Most Americans wouldn't know chef Aquiles Chávez if they saw him on the street, even with his trademark handlebar mustache and Jack Sparrow-style dreadlocks tucked under a straw hat.
But ask anyone in Latin America about Chávez and they'll immediately grin and say, "El hombre con el bigote!" as they twist the ends of a mock mustache on their own faces. Throughout Latin America, Chávez -- who is the star of two reality shows, with a third in production -- is as famous as Anthony Bourdain.
And he hopes to accomplish the same level of fame here in the United States, starting in Houston with his brand-new restaurant: La Fisheria (4705 Inker), which opens to the public tomorrow, February 11.
It was at La Fisheria that I met Chávez yesterday afternoon, accompanied by his co-owners in the restaurant and a Colombian production crew from the Fox-affiliated station Utilisima. Utilisima is the South American version of channels like HGTV and the Food Network in the U.S., and Chávez's two shows are very similar to No Reservations and various live cooking shows. His third show, currently filming, is called Aquiles in Houston and follows the chef as he and his family have packed their bags and moved to Houston permanently to open La Fisheria.
For the purposes of filming, Chávez and his team had assembled a glut of diners that packed the still-closed restaurant for a mock service. The audience included fans of Chávez's, members of the Latin American business community and an assortment of Latin chefs, including Arturo Boada of Arturo Boada Cuisine, Ruben Ortega from Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's, Roberto Castre from Latin Bites and David Guerrero from Samba Grille.
"What do you think of the name? La Fisheria?" Boada asked me as we ate lunch with boom mikes overhead and cameras in our faces.
"I think it's a bit silly, honestly," I responded. Boada nodded his head in agreement.
"In Houston," he said, "you have to keep a name simple, short." He paused, then added: "Sexy. La Fisheria is not sexy. It sounds...fishy."
But the name is there, for better or worse: It's branded throughout the place in a way that may be off-putting to Texans who aren't familiar with Chávez nor his level of fame throughout the rest of the Americas. Despite this, the restaurant is effortlessly charming and welcoming, splashed with bright hues of citrus and aqua and decorated in a way that reminds one of a beach house in Veracruz.
This is how Chávez and his team intended it: as a monument to not only Veracruz but all of the colorful, casual places in Mexico that evoke feelings of vacations and happier times.
In spite of its casual demeanor, though, Chávez and his team of chefs mean business: This is a chef-driven restaurant, as laid-back as it may seem. The quality of the ingredients and the starkly modern presentation of the dishes suggests that La Fisheria could eventually be one of the best "upscale" Mexican restaurants in town, a point Boada also agreed with. Time (and consistency) will tell, but every one of us came away surprised with how much we loved both the restaurant and the cuisine.
"We liked everything," Ruben Ortega told me after our lunches were over and the cameras were busy filming Boada for an interview segment. In particular, he'd loved the roasted cacao foam used as the base for Chávez's bread pudding dessert with macerated berries, high praise from one of the city's best pastry chefs and an expect in cacao himself.
Roberto Castre, who makes the best Peruvian ceviches in town at Latin Bites, was equally impressed, especially with La Fisheria's own ceviche: a pile of plush red snapper mixed with fat kernels of corn, slices of radish and a dusting of chile powder -- made in-house, of course, like nearly everything else here.
What the kitchen doesn't make themselves, they transport here from Mexico.
"This is coffee straight from El Gran Café de la Parroquia," said Chávez as he delivered cups of espresso to our table, before launching into the tale of how the iconic Veracruz cafe pours its coffee and milk from great heights into the cups like Moroccan tea or Spanish cider.
We even came away impressed with the bar, which makes a striking habanero-infused margarita with just the right amount of bright heat, and stocks a wine list heavy with Mexican wines like Impetu, a blushing blend of Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay grapes from the Guadalupe Valley. The list also has a few Texas wines on it, too, something Chávez was insistent on. Because although his goal with La Fisheria is to bring modern coastal and interior Mexican flavors to Houston, he doesn't have tunnel vision about it.
Chávez seems equally eager to support his new adopted hometown of Houston, as evidenced by Texas beef, wine and cheese on the menu and Twitter updates like a recent outpouring of praise for fellow Mexican chef Hugo Ortega (brother of Ruben), who recently paid La Fisheria a visit: "Emocionados de saludar al Chef Hugo de @hugos_houston," wrote Chávez. "Toda nuestra admiración y respeto por su trabajo en Houston!!"
Even after the cameras of the reality show are turned off, though, Chávez is intent on staying here in Houston. He and his co-owners in the restaurant cited their mounting concerns over the safety of themselves and their families in Mexico as the country continues to experience bloodshed and turmoil over the ongoing wars between rival drug cartels, saying that it was the main reason they'd chosen to pack up and move to the United States. Chávez likes to say that -- as Hernando Cortés allegedly burned his ships upon reaching Veracruz -- he too has burned his boats, and is here to stay.
La Fisheria itself has been two years in the planning, and doesn't intend to be a flash-in-the-pan restaurant riding on the coattails of a reality show. After all, how could it? Chávez's shows don't air in the United States unless you have a fancy cable package that subscribes you to Utilisima.
Toward the end of the day's taping, the Utilisima producers seemed to get a little weary of all the praise we were all heaping on La Fisheria and its food. I mean, what's a reality show without some tension?
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"You can be honest, you know," one production assistant told me. "We want you to act like we're not here, be as critical and honest as possible about the food."
Arturo Boada and I laughed and answered at the same time: "We are!"