Pure Puerto Rico

Teo and Carmen Gonzalez, the sixtysomething owners of Tex Chick, tell an interesting tale of how they ended up running their tiny, homey restaurant on Fairview.

It begins, as do so many immigrant stories, with the first frightening move to the States. For the Gonzalezes, that came in the 1950s, when they arrived in Miami after leaving their native Puerto Rico. Then, in 1959, the Gonzalezes followed a job west to Houston. Here, Teo began by selling aluminum. But he soon decided that meat, not metal, was in his bones. So he took a position in a Walgreen's cafeteria, where he learned the basic skills necessary to run a food operation. From there, Teo and wife Carmen ventured out on their own, taking over the Big Frank's Hot Dog on Montrose. The Gonzalezes ran Big Frank's for 13 years, but it still wasn't enough. Neither the business -- nor, more important, the food -- was truly theirs.

So, in 1982, they took the final leap and bought their own restaurant. It wasn't much, really, barely more than a shack on the edge of a residential section of Fairview a few blocks from the street's intersection with Montrose. The place, already named Tex Chick, was a going fast-food concern that sold a mixture of burgers, tacos and other Tex-Mex dishes. Being smart in the ways of the food business, the Gonzalezes hung on to the original menu so that they could hang on to their existing clientele as well. But they also started augmenting the burgers and fries with dishes more commonly found on the streets of San Juan: arroz con pollo, mofongo, arroz con gandules, carne frita, tostones.

The schizoid nature of the Gonzalezes' endeavor can still be seen almost a decade and a half later in what remains, to be honest, little more than a shack, albeit a well-maintained one. A sign tacked up above the cooking area announces the items that brought customers in before the Gonzalezes arrived -- hamburgers, chicken fried steaks, onion rings. And every now and again, someone will actually order one of those. But the wiser patrons know to look to the handwritten menu on a chalkboard next to the door. It's there that the food that sets Tex Chick apart from practically every other restaurant in Houston can be found.

Our city is far from lacking when it comes to Latin cuisine. From the ubiquitous Tex-Mex to more authentic Mexican to the nuevo South American of Los Andes, food with a Hispanic flavor isn't hard to find. But as far as I've been able to determine -- and I've looked -- Tex Chick is Houston's sole outpost of Puerto Rican cooking.

It's a style that owes a lot more to Spain than it does to Mexico or Central America. Melted cheese is missing, as are the abundance of chiles and spices common south of the border (though Tex Chick does place a fiery green sauce made from jalapenos on every table). The dishes are lighter, the sauces are more a flavoring than a covering, there's more use of pork and codfish -- and then there's the mofongo.

Mofongo is an appetizer that's frequently not found on the chalkboard menu, but is always available for the asking. Basically, it's fried and mashed plantains, though that pedestrian description does little justice to the dish. Watching its preparation, though, does: Teo Gonzalez -- who does most of the cooking at Tex Chick, leaving the customer relations to Carmen -- pulls out a handful of green, banana-like plantains, slices them into small, coin-sized sections, then dumps them into a French fry basket that's lowered into a vat of hot oil. While the plantains are crisping, he takes a dark wooden mortar and pours into it a mixture of olive oil, spices and crushed garlic. The lightly fried plantains follow, and then Teo uses a pestle to pound everything into a thick mush that, when upturned over a plate, comes out a pale yellow mountain. Placed in the center of a table, it looks like some sort of odd, molded squash casserole. But the taste is a delicate, garlic-filled experience, the nuttiness and slight sweetness of the plantains offset by the oil and an undercurrent of tart spice. It's a curiosity and wonder all at once.

Watching Teo Gonzalez craft this island fast food isn't hard, given the intimate nature of Tex Chick. Big, it's not. In fact, it is without a doubt the smallest restaurant I've ever been inside: four small tables, a cash register, a refrigerator, a drink cooler, a pair of double-burner hot plates (one gas, one electric), an oven, a deep fat fryer, a grill and a pair of posters advertising the beauties of Puerto Rico, all somehow crammed into a space barely larger than that of a comfortable suburban kitchen. The only separation between dining area and cooking area is a counter about the height and width of a breakfast bar. The drink cooler is within easy reach of the tables, meaning you can help yourself to an extra drink if Carmen Gonzalez happens to be busy when your thirst strikes.

Tex Chick seats 14 maximum, and when the place is full, it's a tight fit. Friendships are quickly made as all seats are occupied, strangers or not. And nobody seems to mind that none of the cutlery or plates match.

A Tex Chick meal begins (if you don't order the mofongo) with a plate of lettuce and tomatoes accompanied by a pair of tostones, another plantain dish, this one sliced, then flattened, sometimes with the back of a large kitchen knife, before being fried. The result looks something like a johnnycake, with a crunchy outside shell that gives way to a tender interior on the first bite. To accompany this you might select a drink popular among Caribbean Hispanics called malta. Thick, dark and very sweet, malta has a heavy, rich taste and a smell similar to the malt extract used by homebrewers to brew beer (though one dining companion likened it to drinking melted Sugar Daddies). Another beverage is the champagne soda, which has a similarity to cream soda, though with a slight banana flavor.

For a main course, I ordered the carne frita. Literally translated, that means fried meat, but in reality it's a delicious, hearty beef stew not unlike the Cuban ropa vieja. It had just the right amount of green olives -- any more, and the olives would have overpowered the other flavors. As with many Spanish Caribbean dishes, the base starts with a sofrito made of onions, garlic and bell peppers. Another favored dish is the bacalao, or salted cod chopped up and served in a moist sauce. For those raised on bland white fish, this might be a bit strong, but for those who like fish to actually taste like fish, the bacalao is a feisty find. And as with all the cuisines of the Caribbean, beans and rice are the preferred side dish; a heaping helping of both accompanies each meal.

The only dessert available is a flan, but it's a delicious homemade one, with a texture as smooth as satin and a caramel sauce that doesn't run all over the plate. When I asked the Gonzalezes if they had any arroz con dulce -- a creamy rice pudding made from coconut milk that's a Puerto Rican favorite -- I was told that, sadly, they didn't. But I was also told that if I called a day in advance, they'd be happy to make some for me.

Your own mom couldn't be more accommodating. What the Gonzalezes have created, with their home-style cooking and nudging concern over how much their customers are consuming ("You didn't eat all of your meal," Teo scolded one woman, only to add, "You didn't like it, maybe? Could I make something else for you?"), is the equivalent of a some friendly Puerto Rican neighbors who are happy to have you nose around their kitchen. The Gonzalezes' two person show opens at 9 a.m. and closes down by 6 p.m., but the odd hours do little to prevent a steady stream of Houston's Caribbean Hispanics from making their way in. Portions are generous. All entrees are either $6 or $7. Occasionally, the entrees change, but even if you don't see your favorite listed, if they have the ingredients, they'll be happy to oblige. That's what neighbors are for.

Tex Chick, 712 Fairview, 528-4708.
mofongo, $2.50;
carne frita, $6.50;
bacalao, $7;
malta, $1.


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