Mex on the Beach
The Peruvian-style ceviche at Yelapa Playa Mexicana had mahi-mahi, squid and shrimp pieces tossed with "local citrus" fruit and avocados in a mélange seasoned with pasilla chiles and hibiscus. It's one of the most ingenious ceviches I've ever had, if a little on the sweet side, and one of three ceviche variations on the platos crudos section of Yelapa's menu. All three come in your choice of raw, Peruvian-style or fully cooked "Texas-style" versions.
Yelapa shares the restaurant complex with Blue Fish and Hobbit Hole on Richmond. The low-slung building includes an airy veranda and a dark interior dining room that had an annoyingly smoky fireplace roaring on a recent winter evening. I much prefer the laid-back porch seating area, which is furnished with Mexican equipale furniture and decorated with bright-colored photos of tropical scenes. It's the perfect atmosphere for the tropical cocktails and ceviche at which the restaurant excels.
The other two ceviches on the menu were made with apples — one with Fuji apple and chorizo, and the other with apple and coconut. I think of ceviche as raw fish cooked in acidic citrus juice. But many modern chefs, like Nobu Matsuhisa, have reinterpreted South American ceviche, so all's fair these days — including combining it with Japanese sushi.
If you have eaten ceviche at Peruvian restaurants like Lemon Tree, you know that the authentic version can be extremely tart, a problem the version at Yelapa certainly didn't have. I ordered it as a lunch entrée and found myself wanting something to eat it with. There was no bread, tortillas, chips or any other starch on the table. So I paid two dollars for a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa. The chips were thick and cold. The salsa tasted like spaghetti sauce. So what sort of Mexican restaurant serves cutting-edge ceviche but can't get chips and salsa right?
Owner Chuck Bulnes, formerly of Joyce's Oyster Resort, was thinking of a different kind of restaurant when he came up with the name Yelapa. "I didn't want to compete with Pappasito's or Maria Selma's or any of the other Tex-Mex or Mexican places on Richmond. I envisioned a Mexican seafood restaurant," Bulnes told me. The name is borrowed from a fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico just south of Puerto Vallarta where Bulnes used to eat grilled fish on the beach. Bulnes hired chef L.J Wiley, who broadened the concept. "We are still evolving," Bulnes said.
Wiley, 32, was raised in Houston and got a degree in philosophy from Texas State in San Marcos. When he decided he wanted to cook for a living, he moved to New York, where he worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market restaurant. He also worked in China for a while, opening upscale restaurants with one of Vongerichten's associates. His last cooking job was at Cullen's restaurant.
I would call Wiley's cooking at Yelapa a clever, postmodern spin on tropical Latino cuisine with an Asian twist using local ingredients. What makes it real is that this wild mix of influences is native to Houston. Like Reef and Catalan, Yelapa is drawing on indigenous ethnic ingredients and flavors. And some of the food he is turning out is sensational.
Braised lamb shoulder meat piled on two freshly fried, thick masa sopes came with an array of condiments that included finely cut watermelon radish sticks and a Mexican escabeche of carrots, cabbage and onions made in the style of Korean kimchee. The combination of the funky Mexican kimchee, crunchy radish and spicy tender lamb was absolutely brilliant.
On a dinner visit, I had fresh amberjack perfectly grilled and topped with mango salsa. The aggressive flavor of the amberjack contrasted stunningly with a pool of taro risotto garnished with a ring of cinnamon oil. It reminded me of the Hawaiian tradition of eating spicy tuna poke with bland poi.
Wiley's crab fritters served with avocado and hearts of palm conjured up remembrances of Caribbean conch fritters and made me wonder why we don't make seafood fritters around here more often. The juice drinks were also fabulous. A Texas red grapefruit refresco was spiked with basil, while a blueberry, coconut and lime soda combination was dark purple and decorated with a lime wheel.
Yelapa's chocolate-chipotle shot dessert is a simple but ancient mix of chocolate and chile peppers that reminded me of the movie Chocolat, in which the beautiful chocolate-shop proprietress sends the townspeople into frenzies of passion with chocolate confections that are seasoned with chile peppers.
