Something Old, Something New

They're both new. They both traffic in the now-mandatory fish tacos. They both add fashionable grilled vegetables to the south-of-the-border standards so dear to Houstonians' hearts and minds. But otherwise, Cabo and El Palacio seem to exist in parallel universes: Cabo's in the sharp, smartly packaged world of an urbane mid-'90s taqueria; El Palacio's in a dreamy, tentative realm populated by the ghosts of Houston Past.

Both have their charms. Cabo, in particular, is one of those highly useful eateries that seems tailor-made for Houston tastes -- an instant hit that has already begun accumulating its own folklore. (It was the initial meeting ground for Wayne Dolcefino's Very Bad Date, which led to assault charges against Channel 13's star reporter.)

The food is swell, full of big flavors and tropical grace notes. The prices are right, at least before high-tariff liquids run your tab up. And the border-joint feel of this long, high-ceilinged slot is captivating: all metal-flake red and silver, moodily lit, with a diner-style working grill and shiny, stamped-stainless counters made of non-slip industrial flooring. Blue-neon tubing snakes overhead. A patently unreal sailfish arches across the back wall. Onions and limes swing in miniature hammocks. Reggae thumps in the background, interwoven with Traffic and Steely Dan, as knowingly retrograde as the Cuba Libres that are the house drink.

At 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, Cabo is a loud, youthful cocktail party aswirl with revelers working the Greenbriar circuit, from 8.0 to World Bait to Q Cafe. On a weekday noon, it's a schmoozy yup-crowd lunch spot, its high, chromed stools packed with chattering taco-eaters. But I like it best at mid-afternoon or early evening, when I can duck in for a fast snack or a light meal and imagine that the place is all mine.

The tightly edited menu created by Colombia-born Arturo Boada (tropical-fruit entrepreneur and chef at the late La Mer) puts a South and Central American spin on a repertoire that owes more than a nod to Berryhill's, the popular fish-taco-and-tamale hole in the wall. Cabo's fat, fluffy tamales materialize on a dramatic swath of dark banana leaf, set off by an orange puree that packs an emphatic chile afterburn. Prettiest is the grilled vegetable version, vivid with multicolored peppers and corn kernels that pop out against the inky, subtly sweet mishmash of black beans and rice alongside.

There are quesadillas -- aren't there always? -- of a high order, seared to a crackly gold-brown, stuffed with marinated chicken and a piercingly good serrano-garlic mayonnaise that makes the white cheese come alive. Too bad the grilled marinated beef has a drab pot-roasty texture. And what's that bland charred-corn salsa doing in such fast company? Just sitting there.

Cabo's fish tacos can hold their own with Berryhill's finest -- from their double-wrapped white corn tortillas to their lightly battered tempura fish to their rooftop garden, an exuberant spill of shredded iceberg, red cabbage, cilantro and tomato. The dressing has a tang and a chile warmth that goes Berryhill's one better. For the virtuously inclined, there's a grilled-fish version that even Dr. Red Duke could love.

When it comes to shrimp, Cabo cuts its own path: coating the shellfish in a seriously hot, fruity paste and pan-sauteing them (the menu says they're fried, but they're like no fried shrimp you've ever eaten). How good are they? So good I didn't even care that many of the shrimp involved were fraught with iodine, a condition that normally stops me cold. Get them in a taco, or sprawled in a heap across a silvery aluminum plate, with a tissue-wrapped longneck to put out the fire.

Luxurious roasted-corn and poblano chile chowder is friendly stuff in its oversized ceramic cup, rich and gentle and laced with chewy tortilla strips. There are eccentric sandwiches housed on dense, chewy buns that have an almost flattened quality, like pressed Cuban sandwiches; the one filled with charcoaly marinated chicken and dressed with that splendid serrano mayonnaise has a chopped-barbecue-gone-Latin effect. Long, sturdy strips of fried plantain make it even more exotic.

Those in the cocktail mode that Cabo so clearly encourages will find the margaritas most respectable -- high on tequila and triple sec, low on sugar. The vaunted sangria, ladled from big glass jars, seems strangely wan -- but again, it's not too sweet, which is a blessing. The real winner, though, is the subtle banana smoothie: pure and icy instead of creamy and sweet, the kind of thing that could get you through a Houston summer. I hardly even minded that it cost a stiff $3.75.

Cabo has a buzzy aura that makes it seem alive even when it's three-quarters empty. Friendly floor managers greet you with a disconcerting enthusiasm and nudge you through the counter-ordering drill (soon to be augmented by a full-service dining room -- "1952 Cuba," says the owner -- that's under construction next door). From the owner on down, everyone exudes the confident awareness that they're on a roll.  

