The Newest Churrascos Is a Satisfying Chip Off the Cordúa Block
The classic steak that made Churrascos a household name in Houston is as impressive as ever. View more photos in our slideshow, "Churrascos: A Closer Look."
There weren't any steaks like this in Houston 30 years ago. There were trompo and fajitas and filet mignon, but there were no churrasco steaks. Not until the oil business took a hit and a Nicaragua-born man in the shipping industry decided to turn his hobby into a career.
In 1988, Michael Cordúa took a gamble and opened a small Latin American restaurant in the Bayou City. There were hoops to jump through for the fledgling restaurateur, a man with a business background and some good recipes but little idea of what it took to run a successful restaurant. Costs were higher than he had anticipated, hours were longer, and diners were initially confused by this Latin cuisine that wasn't quite Mexican.
"When you have to go through the initial inspections and the restaurant is just a hole in the wall, you get worried," Cordúa said in an interview. "And your initial assessment for how much the restaurant would cost is way too low, and you end up spending three times that much. And then the first guest walks out because they were expecting Mexican food, not Nicaraguan. It was a nightmare, really."
Flash-forward to the present, and Cordúa's nightmares are largely gone. He and his son, David, now own a veritable Houston empire that comprises eight restaurants and a hugely successful catering company. In 2013, the Cordúas released a cookbook, Cordúa: Foods of the Americas, and opened their fourth location of Churrascos, this one at the new Gateway Memorial City Development. Twenty-six years ago, Cordúa couldn't have imagined the success he would eventually achieve.
And it's largely thanks to that steak, a center-cut, charcoal-grilled slab of beef tenderloin lightly peppered and drizzled with a vibrant green chimichurri sauce. It's the churrasco that first won Cordúa accolades from Esquire and Food & Wine and later a James Beard Award nomination. And it's the churrasco — along with a few new dishes that show the evolution of Churrascos restaurants from Nicaraguan cuisine to Houstonian/Nicaraguan cuisine — that's made the latest branch of Cordúa's signature spot as successful as the first.
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Churrascos: A Closer Look."
Immediately upon walking into the new Churrascos, you can tell it's a Cordúa restaurant. It has the same almost-over-the-top modern design elements seen at Américas River Oaks, which was designed by Chicago architect Jordan Mozer. Curvy red cones reminiscent of giant plastic horns flank the entrance, and rustic woodwork accented by bright scarlet chairs ties together structural and aesthetic elements. The bar is illuminated in shafts of red and yellow light, some of which emanates from blown-glass spirals in organic shapes resembling small flames jutting out of the counter.
It's a sight, to be sure — simultaneously imposing and welcoming, with warm hues evocative of the sunny shores and vibrant culture of Nicaragua. As soon as you walk through the doors, the savory smells of steak and grilled seafood invade your nostrils, stirring up hunger before you've even seen a menu. And if it's been awhile since you've dined at a Churrascos, you might be surprised by the menu, which received a revamp at every location when the new restaurant opened in the fourth quarter of 2013.
David Cordúa had a large hand in the new menu, which he explained to me over a tasting when it debuted. He brought out plate after plate of seafood-heavy dishes and innovative twists on traditional Nicaraguan food that show the influence Houston has had on his family. David calls a ceviche verde a play on green juice, something he's seen popping up at local restaurants lately as diners move toward healthier eating. Blue tilapia is marinated in agua de chile, then mixed with tart green apples and spicy red onions before being topped with a sprinkle of crunchy baked kale. It's not a classic ceviche recipe handed down from his family; rather, it's a reinvention, a nod to the restaurants' evolution. And I'm pleased to report it was just as good when I ordered it for dinner one evening as it was when David presented it to me himself.
Even better, though, is a lobster campechana, originally a Mexican dish made with shrimp that father and son redeveloped with sweet lobster meat, a more refined option. It's truly indicative of the melting pot that is Houston: Peruvian leche de tigre coats the combination of lobster claw meat, avocado, yellow onion, Roma tomato and thin slices of jalapeño. Thai Sriracha sauce is mixed with garlic for a slight southeast Asian influence, and the dish is finished with impossibly crunchy chicharrones that somehow manage to stay crisp even when covered in sauce.
