Floridita's double daiquiri is heavy, the glass frost-rimmed. I gaze into the liquid greenness just below the frapped top, and it reminds me of the sea -- and a novel called Islands in the Stream, in which a character named Thomas Hudson gazes into his frozen daiquiris and thinks of the sea.
Thanks to Ernest "Papa" Hemingway's yen for double daiquiris, the drink was dubbed a Papa Doble at El Floridita in Havana, Cuba, the bar from which Floridita restaurant on Kirby Drive takes its name. It's ironic that the slushy rum drink now thought of as a feminine libation was first popularized by the manliest of American novelists.
"He was drinking another of the frozen daiquiris with no sugar in it," Hemingway wrote in Islands. "The great ones that Constante made had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow "
Constante Ribailagua was a bartender at El Floridita who went on to become the owner. In his illustrious career, Constante served glacial daiquiris to such world-class downhill experts as Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Looking around the bar at Houston's Floridita, with its rattan furniture and mounted swordfish, I'm thinking this is a fine place to drink frozen daiquiris that remind you of the sea. And I wonder, as I study the majestic blue and green dolphinfish mounted above the bar, if Papa ate a lot of mahimahi (the name they've given the dolphin here so tourists don't mistake it for Flipper).
My dining companion interrupts my thoughts. "This place is like Bennigan's through a Hemingway filter," he says, sipping a Barbancourt Three Star mojito through a straw. Pableaux Johnson is a food writer who lives in New Orleans, and although he enjoys a nice stout cocktail, he casts a jaundiced eye toward theme restaurants. This is his opening salvo in a spirited debate about recent restaurant trends.
"But this isn't a national chain," I argue. (The restaurant is owned by the Texas-based Truluck's Restaurant Group.) The waitress who talked me into the Papa Doble was well informed about Hemingway's drinking habits, I point out, and when a customer brought the restaurant the recipe for Papa's favorite daiquiri, they immediately added it to the menu. The average Bennigan's isn't going to take an interest in such heartwarming alcoholic esoterica.
Suddenly two attractive women with Captain Morgan Rum logos positioned strategically on their ample gold lamé-covered bosoms appear at our table and offer us free shots of a new "sipping rum." Top-shelf rums like Mount Gay, St. James and Barbancourt are "sipping rums" in my book, but given the persuasiveness of the salespersons, I'm willing to suspend disbelief on Captain Morgan's for a second. The stuff is cold and presweetened. It tastes like bad rum punch. "You just put the bottle right in the refrigerator," one of the women chirps. Pableaux rolls his eyes.
We are shown to our table by a tropically dressed blond woman who puts a postcard of Florida between our woven-palm place mats. In a well-rehearsed little spiel, the hostess explains that we can address the postcard to whomever we want and the restaurant will mail it for us.
"Chillingly canned patter," Pableaux says when she's out of earshot. Granted, her delivery was a little robotic. But judging by all the postcards stacked up on the hostess stand awaiting the mailman, many of Floridita's customers must think this is a cute idea. Which is, of course, Pableaux's point. The whole place is a cute idea. But is there anything wrong with that?
My first visit to Floridita was in the company of fellow Houston Press food writer Paul Galvani. It was lunchtime, and the place was packed. After walking through the Florida-themed decor, we couldn't help giggling about the people at the next table, an elderly couple wearing matching Hawaiian shirts in an oversize floral print. The woman was also sporting giant pink flower-blossom earrings. Paul made a joke about central casting sending over some typical Floridians.
We shared a bowl of excellent mussels in a vaguely Thai-flavored coconut milk broth with basil. Then I had the steak mojito, a grilled skirt steak served with a tropical salsa and Parmesan mashed potatoes. The fajita meat was slightly blackened with some appealing grill char, and the red onion and mango salsa made a juicy complement. But I don't know what the mashed potatoes were doing there -- I kept looking for tortillas. Paul ordered the special: crunchy battered pork slices served with coconut rice. The pork was tender and the rice had an appealing richness, but it was a pretty forgettable dish overall. For dessert, we split a slice of spectacularly tart key lime pie.
"I love the decor," Paul says. "And the food is okay, but it's not as vibrant or exotic as I would have expected. But this is Houston, not Key West." Paul is a marketing executive in the food industry and an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Houston, so he's understandably less aghast than Pableaux at the application of marketing principles. "I expect to be marketed to," he explains. "I expect people who run restaurants around here to research the food and the theme and to do something that the average consumer in Houston wants."
Still, Paul dislikes restaurants that feel like theme parks. The Rainforest Cafe, for instance, he pronounces childish. But he doesn't have the same objection about Floridita. "It isn't a theme park to me," he says. "It reeks of Florida." And Florida is a lot like a theme park to begin with.
"There's a guy over there drinking something out of a pineapple," says Pableaux, nodding his head in the direction of the offending fruit a few tables away.
So what? I ask weakly. What's wrong with a tropical cocktail being served in a pineapple? But I know where he's coming from: New Orleans. Pableaux has watched the old French Quarter slowly become something of a mainstream amusement park. The House of Blues is his case in point: "You are there to see a blues show, and there are televisions in the bar showing little ads about House of Blues merchandise you can buy in the souvenir shop," he says. "It's efficient, it's well choreographed and it's clean, but it's the Disneyland version of a blues bar."
Pableaux turns his eye toward Floridita's menu. Here's the system, he says. You take a tried and true food-court menu item and put a tropical name in front of it: "Calypso grilled chicken salad, Captiva fried calamari, Martinique onion rings Do they even have onion rings in Martinique? Do they care?"
At least the Gulf red snapper is authentic. The menu says the fish is served "tail on," and a Houston seafood expert once told me that the tail of a real Gulf red snapper will remain flat during cooking, while the tails of cheap imitations will curl. Floridita's red snapper has been neatly cleaned and boned, but the tail is still there -- uncurled. The fish is perfectly cooked and served with an inoffensive chimichurri sauce that tastes a little like pesto. Having been burned by fake red snapper so many times, maybe I'm operating under reduced expectations these days, but I find Floridita's pan-seared, tail-on snapper an incredible bargain at $17.95, if only because it's actually Gulf red snapper.
Pableaux orders the San Juan seafood linguine, which features big shrimp, calamari and mussels tossed with roasted garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes and olive oil -- and has nothing to do with Puerto Rico. By carefully spearing every bite to include a little roasted garlic, you can make this dish taste pretty good, but if you're not vigilant, it's bland.
I wonder if Paul and I have been softened to theme restaurant marketing because we both have children. I once despised hokey restaurants, then I found myself compelled to make the acquaintance of Chuck E. Cheese.
Still, I understand why Pableaux gags on Floridita's cute concept: "It occupies the same commercial niche as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville," he concludes simply. But Pableaux is getting married soon, so perhaps his days as a purist are numbered. After a few years and a few kids, I'm betting he's down here staring into his Papa Dobles and remembering the sea with the rest of us.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.