Any Houstonian with half a nose for the local cuisine can direct an out-of-towner to the best Mexican plate or the freshest Gulf seafood. But where does one direct a group of visitors who want these tastes under one comfortable roof? Look no further than Tampico Seafood and Restaurant, located just blocks from the farmers market. This hidden treasure of a restaurant is so good, particularly when it comes to fish, that you'll want to lead your guests there personally -- and maybe even make reservations for the next group of conventioneers.
Upon entering Tampico, you immediately come face-to-face with a display case of beautifully fresh catfish, snapper, giant shrimp, baby octopus, scallops and more, ready, if you so wish, to come home with you in their raw natural state. I much prefer to settle into one of the yellow Formica booths with a group of friends, relax, listen to the great Latino music on the jukebox, order up some cold beers and let the friendly staff serve me some of the freshest and tastiest seafood around.
Start with soup. You can go Mexican with the seafood soup ($6.95 for the small portion, which is enough for two, or $7.95 for the large) or take a trip to New Orleans with the seafood gumbo ($2.95, $4.95 or $6.95). You'll be happy either way. If you go with the caldo de mariscos, you'll be treated to a flavorful seafood broth tinted red with chilies and spices, brimming with chunks of fish, tender shrimp and slightly chewy bits of octopus, a plethora of tastes and textures.
As for the gumbo, I admit to being more than a bit skeptical about ordering it in a Mexican restaurant, but one taste immediately erased my fears. It's a light filé gumbo, loaded with bits and chunks of fish, oysters and shrimp, mildly spicy (a couple hits of Tabasco added just the right amount of heat) and with just enough rice for body. A very pleasant surprise.
Grilled seafood is the main event at Tampico, but on my first visit I was unusually timid, ordering red snapper filleted as part of a fish platter. I sampled it al mojo, grilled and served in a garlic butter sauce, along with mushrooms, onions and bell peppers ($10.95), as well as a la plancha, rubbed with spices and grilled, then topped with onions and butter ($10.95). Both ways were delicious, although I preferred the simple grilled; the al mojo was blanketed in the sauce, which, while good, dominated the fish a little too much.
All around me, however, families were enjoying seafood served sizzling on large cast-iron platters, so on my next visit I vowed to follow their example. It's not really on the menu; just tell your waitress that you want a whole red snapper a la plancha. (If you can't stand to have your meal stare back at you, they're more than happy to serve the fish headless, but trust me, the head has some really sweet meat on it.)
After that, you still have decisions to make, namely what other seafood you want to accompany the fish on its trip to the grill. Large shrimp, butterflied and still in their shells, are an excellent choice, as are the baby octopus, which grill up nicely. Basically, you design your own seafood platter, so on your way in, be sure to check out the seafood counter carefully to see what's available. (The price is based on the market, so I can't quote you exact figures, but for two of us, with one whole snapper, a dozen or more large shrimp and a handful of baby octopus, it was around $35.)
About 20 minutes after you order it, the platter arrives sizzling at your table, sending up the most enticing aromas. The fish has been scored on both sides, rubbed with a secret mixture of spices known only to owner Juan Gonzalez and grilled until the skin is brown, the flesh white and juicy. The deep slashing of the fish allows the spices to permeate the meat, as well as making it easy to pull the flesh off the skeleton in big, clean boneless chunks.
The snapper rests on a bed of grilled onions and peppers, which, combined with the butter and juices on the platter, are all the sauce this fish will ever need. Surrounding the fish on all sides are the shellfish reddened with spice, glistening in their pink shells, ready to be eaten and enjoyed with gusto. (Don't worry, plenty of napkins are provided.) If I sound rhapsodic about this dish, it's intentional, because this is a phenomenal platter of food, the Houston equivalent of a New England clambake or a Baltimore crab boil.
You do have one more decision to make: Do you want french fries or fried rice (yes, fried rice!) with that? Do yourself a favor and have both. The fries are really good -- thin, crisp, salty and perhaps a slightly more orthodox choice -- but the fully fried rice is also good. And the rice comes with a fringe benefit: It makes a perfect bed for any excess bits of onion, pepper and juices left on the platter.
The menu offers classic Tex-Mex food -- fajitas, tacos al carbon and the like -- as well as traditional fried seafood; but to be honest, I could never bring myself to order anything but the seafood a la plancha. (If anyone does sample the enchiladas, please let me know how they are.) I did, however, get around to trying the stuffed crab ($3.95 for two), and it was terrific -- garlicky crab, fried golden-brown and crusty and served with an unusual, almost pickleless tartar sauce.
There are only two desserts, cheesecake and flan. I am generally too stuffed with seafood even to contemplate cheesecake, but the flan, light, creamy and not too sweet ($3.50), fills in the cracks perfectly.
But really, the seafood is the thing here. Open since 1996, Tampico already qualifies as a personal favorite. Flatly stated, I love this place.
Tampico Seafood and Restaurant, 2115 Airline, (713)862-8425.
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