Mex, Not Tex

In a town filled with 99-cent taquerias, where enchiladas in their brownish-yellow sauce are king, the concept of upscale Mexican food may seem not just an oxymoron, but unnecessary. With so much good, cheap Mexican food available, why bother with anything more expensive?

Actually, anyone who's eaten at Las Alamedas on the Katy Freeway already knows the answer to that question. But for those who need more convincing, the new La Valerosa should do the trick. The restaurant -- named after Valentina Zuniga, who during the Mexican Revolution stood out for her bravery and was named La Valerosa (The Courageous) -- occupies the space in the ritzy Pavilion center on Post Oak that was formerly occupied by Sfuzzi. The signature look of that restaurant has given way to another signature look; when you walk into La Valerosa you can't help but feel that you're entering a hacienda. The Spanish colonial look of both the exterior and interior is the work of Alex Robles, a Mexican architect now living in Houston. On the left as you enter is a well-stocked bar that would be inviting were it not for the ever-blaring television. The main dining area, though, is eminently more peaceful, its centerpiece a beautiful, soothing terra-cotta fountain.

Whereas many Tex-Mex restaurants have an almost gaudy interior, the interior of La Valerosa is subdued, with lots of beige, sand and rust tones. Mariachi music gives way to strolling guitarists at night, while bare tables yield to white tablecloths and hand-painted crockery. At lunch, the clientele is a mix of businessmen and women; evening brings an interesting mix of the young and the old. On each side of the main room are two smaller, more intimate dining areas. One is a covered veranda, illuminated during the day by natural light; on the opposite side is the smoking section, where a series of alcoves cover a wall.

Owner Jorge Sneider and his son Alex have given much thought to the interior decor, especially the lighting. In addition to traditional Mexican wooden and glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, subtly placed ceiling spotlights illuminate each table. Additional spots are used on the pottery and works by Mexican artists that adorn the walls. While the saltillo-tiled floor rounds out the hacienda effect, it does little to abate the noise level, which in the evening can rise to a screaming pitch. (Lunch, thankfully, is a quieter affair.) As at many of Houston's newer restaurants, a loud atmosphere seems almost a prerequisite.

The noise level, though, is the only part of the atmosphere that doesn't seem to fit. Food and service most assuredly do fit. It's something that obviously runs in the family. Jorge Sneider honed his culinary skills at Las Alamedas, which he has owned since the early '80s, when he moved to Houston to escape from Mexico's economic crisis; his divorced wife still runs an upscale restaurant called Finesse in Mexico City, where son Alex cut his teeth. After graduating from the UH school of restaurant management, Alex became the manager of Las Alamedas. Last October, when La Valerosa was opened, he took over the helm of his family's newest venture, though still under the watchful eye of his father. Every evening, Alex can be seen schmoozing with the customers, ensuring that everything runs smoothly -- a relatively simple job, as it turns out, since the number of attentive, well-trained and knowledgeable waiters is more than enough to set La Valerosa well above the average in service.

What the Sneiders and their creative chef, Eduardo Padilla, have brought to the Galleria area is an adventurous menu full of complex dishes, a bill of fare with a continental touch that utilizes indigenous ingredients in novel ways. The only surrenders to Tex-Mex standards are the nachos and the fajitas; the rest of the offerings will likely seem foreign to all except those who have dined at Las Alamedas. Some of the dishes made popular there have made it over to the new location. Other dishes, such as the frog leg appetizer or the use of cuitlacoche, show courage for Houston. On La Valerosa's menu, the cuitlacoche is euphemistically referred to as corn mushroom rather than its other names, corn smut and corn fungus. This bulbous fungus, which attacks ears of corn, is considered a plague by U.S. farmers, but was prized by the Aztecs. It's enjoying a gourmet rage at the moment as people come to know its smoky-sweet flavor, a cross between the tastes of corn and mushroom.

The chips and salsa are both served warm, and except for some tomato skins, the salsa is particularly smooth. It's a bit on the mild side, but if it were too hot it would ruin your taste buds for the upcoming and memorable feast.  