Another new favorite is named simply "whole fried fish." Sadly, this dish is not in the cookbook. Maybe that's for the best, because it's highly unlikely I would be able to achieve the same slightly sweet crust and flaky, moist interior if I were to cook it in my kitchen. Best to leave it to the experts to butterfly the whole fish (which varies depending on what is fresh at the market) and batter it in a mixture of cornmeal, cocoa and cinnamon that David explains is an homage to pinolillo, a traditional Nicaraguan drink he remembers from family trips there. The beverage is so integral to Nicaraguan culture that natives sometimes refer to themselves as "Pinoleros" in reference to it.
By battering and frying a whole fish in the mixture, the Cordúas acknowledge and respect their heritage while admitting that there's always room for change and improvement. I've never had pinolillo myself, but I can't imagine a better application of the requisite ingredients than coating a tender white branzino that, once fried, David proudly calls "fish candy."
To try the greatest variety of Churrascos dishes at once, come for brunch, a huge undertaking, during which you can eat as much meat, as much ceviche, as much tres leches and as many plantain chips as you desire. The options are staggering, and none of them seem to suffer from being produced on a large scale and left out in chafing dishes — not even the salmon churrasco, which remained incredibly buttery, flavorful and flaky by the time I got to it near the end of brunch.
Tres leches pancakes, a brunch special recommended by the server, were a bit on the overly sweet side, but one more dip into the sliced-to-order beef and ensalada Churrascos with marinated hearts of palm, smoked cotija cheese and heavenly cilantro dressing and I forgot about sweets altogether. And when a chef can convince me, possessor of perhaps the biggest sweet tooth in town, to abandon dessert in favor of meat, meat, chimichurri and more meat, well, I'd call him a success.
Of course, meat cooked over an extremely hot charcoal grill is Churrascos's signature dish, and even when it's coming out of the kitchen at a frenetic pace — the churrasco steak often makes up half the tickets in the kitchen on any given night — the restaurant continues to put out steaks possessing the same quality that made it famous to begin with. My churrasco selection was prepared a perfect medium rare, and it was trimmed beautifully; there was not an ounce of gristle or fat on the eight-ounce tenderloin. It's served with potatoes, grilled vegetables and a brown-butter béarnaise sauce that I felt could have been drizzled next to the steak much more liberally, as could have the chimichurri. In fact, I feel that most dishes at Churrascos should be served with a side of that addictive green sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil, or the creamy cilantro, jalapeño, vinegar and mayonnaise sauce that accompanies several items.
The parrillada mixta platter could have benefited from some extra sauces. Though every item on it — grilled beef filet, pork loin, glazed ribs, chicken breast, jumbo shrimp and Spanish chorizo — was ideally cooked, most of the proteins seemed underseasoned, and I found myself wishing the server hadn't taken away our ramekins of chimichurri and roasted tomato sauce that came with the plantain chips.
Still, it can be difficult, even in a meat-centric city such as Houston, to get meat that's cooked just right, let alone meat from four different species on the same plate. In that respect, Churrascos never disappoints.
In the midst of my several trips to Churrascos for this review, a friend of mine took ill and needed food brought to him at home. I ordered some calamari, crunchier and more tender than any I've had in an Italian restaurant; the lomo latino, a grilled beef filet with a hint of soy sauce in the marinade and a spicy black bean sauce on the side; and beef empanadas in flaky, buttery crusts that withstood even the long drive to my friend's house. I have never seen anyone recover from an illness with such haste. He dug into the food ravenously, proclaiming that he hadn't had gallo pinto of this caliber since he last visited his family in Costa Rica.
David Cordúa, it seems, feels the same way about the traditional dish of rice and beans flavored with onions, garlic and a hint of habanero. In Cordúa: Foods of the Americas, he writes, "Of all the dishes close to my heart, gallo pinto has a special place. It's the one dish my parents would ship to me and my sisters during college."
There's indeed something extremely comforting about hearty Latin American cuisine, even when you're eating it within the confines of the startlingly modern decor of the new Churrascos on the second floor of a chic development overlooking Interstate 10. Even if you've never met David and witnessed his enthusiasm for the dishes he creates or heard his father's warm, velvety voice, it's easy to imagine a father and son working together, devising dishes that remind them of a far-away but familiar land. And even if you've never been to Nicaragua, I believe you can appreciate the unfussy food from a former shipping agent who turned a hobby into a successful career but still refuses to accept the title of "chef."
"Food is the medium I use to show you who I am," Michael writes in the cookbook. "I am simply an explorer and a cook."
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