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Just Like in Mexico City

Imaginative dishes like the carne asada con nopales make the prices at upscale Mexican restaurants seem worth it.
Troy Fields

My steak is covered with cactus. The oval prickly-pear pad has been grilled and cut partway through with long slits to make it easier to eat. It has a lemon and green-bean flavor and a dense crunchy flesh -- a fascinating contrast to the tough but tasty flank steak. With the dramatic presentation of this carne asada con nopales -- not to mention the carefully handmade tortilla dough appetizers called sopesitos y huarachitos -- Rene Hidalgo, the head chef at Maria Selma, has forcefully grabbed my attention. They always save the best matador for last, right?

Three new upscale Mexican eateries opened within weeks of each other this summer. First came Hugo's on Westheimer, where chef Hugo Ortega presents an original take on Mexican cookery (see "That Sneaky Tex-Mex Camel," July 25). Then there was the festive Los Tonyos (see "Where's Chango?" September 5), where Tony Vallone offers healthy Mexican food. And now we turn to the last contestant in this Mexican bowl fight, Maria Selma, which is located near the Lucky Burger in the space where Instant Karma used to be.

Born in Mexico City, Hidalgo has served as head chef at Bistro Vino and sous-chef at the Brownstone restaurant. He renovated this place along with a silent partner named Joseph Varon. Maria Selma is Varon's grandmother.

The furniture and decor are pleasant but unremarkable compared to the elegant makeover at Hugo's and the simian excess at Los Tonyos. The simple wooden chairs and tables look appropriate to a rustic fonda; tableware is a colorful blend of pottery and Fiestaware. The poorly affixed tin ceiling looks like a mistake, and so does some of the artwork. The surrealistic painting of kneeling faceless shepherds (if that's what they are), for instance, makes for a disconcerting view over the rim of your coffee cup at breakfast time.

Not that I would recommend eating breakfast at Maria Selma. The meal is served here, but the contrived egg dishes are tedious. There's huevos rancheros on a stiff tortilla that's too messy to pick up and too hard to cut, huevos motuleños without the black beans and ham that define the dish, and various other egg and tortilla combinations in the $5 range.

The traditional Mexican food served at Maria Selma is better appreciated at lunch and dinner. The restaurant's namesake contributed a few home-style recipes, including the flan, but the culinary philosophy of this restaurant can best be summed up with a phrase that appears frequently on the menu: "just like in Mexico City."

Luckily, chef Hidalgo was smart enough to offer Mexico City dishes without asking us to sacrifice our Tex-Mex conventions. There are chips and two excellent salsas on the table, frozen margaritas at the bar and a choice of chicken or beef fajitas on the menu, in case you aren't big on Mexico City cuisine. As any American who has eaten there can tell you, "just like in Mexico City" can be a blessing or a curse.

Among the blessings are Maria Selma's wondrous enchiladas. Enchilada is actually an adjective in Spanish meaning "chillied," and the original enchilada was nothing more than a tortilla dunked in chile sauce. The Maria Selma version harks back to the old ways.

I tried the enchiladas verdes, four tortillas dipped in tart green tomatillo sauce, folded over with nothing inside, then topped with shredded chicken and more green sauce, and sprinkled with Mexican white queso. These aren't finished in the oven under a cloak of fatty cheddar or Jack like Tex-Mex enchiladas are. So instead of getting dried out, the tortillas are silky, tender and relatively grease-free. And without the usual wad of chewy melted cheese, the sauce really shines. It's a stunning way to eat enchiladas.

On a subsequent visit, I sampled the mole enchiladas. You can smell the cinnamon and anise, along with the corn aroma of the tortillas, when they set the dish in front of you. The dark, shiny surface of the sauce is dotted with snow-white cheese crumbles rather than the usual sesame seeds. The first bite has the lush flavor of dried fruit and ancho; the texture is chocolate velvet. Then suddenly out of the sweetness comes an authoritative pepper bite. It smolders slowly on the tongue and the back of the throat, growing in intensity with every forkful. This is one of the spiciest moles I've ever had, and by far the best thing I tried at Maria Selma.