One night after watching the movie at home, I made myself a mug of Abuelito Mexican chocolate that I spiked with a huge dose of New Mexican red chile powder. But even my homemade concoction wasn't as hot as Yelapa's. I felt the wonderful burn for half an hour.
When I wrote about Yelapa's innovative ceviche on our blog, I guessed that the "local citrus" was mostly grapefruit and suggested the kitchen add some Meyer lemon or something tart. I also complained that charging for chips in Texas is like charging for bread and butter in France.
Wiley replied with this comment: "Glad you enjoyed the ceviches, Rob! Thanks for the input and we'll certainly work towards pleasing people who come in looking for 'tex-mex.' For the record...no grapefruit in there but... Cara Cara oranges, Ujukitsu, Pommelo, Meiwa Kumquats (cut in rings), Two Basils, Roasted Tamarind Oil, Avocado, a Black Sesame-Pasilla Paste and Hibiscus Flakes...we'll put meyer lemons on the list, great idea!"
I wish the menu or the waiter or somebody had clued me in to what kind of citrus I was eating at the time. Ujukitsu is a sweet Japanese lemon; Cara Cara oranges are a navel orange cultivar; Meiwa kumquats are a sweet kumquat variety; pomelo is an ancestor of grapefruit. When a chef goes to the trouble of procuring such exotic ingredients, you want to take notice.
And that's where Yelapa is missing the proverbial boat. At ten dollars, the "local citrus" ceviche wasn't cheap. But if these exotic fruits were all grown locally, then I want to know more. Who is cultivating Ujukitsu in Houston? Where can I buy some? How do you make roasted tamarind oil? Or do you buy it? The waiters at Yelapa aren't prepared for this kind of dialogue.
On my dinner visit, I ordered the prickly pear gazpacho. I expected a dash of purple prickly pear fruit puree in some kind of cold soup. But the soup I got was green.
"Is this prickly pear soup made with nopalitos?" I asked the Nicaraguan waiter. He had no idea what I was talking about. "The prickly pear gazpacho — is it made with the fruit or the cactus paddles?" I repeated the question in Spanish. The waiter changed the subject and launched into a soliloquy on the chef's résumé.
When a manager came by the table some time later, I asked him about the green prickly pear soup. "That's the cucumber gazpacho," he said, as if I were a small child.
"But I ordered the prickly pear gazpacho,"I said.
"The cucumber is much better than the prickly pear," he told me. Finally, the manager brought me a cup of prickly pear soup so I could try it. The soup was purple. My dining companion said it tasted like a melted grape popsicle. The manager was right — the cucumber soup was better. But if the chef is frustrated because nobody appreciates his exotic ingredients, he needs to understand what a pain in the ass it is to get a question answered by his waitstaff.
On a lunch visit, I ordered the Mexican shrimp and grits. Three grilled shrimp were arrayed over a brown soup. "Is this the grits?" I asked the waiter.
"No — it's beans," he said. Stirring the bowl, I found some grains that looked like coarse ground grits floating in it. They proved to be undercooked and crunchy, whatever they were. There was some other stuff in there too, but the Mexican waiter had no clue what it was.
I didn't want to get the ingredients wrong again, so I called Wiley and asked him what was in the dish. He said something about grits and pozole. When I told him the waiter said it was beans, Wiley said, "I've got a lot of things going on. I wasn't there for lunch that day. I don't know what was in the dish." That makes two of us. Whatever it was, the stuff didn't taste very good. And with only three shrimp, it cost me $16.
There is no doubt that Yelapa is serving some of the most interesting food in town. But cutting-edge dishes with unusual ingredients require detailed explanations.
Yelapa's guayabera-clad waiters seem like great guys, and they would be perfect for the laid-back Mexican seafood joint that Chuck Bulnes first envisioned. But when Bulnes hired an innovative young chef trained in the Vongerichten style, he created a frustrating mismatch between an easy-going front of the house and an ambitious kitchen that is trying to raise our consciousness with expensive cutting-edge cuisine.
Now somebody has to decide whatYelapa is.
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