Moving Up the Food Chain
I never visited the original Ostioneria Puerto Vallarta on Lawndale, so I never mourned its passing the way some of my friends do. Apparently the original cafe was small and crowded and funky, steamy with good food smells, and made everyone's list of Top 10 "dive" spots in Houston. I didn't get in on the party until after the Ostioneria reopened nearby on Griggs Road, just two blocks east of the vast green lawns of Forest Park Cemetery. So I'm perfectly satisfied with the place as it is now, in a big stand-alone building garishly painted orange and yellow and red.
I love the cheerful dining area, roomy enough for dozens and dozens of tables, its every inch of available wall space covered with framed pictures and polychrome Mexican pottery. I enjoy the clatter and bustle that echoes from the concrete floor and high ceilings and stucco arches, and doubles when a freight train chugs by on the tracks across the road. The room makes me as happy as the smiling waitresses, who chatter merrily with customers in Spanish and a little English, and sing along with the norteño love songs piped through the overhead speakers.
"Oh, no," groaned one of my friends. "They've got 'decor' now." He stared gloomily into the corner of the room dominated by Elvis memorabilia. Never mind that perfect platter of fat, freshly shucked Gulf oysters on the half shell ($6.25/dozen), or the icy cold Corona in the frosted mug at his elbow; he wanted his dive back. I didn't care. I was blissful in my ignorance. Those oysters were served with lime wedges instead of gringo lemons, and the vivid red cocktail sauce was spicy sweet without a trace of horseradish. I was just as pleased with my flat glass tray of fish and shrimp seviche ($6.95/small, $8.75/large). The preparation was blessedly simple -- no tomatoes, just the seafood I crave soaked in Mexican lime juice, topped with thin shavings of velvety ripe avocado and accompanied by packets of salty soda crackers to add a crunch to it.
As far as I'm concerned, this is it, a real ostioneria that reminds me of many, many good places up and down both coasts of Mexico. My only complaint -- a very small quibble, to be sure -- is that this is a "beer only" place; no margaritas to be had, alas.
The menu emphasizes fresh seafood, of course: There are three different seafood cocktails, shrimp or oysters or octopus ($6.95/small, $8.75/large), bathed in sweet tomato sauce spiked with cilantro and piled into tall sundae glasses. For the same price, there's a Campechana version, too; then there's the wondrous "vuelve a la vida" ($9.95), a concoction piled high with shrimp, oysters, octopus and squid. The next time I suffer a hangover, I'm heading straight here for restorative brain food. I swear it works. (Funny how, in food folklore, so many hangover cures do double duty as aphrodisiacs.)
One of our favorite dinner plates at Ostioneria was the huachinango a la Veracruzana ($15.75), a whole red snapper heaped with sautéed chopped tomatoes, green bell peppers, onions, salty green olives and perky little capers. The taste is tangy and irresistible and wonderfully authentic. The pescado Sarandeado ($16.95) also turned out to be red snapper, skillfully split backward and flattened so that the backbone was at the outer edge, then foil-wrapped and grilled over a wood fire. The fish was moist and flaky, basted with a "secret recipe" barbecue sauce, lightly spicy and smoky from the flames. The fish platters were filled out with fluffy rice and a heap of buttery steamed vegetables, carrots and zucchini and yellow squash. These were huge plates of food, well worth the price, but bargain hunters take note: You can order fillet versions of most of the whole snapper dishes for only $9.95, and several of the regular dinner entrées, only slightly downscaled, rotate through the lunch specials list at an astonishing $4.95.
Penny-pinchers will also appreciate the fish tacos for only $2.25 each. The panfried fish fillets were so generous as to require two tortillas for wrapping, nestled in a heap of shredded lettuce, sprigs of fresh cilantro and pico de gallo, and topped with a great blob of sour cream. I can't imagine ordering anything other than corn tortillas for a fish taco, but flour tortillas are also on offer, so suit yourself.
I'm saving the best for last: I went crazy for the cazuela de mariscos ($9.95). This may not be a dish for everyone, and it requires some translation. The menu described it misleadingly as a "seafood plate," but it was not a plate at all. It was a soupy concoction served steaming hot in an earthenware bowl, close kin to a Tex-Mex chili. Rings and tentacles of calamari bobbed around with chunks of fish and bay shrimp in a rich, deep red guajillo broth, thickened with a touch of masa, maybe, and permeated with the strong smoky flavor of chipotle peppers. Sure, there was about a quarter-inch of orangish oil afloat on the surface, all the better to mop up with those corn tortillas. The flavor was earthy and elemental and satisfying, and spicy enough to bead a chili rookie's forehead with sweat.
The perfect antidote to the spicy cazuela was a cool glass of Ostioneria's homemade fruit salad, which you can order with fresh crema ($3.50) or without ($2.95). I recommend the version with cream, of course. The fruits change with the season, but on our last visit we got a huge bowl -- big enough for two or three people -- of cantaloupe, honeydew melon and apples, drenched in cream and topped with raisins, crunchy bits of granola and sunflower seed kernels. Or try the tres leches cake ($3.25), rich with rum-scented cream and slathered with chocolate icing for a total sugar overdose; it'll keep you buzzing for hours.
So maybe I missed the less gentrified edition of Ostioneria Puerto Vallarta. So what? I'm glad to have found this place at all. It may not qualify for the dive list anymore, but it's a valuable addition to the late-night cravings list: The doors are open practically round the clock, from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. on weekdays, and until 4 a.m. on weekends. The next time I'm sleepless and need to "vuelve a la vida," this is where you'll find me, in a bright red booth right under that picture of young Elvis.
Ostioneria Puerto Vallarta, 6827 Griggs Road, (713)926-6344.
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