Some of us have never forgiven Cortés Deli for abandoning our baby pictures when the Mexican eatery ditched its humble space in a strip center on West Alabama. The staff had rewarded us for years of patronage by tacking up pictures of our beloved toddlers -- the only charming touch in an otherwise nondescript interior -- but those photos were left behind during a series of moves that eventually found Cortés setting up shop in the old Feagan Restaurant space on North Shepherd. (Of course, that same staff managed to lug around huge oil paintings of Pancho Villa and his gang during its peripatetic years.)
Today those snubbed parents could view it as divine retribution that Cortés is now a part of Houston's history, having closed its Feagan location just a couple of weeks ago. The telephone has been disconnected, the place is locked up, and even though all the tables are still in place, Pancho's gang is conspicuously absent.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost for Cortés fans, especially those who thought the restaurant had never been the same since the first move. Its chef of eight years, Baudelio Pichardo, also known as Chef Primo, can be found at Tecate Mexican Restaurant, where he relocated five years ago when the eatery opened for business.
When I heard Pichardo was spotted at the free-standing pseudo-adobe building on Ella Boulevard inside the Loop, I was eager to see if he had brought along a few of my favorites things, namely Cortés's guacamole. For my money, the creamy concoction was the best in Houston, simply because it actually tasted like avocado. There were no chunks of tomato and onion (though a slight hint of the latter was still there), just a mass of well-blended avocado, enhanced only by an occasional floating chunk of the green fruit.
I was immediately relieved to discover the guacamole ($2.95 for a small portion) at Tecate is exactly the same as the old Cortés version, except that it's placed on shredded lettuce and called a salad. It is joined by two other Cortés standouts: chips and salsa.
Many people, including Pichardo's brother-in-law, who happens to be a Tecate waiter, shrug off the importance of good chips and salsa, claiming you can get them anywhere. That I should place such emphasis on these mere snacks is a mystery, even to me. Generally I don't like salsa, and I usually limit chip intake to save room for bigger and better things. But Tecate's versions of these staples deserve closer inspection. The crispy chips are so light they sometimes bubble in the middle, while the dark, rich salsa is actually more of a tomato puree, liberally spiked with peppers, but not so liberally that you'll recoil your chip in fear of it.
The salsa is also one heck of a condiment to spoon onto Tecate's breakfast dishes, which are served all day, every day. Although many of these plates are similar to those at Cortés, save its famous Sunday paella, they don't elicit the same nostalgia as the guacamole and chips. The fajita omelette (dubbed Omelette Tejano, $5.25) has the same fluffy eggs and light ranchero sauce, but the meat is actually grilled fajita beef or chicken, which may be the more traditional approach, but it's not the one old Cortés diners remember. I pined for the Cortés version, which has the texture and consistency of your mother's pot roast, stringy and moist and easy to chew.
Tecate's migas have no connection to the past and in fact are a far cry better than those at Cortés (and a steal at $2.95). The Tecate version neglects chorizo in favor of cheese, which is exactly the way I used to special-order mine at Cortés. Without the overwhelming presence of the spicy sausage, these migas are a perfect balance of sweet corn tortilla, peppers and cilantro. Chorizo has its place, however, in other Tecate dishes. The Huevos Tecate Especial ($4.25) -- eggs scrambled with chorizo, potatoes, bacon, onions, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro -- is a winner, as is the salty-tangy queso flameado appetizer ($4.95). Even the simple chorizo-and-egg taco (only $1) is neither too spicy nor too greasy.
The same cannot be said for some of Tecate's lunch and dinner items. I suggest avoiding at all costs anything that is spiked with the "chef's own special chili sauce." Also called vera cruz, this heavy, thick sauce flavored primarily with chili powder mows down everything in its path, leaving the entire plate, and sometimes your clothing, awash in deep red. It ruined the promising Pollo Relleno Tecate ($9.50), a dish of tender sautéed chicken breast, poblano peppers and a sprinkling of cheese; the sauce also wreaked havoc with the plump, juicy shrimp that made up the Camarones Vera Cruz appetizer ($6.50).
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But good things can be found on the regular Tecate menu. The Tex-Mex comfort foods are done well, and they come in huge portions loaded down with cheese, just the way God intended Mexican food to be. I tried the "killer" Chiles Rellenos ($6.95), so named by a diner at the next table. I happily cleaned my plate of the poblano pepper, which was blanketed by Tecate's light, yet thickened, ranchero sauce, which mercifully bears no resemblance to the vera cruz sauce.
The spinach enchiladas (called Popeyes Enchiladas, $5.75) are chock-full of fresh-tasting spinach. And I especially liked the Lomo de Puerco ($6.95), a mound of incredibly tender roast pork tenderloin that comes swimming in ranchero sauce. Sure, parts of it were fatty, but show me a part of the pig that isn't made better with a little fat. Just cut around it and move on.
The loyal clientele that fills Tecate during peak hours has found it to be a good nesting place. And as a neighborhood joint serving comfort food to the locals, it serves its purpose, but I would hesitate to call it a point of destination. With few above-average dishes and some outstanding guacamole, most of Tecate's Tex-Mex fare is just that -- fair. You can probably already find a mediocre Mexican restaurant closer to home.
Tecate Mexican Restaurant, 2615 Ella Boulevard, (713)868-5232.