The Chiles en Nogada Tradicionales, a regional specialty from the Mexican state of Puebla, is extraordinary. Typically available only during pomegranate season in Mexico, the pulled-pork filled poblano chiles, topped with a creamy walnut sauce and fresh pomegranate kernels, are so in demand that they've become a permanent feature on the menu at Pico's Mex-Mex.
Order this one to share because the rich, somewhat sweet meat (the meat is cooked with aromatics and dried fruits) and walnut cream topping can be cloying if too much of it is eaten continuously.
Likewise, the Chamorro de Puerco con Verdolagas en Salsa Verde is a sublime creation of fall-off-the-bone pork shank in a viscous tomatillo sauce speckled with still-crisp leaves of wilted purslane. Presented with the bone sticking straight up and stewed until the gelatinous cartilage and meat fibers had melded together, the meat flaked off the bone in juicy, fork-tender clumps.
Piling the meat and sauce generously onto a house-made flour tortilla is a delicious if somewhat dangerous endeavor -- make sure to lean over the table so any drippings land there or on a plate.
Though the restaurant bills itself as regional Mexican, the menu is something of a hybrid between the Tex-Mex and regional Mexican genres. Unlike the menu at Hugo's, where everything sounds foreign (Hugo's is probably the closest comparison to Pico's), the menu boasts items found on any Tex-Mex menu: the yellow-orange Velveeta-based dip known as queso, guacamole (get the one that's mixed a the table), Pico's own version of nachos, enchiladas de Tejas (Texas-style cheese enchiladas topped with chili con carne), and the familiar carne asadas and sizzling fajitas.
The presence of these items doesn't mean that Pico's is similar to the Pappasito's across the street. No, not at all. The items are there for the kids or whomever in the party is feeling like something other than regional Mexican. Because the true strength of Pico's menu comes in the form of dishes found in the Mexican countryside, at someone's home -- dishes that a Mexican abuela (grandmother) might make.
Since the restaurant moved from its old location in Bellaire (which they occupied for 30 years) to their new, larger, more upscale Upper Kirby location on Richmond at Kirby this past May, they've been tremendously popular, frequently besieged by waits of 30 minutes or more. Calling in advance doesn't do much good -- the policy calls for in-person sign-ups.
Which contributes to how many people end up at the crowded, festive, U-shaped bar where the medium margarita (called a "grande") checks in at 27 ounces and the large is a gargantuan 48 ounces. The small, or "regular," is a fairly normal 12 ounces. The margarita tasted of fresh lime juice, added in perfect proportion to the other ingredients -- agave nectar, Cointreau, Pura Vida Naranja and El Jimador Reposado -- the ratio of lime to alcohol masking the strong alcoholic bite of the drink. Its smooth, great taste made it deceptively weak, but it packs quite the punch and is definitely one of the best in Houston.
Pico was not a person.
Monica Richards, the current beverage director at the restaurant and daughter of Arnaldo and Janice Richards, the husband and wife team that opened the original Pico's in 1984, says it was just a name that her parents chose.
"My mom, who had met my dad while at the University of Houston (he was at the Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management; she was at the School of Industrial Design), had designed the parrot that they use as their logo. "Pico" means "beak" in Spanish and refers to the parrot's beak. They added Mex-Mex because they didn't want the restaurant to be confused with a Tex-Mex restaurant."
Arnaldo, who had been cooking in his family's restaurant kitchens in Monterrey, Mexico since the age of nine, had dreamed of opening up a restaurant with Janice in Houston. He saved money while working as a server at Bud Bigelow's, scraping enough together to go in with a partner on a restaurant called El Grenero in Bellaire. When it didn't work out, they opened Pico's Mex-Mex with Arnaldo as the chef and Janice directing the front of the house.
Although they'd been wanting to expand for some time, it wasn't possible until 2012, when the new location became available and Monica agreed to come on board more fully in the family business.
Ordering family style is actually a good way to experience the cuisine at the new Pico's -- offering the chance to try a little bit of several dishes together, which helps out when one or two items just aren't as good as the rest.
The soft-shell crab, a seasonal specialty that is reportedly one of their most popular, was disappointing. The mojo de ajo (garlic gravy) topping added little to the dish, which was deep fried, but appeared wilted and had a somewhat stale, not-so-fresh taste.
On another visit, the mojo de ajo arrived as a topping on a whole pan-fried snapper. Though garlic gravy had a fresher, stronger flavor on the second try, the chef's chosen cooking method didn't quite crisp up the skin or seal in the moisture, leaving the skin slithery and somewhat slimy and the fish a tad dry.
A Filete Mestizo was also not quite there. Despite being very tender, the flavors of the black cuitlacoche and queso requesón (ricotta) sauce seemed stilted, flat somehow. The addition of salt helped it along, but the level of mastery displayed in the creation of the pork shank was clearly missing here, an expensive mistake at $32 for the filete.
For those not too familiar with the menu, it's probably best to stick with the mid-priced dishes before venturing into the more expensive, $30-plus-priced entrées.
Styled like a classic Mexican restaurant in Mexico, the dining room boasts clay-colored Mexican tiles, etched frosted glass chandeliers and rustic wooden tables. Every night during dinner service, guests are serenaded by two white-haired men dressed in white peasant shirts, singing beautiful Mariachi love songs accompanied by guitar and harp. The harpist, Servero Lara, plays six nights a week and has been entertaining Pico's guests for years.
The dining room always seems to be abuzz with activity, and at peak times the live performers are hard to hear over the din of restaurant noise. But it's the familiarity of knowing they are there that makes Pico's a great place to visit. Patrons of the old Pico's might miss the cozier, smaller, less ostentatious restaurant of the past, but there's still plenty to like at the new location. Start with a margarita on the rocks and the love will bloom quickly from there.
Pico's Mex-Mex 3601 Kirby, 832-831-9940; Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. brunch on Sundays; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday evenings.
Nachos Compuestos $12 Guacamole natural $10 Chile con Queso -- Large $9 Half $7 Chiles en Nogada Tradicionales $19 Chamorro de Puerco con Verdolagas en Salsa Verde $22 Whole snapper with mojo de ajo $31 Filete Mestizo $32 Enchiladas de Mariscos $17 The Original Margarita (grande) $12.50