As for the curses, Maria Selma's offerings that you wish weren't quite so authentic include the chicharrón de queso, a large brown slab of burned cheese that tastes like the stuff left in the skillet after you make grilled cheese sandwiches. (For some reason, they love this stuff in Mexico City.) Then there's the gloppy ground-seafood-stuffed chile relleno, for which the waitstaff apologizes in advance by saying, "It's a very small entrée." But the worst is what the menu describes as "cóctel de camarón (shrimp cocktail, just like in Mexico City)."

If they all taste like this, the shrimp cocktails in Mexico City are truly horrific. The cocktail sauce, made with citrus, tomato and chiles, is fine, but the appetizer is served in a murky little bowl -- no doubt to disguise the disagreeable seafood. The shrimp that float in the sauce turn out to be those tiny cocktail shrimp, and judging by their squishy texture, I'd guess they came out of a can. But hey, Mexico City isn't on the coast. Houston, on the other hand, is a seaport. And Houstonians are used to eating knockout seafood cocteles: freshly boiled shrimp and vibrant red sauce shining through a big parfait glass with lots of green avocado slices on top. Maybe we need to do Mexico City a favor and introduce them to "cóctel de camarón (just like in Houston)."

While we're at it, we could teach them something about shrimp soup, too. Maria Selma's simple caldo de camarones leaves a lot to be desired according to my daughter Julia. Shrimp soup is usually one of her favorite dishes, but this caldo came in a huge pottery bowl that was less than half full. And there were only five shrimp in it, by her count. There wasn't much else in there, either. I try to tell Julia that the small portion was intended as an appetizer.

But she isn't content with this explanation. She wants to know how the little taqueria/convenience store in our neighborhood can serve an enormous bowl of caldo de camarones with three times the shrimp for less money than they charge for the half-bowl of soup at Maria Selma. And I find myself trying to explain the inexplicable: why Mexican fine dining restaurants so often serve inferior versions of the same food you can get cheaper at neighborhood taquerias.

The best way to enjoy an upscale Mexican restaurant is to order some of the interesting stuff you haven't seen elsewhere, I tell the child. At Maria Selma, that includes the truly awesome Mexico City-style enchiladas, the innovative cactus and steak and other intriguing-sounding items (like the especialidades de Selma, mixed grills that offer various combinations of asada steaks with sausages, meats and cheeses). Ordering Mexican specialties that you already know and love at a place like this is asking for trouble.

This is not a problem unique to Maria Selma, but one that plagues the entire genre of upscale Mexican restaurants.

Food service consultants have theorized that Mexican fine dining restaurants don't do well in Houston because residents of this city -- as opposed to, say, Chicago or New York -- are predisposed to think of Mexican food as cheap stuff like tortillas, beans and rice, not as serious cuisine. But if you ask me, the problem is inherent to Mexican food.

The first time I sat down to dinner in an elegant Mexico City restaurant, I was shocked by what I found on the menu. There were steaks and carnes asadas of many descriptions, pasta dishes, mixed vegetables and lovely soups. But the holy trinity of Mesoamerica -- beans, squash and corn -- was nowhere in evidence. Nor were there any chile peppers. At first I thought I had stumbled into the wrong sort of dining establishment, but I had the same experience again and again. I came to learn that Mexican food elitists champion a Europeanized Mexican haute cuisine.

It seemed weird to me, so I asked some locals about it. "Why would you go to an expensive restaurant to eat tortillas and beans and chile peppers?" laughed a wealthy Polanco resident. He loved that kind of food, but thought the idea of eating it in a fancy restaurant was ludicrous. Suddenly it began to dawn on me that all the fabulous Mexican dishes I had come to know and love -- the carnitas, the enchiladas, the spicy chile sauces, even such exotica as the squash blossom quesadillas -- were considered street foods in Mexico City. So it's no wonder that these dishes taste best at humble taquerias up here.

There's not much point in going to a fancy restaurant to eat street food. And that's the problem facing upscale Mexican restaurants in Houston -- just like in Mexico City.

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Maria Selma

1617 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77006

713-528-4920

www.mariaselma.com


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