La Casa del Caballo Gets Serious About Steak
Get a behind the scenes look at La Casa del Caballo in this slideshow.
My friends and I ogled the giant platter of meat before us as if it were a mythical creature we had just discovered in the darkened depths of Montrose. The building on the corner of Westheimer and Taft has previously been home to at least three other restaurants — La Strada, Caffe Bello and, finally, Don Julio — that have failed to thrive for various reasons, but if nothing else, this meat, this beautiful hunk of cow, this will give the place a fighting chance.
I'd recruited three friends to join me at La Casa del Caballo Fine Mexican Steak House in order to justify ordering the restaurant's magnum opus, a $170 four-pound rib eye cap called tapa de lomo. I told the people who joined me that it was meant to feed six, and since we were four, we'd have to eat a little extra. Five minutes into our annihilation of the steak, I realized that they had taken my joke as a challenge.
"Here, use my head for scale," said one of them as I pulled out my phone to take a picture. The head was a good idea. There was a fork stuck in the steak, but it was a large fork and didn't accurately represent the size of the unruly mass of meat on our table. A human head, though? That would do quite nicely.
At nearly a foot and a half long, the gargantuan steak took up a significant part of our large table, and conversation ceased for a good ten minutes while my party first marveled at and then devoured the smoky, juicy helluva hunk of meat. We ordered it medium rare, and it was still deep pink in the middle, almost bloody and marbled with sweet, buttery fat. The massive steak knife cut through the rib eye with ease, and the smoky meat revealed itself to be tender, never chewy. It was simply and perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and a little love straight from Mexico courtesy of the owner, Saltillo native Carlos Abedrop.
Not even 20 minutes into our feast, the massive steak was nearly gone. The boys eyed each other menacingly, then softened.
"You take it," said one.
"No, you take it," said the other. "I've already had..." he paused a moment to calculate, "...probably about a pound and a half."
Even as a party of four, we were able to eat every last bite of that cut made for six. I went home that night to a fitful sleep full of terrible, wonderful meat sweats. And it was so, so worth it.
Because La Casa del Caballo is not merely a steakhouse but a Mexican steakhouse, the menu contains brisket and enchiladas, lamb steaks and queso fundido, shrimp cocktail and coctel de camarón. It's not at all an unusual combination, especially when you consider that the inspiration comes from Saltillo in the state of Coahuila, where the cuisine tends toward a marriage of cowboy culture, Tex-Mex and classic Mexican offerings.
Coahuila is bordered by Texas to the north, Chihuahua and Durango to the west, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí to the south and Nuevo León to the east. Its cuisine reflects this diversity of influences, but it's best known for its meat. Lots and lots of meat.
Abedrop, whose childhood nickname was "Caballo," started cooking steak over a large barbecue pit in his backyard because he enjoyed the process and the social event of preparing food outside for his friends and family. His weekly steak dinners became so popular that they outgrew Abedrop's sizable backyard, and he was forced to consider something that for years he'd brushed aside when his friends suggested it. He should open his own restaurant.
La Casa del Caballo debuted in 2003 in a converted ranch house in Saltillo. It quickly became known for serving family-size hunks of choice meat on giant wooden platters and saw numerous businesspeople from Houston at its tables. Ten years after turning his hobby into a career, Abedrop has expanded to a second location, in Montrose, and though some Houstonians may balk at the idea of another steakhouse and more Mexican food, the business model seems to be working.
It's clear upon entering the building that Abedrop and his general manager, Roger P. de la Fuente III (what a name!), formerly of Capital Grille and Las Alamedas Restaurant, have gone all out to make the place their own. Though it's a Mexican steakhouse, the interior has a distinctly Spanish colonial feel. It's all deep red walls and sleek black chairs with wrought-iron accents and a clear horse motif. Slices of red stained glass lick their way up the staircase, mimicking the flames that surge up through the grill as juice drips off heavenly hunks of meat. The lighting is low and romantic, but curved booths give the dining area a comfortable, homey feel. That said, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone if a matador, decked out in full regalia, sauntered in and sat gracefully at the bar to celebrate a successful fight.
In spite of the upscale atmosphere and overly attentive waitstaff (I can place my napkin in my lap on my own, but thanks for trying), the restaurant doesn't give off an air of stuffy exclusivity. On one of my dining excursions, I sat next to a Spanish-speaking couple who insisted on sitting nearly on top of each other in a booth and using their fingers to lovingly feed each other bits of steak. On another occasion, a toddler wandered up to my table asking if we'd seen his mother, who had apparently excused herself to go to the restroom without him. It's an eclectic crowd, and the food represents that inclusive attitude.