Over on a midtown stretch of Main Street, behind El Palacio's 1930-vintage red tile and Spanish-style stucco, the mood is more of a brown study. With its low ceilings, thick plastered walls and sculpted wooden beams, the dining room seems adrift on the sea of time; it's one of those womblike, windowless spaces in which Houston used to specialize (remember the old Maxim's?), and it is ineffably comforting. In one corner, a kitschy floor lamp stands with its long shade askew; shiny knobs and curlicues -- embellishments of departed Greek owners -- cavort on the wildly stuccoed surface of a mammoth fireplace. On the jukebox, the Falcons whine "You're So Fine" in timeless falsetto.

Here Louis Vasquez, onetime owner of Primo's Tex-Mex restaurant and Rockefeller's nightclub, has come to roost, having rollercoastered through Houston's boom and bust. Vasquez has brought with him Primo's classic beef fajitas: genuine skirt steak, peeled of its membrane and cartilage by hand, and painted while broiling with a conservative mixture of Worcestershire and soy in a three to one ratio. No nasty teriyaki effect; no pre-sliced strips straight from cryovac envelopes. Just straightforward, pleasantly chewy beef that you can order rare, if you want, to wrap up with good flour tortillas. A few grilled onions; some bright-tasting pico de gallo. Maybe a little warm, tart table salsa.

That's it: your basic Houston fajita fix, aided and abetted by excellent frijoles a la charra that are just hot enough, just bacony enough, mined with big, floppy shards of onion and green pepper. As decent fajitas are scarce, El Palacio's version is inducement to time-travel into the charming, old-fashioned building that once housed Kelley's and later Christie's, a couple of old-line Houston seafood restaurants.

There are other inducements. I happen to like the eerie, slumberous air that pervades the main room, which is frequently underpopulated; and I love its solid, enveloping feel. I'm nuts about Vasquez's idiosyncratic jukebox (the one at Primo's was always prime, too), where a two-buck investment turns into peculiar gold. Glen Miller gives way to Bob and Earl's original "Harlem Shuffle." Guitar Slim announces "I Done Got Over It." The Coasters light into the unjustly obscure "I'm a Hog for You, Baby."

I confess a certain bemusement at Vasquez's schizoid menu, which combines Tex-Mex with the fried Gulf Coast seafood that held sway here for so many years (one of the cooks is a Mexican-American gentleman who dates back to the Kelley's era). I confess even more bemusement -- and a certain alarm -- at the charbroiled shrimp Acapulco, which tasted of excessive salt rather than the advertised garlic and lime juice, and which did not inspire hope for the seafood portion of the menu. Nor did the unexciting grilled-fish tacos, which were just sort of ... there.

But there are some pleasant surprises here. One is the bouyant vegetarian enchiladas in a swaggery tomatillo sauce: light, colorful, bursting with tartness and chile heat. A confetti of chopped, grilled vegetables turns El Palacio's quesadillas into modern creatures, too. And the variegated botana platters are so nicely done that it seems a shame to think of them as mere appetizers; as combination dinners, they surpass most of what's lurking out there on the Tex-Mex market.

Take the nachos, for instance: little, round, hand-assembled numbers with real cheese and picadillo. Or the miniature chicken flautas, very plain and appealing with sour cream and pico de gallo added on; or quesadillas stuffed with yeomanlike chicken fajitas. All very basic, all very good. Even the refried beans and rice that come with many entrees are well above average. If only the ranchero sauce were fresher and brisker, though -- I'm still looking for the huevos rancheros of my dreams. These, swathed in overprocessed tomato puree, aren't them.

It's hard to get a line on just where El Palacio is going. The hours are impossible (dinner ends at 8 p.m.), and they keep changing. Breakfast that once started at 8 a.m. now begins at 11, with the breakfast menu running concurrently with the Tex-Mex/Gulf Coast document. A raffish to-go window has sprouted behind the oyster-reef fencing out front. On Fridays, Vasquez stages live Tejano music fests in the magical, bemuraled "Corsican Room," a genuine local treasure now embellished with worrisome neon beer signs. It's as if in the process of finding his audience, Vasquez is trying everything.

I hope he hits on the right formula, because this richly evocative building deserves a life.

Cabo, 2187 Portsmouth, 527-TACO. El Palacio, 3512 Main Street, 522-5041.  

Cabo: tempura fish taco, $2.95; vegetable tamale, $4.95; roasted corn soup, $3.95; banana smoothie, $3.75.

El Palacio: beef fajitas, $6.95; vegetarian enchiladas, $7.95; botana platters, $4.95 and $7.95.

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