The Spanish word, candente, means glowing, sizzling, full of life, and for owner, Michael Sambrooks, the word says it all about his new restaurant. Candente, located off Montrose, in the Museum District, opened on September 16, Mexican independence day, with dishes of Tex-Mex cheesy enchiladas, tacos, combination plates, but also delicately smoked redfish, and the iconic Jalisco beef stew, birria.
The dishes consolidate an aggressive menu that pushes the envelope a bit, but is driven mainly by what Sambrooks and Director of Operations Steve Breaker, describe as “a place for family, full of life, a feeling of home, for all of us.” The menu offers all the dishes that Michael would want to eat as comfort food, recalling foods of his childhood and those of his recent travels through Texas. “It's about culture,” he says, and for him, it’s especially the smoke of mesquite emanating from the oven pit in the kitchen. This distinctive smoke flavor pushes the envelope beyond the Tex-Mex combination plate.
Candente follows a long tradition of mesquite smoke cooking in Houston. In a sense, Sambrooks is digging back into Houston indigenous traditions to keep alive the delicious taste he so loves and that is so ancient. Pit barbecue cooking began as earth ovens 10,000 years ago, with the first people to step foot on Houston soil. Dr. Alston Thoms, professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M says that mesquite smoke earth ovens were so common in Houston over the past 10 millenia, that today you cannot walk 100 yards without stepping on what was probably once a smoking earth oven.
Sambrooks fell in love with smoke pit barbecue cooking when he was the manager of Goode Company Barbecue on Katy Freeway. It was there he decided that he would have his own restaurant where he could fully explore this iconic Texas cuisine. There’s just something about the flavor of the wood and smoke that fascinated him, and he is passionate about sharing it.
The dish I ordered was the Redfish Halfshell, mesquite grilled, with a side of creamy avocado salsa and a cilantro jalapeño salad. The fish is masterfully prepared by Rubén Martínez who works the smoker that’s enticingly visible to diners. He worked for 33 years at Goode Company Armadillo Palace and joined Candente three months ago.
It’s talent in the kitchen that Sambrooks and Breaker have been able to assemble by working with a tight-knit group of culinarians scattered throughout the other four restaurants owned by Sambrooks Management Company. It was through collaboration with several chefs and cooks in the other Sambrooks restaurants that the menu was developed. Ideation and testing happened in the various kitchens, so the menu is really a family, collaborative project.
In fact, that is how Sambrooks defines Tex-Mex food, all about family. Both he and Breaker extend the meaning beyond just ingredients, dishes and products. They insist there is meaning in the food. Breaker says, “The first thing that comes to mind is family, warmth and it’s exciting.” This social, relational aspect of food culture is universal and at the core of enjoyment.
The core staff of Candente is composed of talent from some of the other restaurants. The fluffy rice with green peas and the refried pinto beans are cooked by María Moreno, the head cook in the kitchen. She worked for three years at the Sambrooks acclaimed Pit Room, and was asked to head the kitchen in the new Candente.
She’ll cook most of the the staples of what is recognized as Tex-Mex, like refried beans, rice, salsas, although Candente takes seriously their slogan, “Handcrafted Tex-Mex.” For example, their enchilada “chile gravy” is made with the usual ingredients of flour, chiles and stock, but there’s no chili powder. Sambrooks tested and tasted over time to finally land on using dried Pasilla chiles for their deep, raisin-like taste. The chile gravy is deeply flavored and a guest said it reminded him of mole.
The core of Candente’s menu is Tex-Mex, but “we try to elevate it,” says Sambrooks. And if you choose from the grill section of the menu, it’s definitely not Tex-Mex, but more Texas Mexican, the flavors of the indigenous, Native traditions that harken to the first peoples of Texas. Even the classic Mexican seafood cocktail, Campechana, is refashioned, with the octopus spending a few minutes in the smoke, and the mussels grilled over the mesquite charcoals.
The bar menu also goes a bit beyond the usual Tex-Mex Margarita offering, and explores other classic agave based drinks, particularly the Paloma cocktail, made with tequila and grapefruit juice, a favorite in the Rio Grande Valley, and Mexico. Beverage Manager David Maness explains that he’s never seen any other restaurant serve the Paloma cocktail as a frozen drink, and he serves it as an alternate choice to the Margarita. His frozen Paloma is made with the Italian apéritif, Aperol, that accentuates the slight bitter taste of the grapefruit juice.
By sharing his love of smoked barbecue, Sambrooks gives Tex-Mex a personal, distinctive twist that takes it just a bit beyond, and as he says, “elevates it.” By doing so, he is exploring a culinary path for Candente that sets it apart from other Houston restaurants who choose to call themselves Tex-Mex.