There are probably a lot of commercial landlords in Houston who wish they were able to turn back the clock to 1988. That was the year when would-be restaurateur Michael Cordúa went from one to the other, seeking a site for his Latin American restaurant concept, Churrascos. The economy was bad, though, and no one with a prime location wanted to take a chance on a first-timer with an odd concept. Houston was still very much a Tex-Mex town, and many had no idea what Latin cuisine was.
Finally, he found a landlord with a space on Bissonnet in the southwest part of town willing to lease to an unknown. The landlord was sitting on top of a lot of empty spaces and had nothing to lose. The first Churrascos soon gained a following and was regarded as a hidden gem. It was not in the choicest of spots. At the time, the area near Westwood Mall was crime-ridden and Cordúa was essentially asking diners to come to a sketchy area of town. “What made us scary made us attractive at the same time,” said Cordúa.
The gambit worked, though. The dishes were carefully designed to feature Latin flavors but from no particular country — “non-denominational,” as Cordúa calls it. The main ingredients and configurations were familiar to Houstonians, but the Latin flavors beckoned to expatriates and well-traveled professionals who knew what they were.
Before long, Cordúa was able to move the restaurant to a new location. At least, that’s what he thought he was going to do. He found the place where the River Oaks Churrascos now stands and secured an SBA loan so he could move from the old one.
“We opened here in April 1990. What I did not know was that the bank was counting on the cash flow from the first restaurant to cover their back on the second location!” Cordúa, without wanting to, had to become a restaurateur over multiple locations with only a year and a half of experience in the industry.
Fortunately, the River Oaks location was an instant success. In the meantime, the area around the original Bissonnet one continued to deteriorate. “That one got more dangerous,” remembered Cordúa. “Purses stolen, cars broken into. When a manager was assaulted one night — they held him at gunpoint to open the safe, and hurt him — we had to leave. We moved that location to Westchase.” There are now five Churrascos, as well as sister restaurants Artista, two Américas and Amazón Grill.
Expansions and remodels aren’t the only changes that have happened over the years. Now, Cordúa's son David is the executive chef over all the company's concepts. Also, remember the old logo that had a spotted cowhide background? It got the point across to Houstonians that there was a focus on serving beef — but only if they didn’t think too hard about it. Cordúa laughs about that early logo now. "The thing is, there are no black and white steers! That type of hide is from a Holstein — a milk cow!" he laughs. “You don’t use those for beef! It just didn't occur to us."
Twenty-five years ago, the River Oaks location was built as a clone of the original Bissonnet location, with the design informed by that old black and white logo. Times have changed, and it was high time for the restaurant to change with them. The Cordúas went back to architect Phil Schawe, who’d done a previous redesign of the restaurant for a “Euro-Latin” look.
It’s been fully remodeled to improve the traffic flow and reflect more modern sensibilities and desires. The bar area has been enlarged and has its own seating section. The tall chairs at the tables are incredibly plushy. Cordúa wanted to ensure that diners could sit in them a long time without becoming uncomfortable.
Perhaps most important, the front door has been moved to the same side where the bar is located. Now, instead of facing the bland parking lot that Churrasscos shares with grocery store Randalls and other retailers, it’s on the Westheimer side.
The configuration of the private dining rooms has changed, opening up the area for the main dining room. It’s now spacious and accented by architectural curves and archways. Hand-carved mahogany frames from Guatemala that were once used for windows in a private dining room have been repurposed into large mirrors and lend their ornate beauty to the room.
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Of course, what diners come for the most is the food, and they’re not likely to be disappointed. The name might be silly, but a platter of “Guacumami” alongside a basket of crunchy plantain chips is a real crowd-pleaser. The rich avocado is enhanced with additions like sundered tomatoes, roasted pumpkin seeds and Parmesan cheese that carry a wealth of “umami,” that mysterious fifth flavor that conveys a sense of mouth-filling richness.
Other great starters are taquitos de Malanga, small tacos made of taro root shells and filled with pulled pork, pickled onion, crema fresca and cotija, as well as the albóndigas — meatballs made of beef and pork and served in crispy yuca cups with spicy black beans and queso idiazabal fondue.
The smoked spareribs here are also particularly good, meaty examples doused in tangy tamarind and guajillo glaze. These are as fine as any other type of ribs in Houston, and now, the place to linger over them is even better than it was before.