If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Michael Cordua must be feeling downright eulogized these days. His Nicaraguan home-style cuisine, recently dubbed "nuevo Latino" by food flacks, nourishes a reported 40,000 diners every month at his Churrasco's and Americas eateries, while his signature chimichurri sauce now threatens to engulf Houston restaurant menus in a green sea of olive oil, parsley and garlic. So it's no surprise that Cordua wannabes have hatched all over town. After all, the humblest home cook can grab a Churrasco's brand chimichurri six-pack from the shelves at Randalls, and aspiring chefs can sniff out the secret of his jelly-roll-wrapped marinated tenderloin on the Internet.
The most promising new Churrasco's challenger is Rio de Janeiro, which opened in March. Two brash young brothers charmed the then-tenant of the two-story house at 1512 West Alabama out of an unexpired lease, lured former Churrasco's chef Rodrigo Juarez to their upstart enterprise and have unabashedly made "Churrasco Argentina Style" beef tenderloin the centerpiece of their menu.
It's impossible to converse with Rio's owners or staff without hearing about Cordua, just as it's impossible to dine at Rio without being reminded of Churrasco's. Partners Allen Rosas, 24, and his brother Nathan, 21, both breathlessly invoke Cordua's name like some patron saint of the stove. Their enthusiasm for their hero's food and presentation is so heartfelt, their admiration so unadulterated by envy, that it seems almost churlish to make the comparisons they inevitably invite. They are so young, perhaps their cuisine should be called "nino Latino".
The Rosas boys' enterprise has already attracted the attention of the master himself, or at least that of his minions. A waitress whispered that Cordua's right-hand man had made a recent appearance at lunchtime. She nervously confided that he ordered every single item on the menu -- to go. Allen laughed when asked about this. "I truly admire Cordua for what he's done," he said, "and for educating Houston palates to the kind of food I want to serve. It's not a competition, there's plenty of room for everybody."
Rio's location has been home to many a doomed culinary enterprise, but that doesn't seem to bother the Rosas brothers. "We're completely different from all the rest," Allen exclaims. And besides, he adds with the confidence of youth, "if it doesn't work here, I'll find somewhere else."
For the moment, though, the current setting seems to be doing fine. The house harbors a calm, cool interior with pale peach walls, hardwood floors, fresh linen tablecloths and lightly twirling ceiling fans. Three downstairs dining areas are gently lit with candles, and overhead track lights spotlight a handful of framed prints. The greenery-fringed brick patio commands a view of that Montrose rarity, off-street parking; in clement weather, the patio's a pleasant place to while away an afternoon. Although the iron fence is currently festooned with homemade "Restaurant Open" signs that look like spray-painted bed sheets, the brothers eagerly await the delivery of a nine-foot neon design that will blaze as brightly as their ambition.
Familiarity lurks in Rio's list of appetizers, but each item is well-handled. The ceviche is flawless. It combines firm snapper and pink shrimp in a paragon of restraint, relying on fresh lime juice, forgoing unnecessary olive oil. The tidy little beef empanaditas are delightfully flaky pastry pockets stuffed with seasoned ground meat, nuts and raisins. A good way to get the best of both appetizers, plus some lightly browned and crunchy flautas, is the botana sampler. Another excellent empanada rendition is the empanadas de platano maduro, which are made with sweet plantain dough wrapped around soft queso fresco, then dunked in a guava sauce that has a Dijon tang.
The waitstaff seems intent on discouraging gringos from ordering the arepas armadas, which is puzzling, as they're one of the best items on the botana roster. Arepas, the Native American-influenced national bread of Venezuela, are made of a white cornmeal dough patted into circlets and fried on a griddle; they're then topped with beef or chicken to become armadas. The dish appears on the lunch menu as an entree, and it's just the thing for a light warm-weather meal.
And yes, the Rosas's version of beef tenderloin basted with chimichurri -- the churrasco Argentina style -- is as butter-tender and toothsome as its model. (It is no less expensive, though, at $17.95 for the six-ounce serving, or $21.95 for eight ounces.) Equally satisfying and even richer is the carne asada de churrasco, which is served swimming in a sour cream sauce. Sad to say, the cerdo de limonado fared less well in Rio's translation. Although the glossy brown limonado sauce, brightened with lemon pepper and scallions, was smooth and delicious, an overcooked and stringy piece of pork lurked beneath it. Billed as tenderloin, it was more like a loin roast, and was studded with clumps of hidden fat.
Each meat entree is presented on the de rigeur parsley-dusted plate attended by the mandatory grilled vegetables, maduros and yucca, but in case a vegetarian should stumble into this bastion of beef, Rio offers the Azteca alternative: grilled vegetables wrapped in corn tortillas, topped with a roasted corn sauce and served with a chunky, unadulterated guacamole. Too often a vegetarian entry on a red-meat dominated menu is just a token sop to the abstemious; here, it's a heartily textured and satisfying entree that even a carnivore could learn to love.
It's too bad that on the last occasion I dined at Rio a raucous party of wedding celebrants had gobbled up all the red snapper, so the guachinango negro (blackened snapper with grilled jalapeno sauce) and the pargo borracho (snapper and crabmeat with tequila lemon butter sauce) weren't available. Ditto the lobster. As Rio is frequently host to large private parties, one hopes the kitchen will learn, with time, to master its supply-and-demand curve a little better.
Rio's fully stocked bar offers the entertainment of watching the waiters play bartender with sometimes mixed results. Our request for a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil, was met with a blank stare. The only nod to South American color is a lonely bottle of Cusquena, a pretty good Peruvian beer that's comparable to a Bohemia. Once we had explained to our lunchtime server what a mimosa is, he was happy to throw one together for us. A better bet is the citrusy margarita made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and a splash of sweet orange juice.
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Our servers insisted we try the tres leches for dessert, invoking Michael Cordua's name once more. And, like Churrasco's tres leches, Rio's was perfection. The cake was just granular enough -- firm but sufficiently porous to soak up the sweetened evaporated and condensed milks -- to measure up to its competition. As we'd already eaten so much, my companions and I chickenheartedly settled for one plate and four forks. Even so, we were barely able to finish the towering, thickly-frosted quarters.
Imitation is easy. The question is, can an imitation be more than a pale reflection of its model? Or more directly, can the Rosas brothers escape Michael Cordua's long shadow and develop some individuality? There are encouraging signs that Rio can expand beyond the Churrasco's template. The Rosas siblings are busy planning an ambitious menu revision for August; promised additions include paella, sao feijoada (sort of a Brazilian cassoulet of black beans and pork) and, should the sugar cane liquor be available to them, the caipirinha cocktail. Allen dreams of appending more authentic Argentinian meat dishes and pastries, and has dispatched a researcher to find out what's hot on the Pampas. Meanwhile, chef Juarez has a closely-guarded little black book of his own Mexican specialties that he's eager to expand upon. Cordua's nuevo Latino throne is secure for the moment, but given time, experience and a smile or two from the kitchen gods, the resourceful Rosas may find themselves engineering a culinary coup.
Rio de Janeiro, 1512 West Alabama, 524-1406.
Rio de Janeiro: botana sampler, $9.95; empanadas de platano maduro, $5.95; arepas armadas, $6.95; churrasco Argentina style (eight-ounce) beef tenderloin, $21.95; carne asada de churrasco, $12; cerdo de limonado, $13.95; Azteca, $9.95.