There are currently three soup offerings on the menu, each different yet similar. All come in traditional earthenware bowls; they also come with a generously sized soupspoon, a small but appreciated touch that makes them easier to enjoy. The house specialty, the sopa de tortilla, is a warming and comforting chicken broth laden with strips of corn tortillas. A garnish tray consisting of avocado, sour cream, finely diced onion, cilantro and cheese is provided for a little do-it-yourself doctoring. The sopa Tarasca, named after a nomadic tribe from Michoacan that enjoyed the legume, is a wonderfully smooth black bean soup. In fact, it is so velvety smooth that I wonder how they puree the beans. The rich dark purple color contrasts well with the finely grated strips of queso blanco that adorn its top, along with strips of corn tortillas. The cheese melts into a gooey mass, and on occasion hangs down from the spoon as you attempt to elevate it to your mouth, leaving you to ponder what to do next -- slurp it up, put it down and try again or twist it onto the spoon like spaghetti. The caldo loco is a dense chicken broth made with grilled chicken breast. A stir or two quickly brings to the surface some rice that lies on the bottom of the bowl. Another garnish tray comes with this soup, this one bearing avocado, grated cheese and finely grated jalapeno peppers and onions.

The mocajete albanil is an expensive appetizer, but it's also big enough for two diners. Albanil means bricklayer or mason in Spanish, and signifies a modest dish that the common man would eat, assuming the common man had an uncommon imagination. This assemble-it-yourself taco plate requires that you take a homemade corn tortilla and crumble into it some crispy pork rinds, a slice of avocado, a triangle of queso blanco and some green tomatillo sauce. What you end up with is a delicious, if messy, taco with some intriguingly contrasting textures -- the crispiness of the pork rinds, the smoothness of the cheese and the liquidity of the salsa. The four small tortillas that arrive with the dish quickly disappear, and are just as quickly supplemented by others. The tomatillo sauce has a notable heat level, but not one that's too intense.

Another appetizer, the quesadillas del campo, is more like fried half-moon shaped empanadas than quesadillas, but they're typical of the interior of Mexico. One is filled with a mixture including chilorio, or shredded pork, the other with a mixture of cuitlacoche and cheese. The setas y ancas is a particularly adventurous appetizer; its two full-size frog legs sit astride a portobello mushroom served with a tangy cilantro sauce.

Along with the soups, a dish that made the trip across town from Las Alamedas is the huachinango al tamarindo. It's a delectable fillet of red snapper that, because it's cooked and served in a banana leaf, remains exceptionally moist and retains most of the cooking juices, which include a sweet/ tangy tamarind sauce supplemented with thickly sliced mushrooms. The dish has a nice heat intensity and is served with fried sweet plantains and a timbale of green rice mixed with peas and kernels of corn. The pollo Acapulco, also perfected at Las Alamedas, is a wonderfully innovative way to serve a chicken breast. First the breast is beaten thin; then it's rolled and stuffed with poblano peppers and shrimp. Next it's cut into three pieces that sit upright on the plate. A light wine and lobster sauce poured over the top forms the perfect complement, allowing each flavor to stand alone.

The beef sarape is described on the menu as a "super-thin prime tenderloin"; the description is an understatement. It completely covers a 15-inch serving platter and is so thin that it's almost transparent. Marinated in garlic and lime juice and then fried, it's served simply with some fresh guacamole and a small bowl of charro beans. One dish I did not particularly care for at first, but which grew on me, was the ensalada de pollo San Juan. It's a warm pasta salad made from tricolored spiral pasta and chunks of grilled chicken that's served in a pineapple sliced in two. Fresh fruit -- pineapple, watermelon and cantaloupe served warm in a tangy honey-mustard sauce -- is also part of the mix. It's a curiosity. But then again, part of being imaginative is dealing with the curious. And for the most part, La Valerosa doesn't skimp on the imaginative.

Except, that is, when it comes to the dessert tray, which is fairly uninspiring. It contains the now inescapable tiramisu, as well as chocolate cake and a chocolate cheesecake, none of which struck me as particularly Mexican. The best dessert, however, is Mexican, and it's also kept a bit of a secret, since it doesn't appear on the menu or on the dessert tray. Instead, it's mentioned in passing by the waiter. This is the cajeta crepes, a pair of thin crepes cut into neat triangles, dusted on top with powdered sugar, sprinkled with pecans and then set atop a thick, rich, creamy caramel sauce. The taste is as rich as the description.  

Since many of La Valerosa's dishes have already had the kinks worked out of them at Las Alamedas, the Sneiders and their chef are free to continue tinkering with the menu as they help define for Houstonians just what elegant Mexican dining can mean. After all, if the French and Italians can have their haute cuisine, why not our neighbors from south of the border?

La Valerosa, 1800 Post Oak Boulevard, 965-9600.

La Valerosa: sopa de tortilla, $5; sopa Tarasca, $4; mocajete albanil, $8; quesadillas del campo, $7; setas y ancas, $9; huachinango al tamarindo, $15 dinner, $10 lunch; beef sarape, $17; cajeta crepes, $3.75.

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