Queso fundido, hardly a steakhouse staple, has its roots in El Paso and northern Mexican cuisine, but there it is on the menu next to the classic shrimp cocktail. Quesadillas and enchiladas filled with Chihuahua cheese connect the menu to Saltillo's neighbor to the west, while the steak and lobster (surf and turf to those of you who only eat steak at Outback) represents a decidedly American sense of decadence. For those who don't eat red meat, there's plenty of chicken with chipotle or salsa borracha; various riffs on seafood; and even some beautifully crafted and quite tasty salads. If it's at all possible, I suggest you save room for dessert, too.
The chopped salad has a distinctively south-of-the-border flair with grilled corn and queso fresco, but the dried cranberries and candied pecans add a nice, sweet crunch. Every time I chomped on one of those salty-sweet pecans made in-house by Abedrop's wife, Vanessa, I glanced at the salad bowl to make sure I could give myself a second, then a third serving. The wedge salad is a masterpiece thanks to the winning combo of blue cheese and jalapeño bacon. If there's one thing I love more than jalapeños, it's bacon. Top that with buttermilk-avocado dressing, and you've got yourself one heck of a (almost healthy) meal.
The huachinango red snapper, probably the best of the seafood offerings, also provides a Latin twist with spicy garlic sauce, Mexican rice, and perfectly grilled colossal shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat. After having an almost spiritual moment with the crabmeat (Thank you, God, for crustaceans!), I decided I must go back and try the steak-and-lobster combo. This meal hasn't happened yet, but I'm already dreaming about it.
La Casa del Caballo has a number of Mexican-inspired sweets that pair well with the rest of the menu and are very well executed. A weak spot is the somewhat dry torta de chocolate, but the espresso flan and Caribbean dark rum cake are sinfully good. They caused my party and me to slouch down in our chairs a little and allow our bellies to distend to make room for just a few more bites. All desserts are served with a side of arroz con leche, which is deliciously refreshing in its simplicity.
Though the meat and seafood (and flan) are the stuff of glorious dreams, my friends and I all agreed on one thing: We'd seen Tex-Mex done better. It seemed as if every Tex-Mex-inspired dish was served in a pool of grease, which I welcome as an old friend when I sit down to a plate of average Tex-Mex food with pasty flour tortillas and a bowl of complimentary chips in front of me, but the golden puddles of fat are less appealing at a steakhouse hybrid that does everything else so well.
Skip the queso, the cortadillos tacos and even the rather tasty enchiladas and go straight for the meat. Even if you don't generally eat red meat. Just try it. Ease yourself in with the beef carpaccio, cut paper thin and topped with a slice of juicy red jalapeño and a shaved curl of aged parmesan. These flavors mingle in a broth similar to ponzu sauce but possessing more...more...je ne sais quoi. No, really, I don't know. I asked what was in it, but they wouldn't tell me. I think there's sherry vinegar. And orange juice. Red wine? It's hard to say, but it really doesn't matter, because I ended up dipping the extra corn tortillas in the magic juice to sop up every last drop.
All steaks are served with slices of zucchini, squash and bell pepper that possess a hearty, smoky flavor usually reserved for barbecued meat. They have clearly been cooked on the same mesquite grill as the steak so as to take on some of its delightful char. The meat also comes with chunks of roasted, skin-on potato, lightly salted, crisp and barely golden brown on the outside but soft on the inside. The accompanying pinto beans stewed with lard are so creamy that they practically melt in one's mouth. On top of all that, the rib eye cap is served with a hearty helping of asparagus, also grilled over mesquite wood until just tender enough to be chewed but not wilt.
As if this weren't enough food, La Casa del Caballo serves four miniature cups of house-made salsa with any dish you order. I got the impression that they change from time to time, but when I dined, I was treated to a hot yet emphatically flavorful habanero papaya puree; diced red onions mixed with orange juice, lime and a little heat; ranchera salsa; and a bright green avocado and cilantro cream that was sadly just a tad too light on the cilantro. Try them all on every item you order, because each one brings out different flavors and new dimensions of the meat and vegetables.
Regardless of what cut you order or which salsa you douse it in (if any), the red meat really is the star of the show at La Casa del Caballo. All cuts are tender and juicy and smoky and fall apart under the weight of a fork. If you're feeling extra hungry (and have some money burning a hole in your pocket), please do me a favor and order that four-pound rib eye cap medium rare. Take it home and eat it all week if you must, but I doubt it will take you that long.
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