by Katharine Shilcutt
The bacalao y mofongo on my plate at Tex-Chick is a brilliant jumble of fall colors: ruby red, auburn, burnt orange and bright gold. A dish originating in Portugal, the bacalao — chipped pieces of salted and dried codfish — ring the mound of mofongo like Matisse's colorful dancers. And the sturdy mofongo, that pile of yellow plantains and crumbs of bacon, rises from between them with the promise of a transporting experience ahead.
Where do you want to go? Puerto Rico? Cuba? Portugal? Spain? China? West Africa? No need to board a plane away from Houston. At Tex-Chick, like so many Puerto Rican restaurants, the marriage of dishes and flavors will fly you headlong from one country to another.
"We have always been a mixture," owner Carlos Pérez laughs about his native Puerto Rico. "We party with everybody."
The San Juan native came to Houston in 1986 to study hotel management. He found some friends and a girlfriend here, but began to get homesick for his native food. An old high school friend took him to Tex-Chick, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and Pérez quickly fell in love.
"The former owners were like grandparents to me," he says. "I came every week, ordered the same thing each time. I brought my girlfriend, who then became my wife, and then we started bringing our kids. Every week."
Tex-Chick wasn't always a Puerto Rican restaurant, however. Back in the 1940s, it was a drive-thru-only stand on Montrose, where burger joint Little Bigs is now located. The owner, from Oklahoma, served old-school American food.
After he retired, in 1982, Tex-Chick was sold to Teo Gonzales and his wife, Carmen. The couple began serving Puerto Rican food, their native cuisine, at the same time they moved the restaurant to its current location on Fairview.
Incongruously located across the street from Black Hawk Leather and Video, in a tiny storefront that houses four tables and a small kitchen, Tex-Chick has become a second home for Houston's small Puerto Rican community. It's endlessly jovial and welcoming inside, with tables full of other Puerto Rican ex-pats and neighborhood residents.
A few years ago, the Gonzaleses decided that it was time for them to retire, too, and decided to close Tex-Chick for good. Pérez was horrified.
"I told them, 'You can't close it!'" he recalls. "'Then you keep it!'" Teo said.
Pérez simply couldn't let his beloved restaurant close, so he worked out an agreement with Teo and Carmen Gonzales: "He stayed on with me and helped me run the place. He was like an uncle to me."
These days, Tex-Chick has had a bit of a facelift. A cheerful blue awning welcomes people into the small restaurant, which is only open each day until 5 p.m. Pérez says that it's because Puerto Rican food is so filling that you won't need to eat again "for a day and a half."
His favorite item on the small menu is the bistec empanizado, breaded steak that he fixes up with a pile of the sweet, vegetal, garlic-tinged mofongo. The mofongo itself has a long history; it was first imported to the island of Puerto Rico by West African slaves. In its native lands, mofongo is called fufu and is made with boiled, mashed green plantains.
Although there are an estimated 7,000 Puerto Rican people in Houston, there are a disproportionately small number of Puerto Rican restaurants. Tex-Chick is one of only two, since Isla Coqui closed a few years ago. Pérez chalks this up to a dining attitude in his countrymen that Houstonians should find familiar: "We mix so well with so many cultures that we'll eat anything. Chinese one day, Mexican the next. It doesn't matter to us."
Pérez keeps the place running now much as the Gonzaleses did, and it's clear that Tex-Chick has retained its immense popularity in Pérez's capable hands.
"I still don't know why I did it," laughs Pérez. "I just love the food."