liquor like that xtabentún is incorporated into cheeky drinks like the Mayan Sacrifice, blended with blanco tequila and topped with a fat red cherry. And festive orange shreds of habanero brighten up already well-made margaritas with a pop of heat on the end of each sip.
Then again, it's certainly easier to get a table at lunch than it is at dinner, when arriving past 7:30 p.m. — especially on weekend nights — almost guarantees a wait. Which, of course, is best spent at the bar. And with the premiere of Chavez's third reality show taking place this past Sunday on Utilisima (an HGTV-style station that broadcasts in every Latin American country), it's only going to get busier.
This past Wednesday evening, Chavez and his family held a viewing party for the show, and I got my first look at how difficult it was for them to pick up and leave behind everything they'd known — the homesickness of their children, the adjustments to a mostly foreign culture and the struggle to open a business in a completely different world — and felt more strongly about La Fisheria than ever.
"I'm just a regular Mexican guy who wanted to open a restaurant in America," Chavez told the partygoers from underneath the Astros ballcap that's a constant presence on his head these days. He didn't speak of wanting profits or fame, but of wanting only to share the Mexico he knows and loves with a brand-new audience. With La Fisheria, he's already succeeded.
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