Restaurant Reviews

Asian and South American-Inspired Fare at Fusion Taco

The words and phrases used by my friend to describe the food are not fit to print. Suffice it to say that he wanted to do unmentionable things to the queso, and he wanted the lamb taco to do unmentionable things to him. This is the introduction I had to Fusion Taco.

The first time I ate there, I found myself not necessarily agreeing with, but fully understanding, his sentiments. The curried lamb keema taco featuring a hard shell and gyro toppings like tomatoes and cucumber is set off by a drizzle of bright, creamy salsa verde, and the queso, well...It's still the processed yellow cheese that I know and love, but it's made more gourmet by the addition of heavy cream, ground chipotle peppers and Fusion Taco's spicy salsa, made fresh every day. It's thick, never runny or overly liquid. It sticks to chips, coating them with a layer of golden cheese so ideally spiced that I find it difficult to stop eating it once I've started.

That queso, as my buddy would say, is really [email protected]#$¡%$ good.

Not that the co-owner, Julia Sharaby, who runs the new brick-and-mortar location with her fiancé, David Grossman, would mind the crude but flattering endorsement. She's got a rock-and-roll vibe about her, even when she's sitting at the front counter taking care of business on her laptop or wiping down tables, a task many restaurant owners wouldn't deign to do. Grossman cuts a less colorful figure, but he's there, too, back in the kitchen dreaming up new dishes or behind the register recommending old favorites to guests.

The duo started Fusion Taco as a truck back in 2010, before the whole gourmet and fusion food truck thing really took off in Houston. The brick-and-mortar restaurant opened on Market Square in late July 2013, and it seems Sharaby and Grossman's unique brand of South American/Asian tacos is better suited to a non-mobile location, though the truck still makes appearances for private events and catering. The concept of filled-to-the-brim tacos with continental consideration lends itself well to sitting down with a cold beer or a glass of wine and enjoying a ­leisurely meal.

The move to a single, stable location has also allowed Sharaby and Grossman to expand the menu to include soups, salads, quesadillas and even a cheeseburger. The kale and mango salad with a citrusy ginger peanut dressing is particularly enticing. Served with a seared tuna steak, it's one heck of a meal, and healthy, too — perfect for the downtown business folk and University of Houston-Downtown crowds who have been filling up the space since day one.

Many taco joints — for Fusion Taco, though it's grown up, is still what I'd consider a "joint" — make the mistake of recycling sauces and ingredients, so each taco or dish ends up tasting somewhat the same. Fusion Taco does make use of the same condiments in multiple tacos, but the other elements are so singular that each dish has a clear vision and a crispness of flavor that sets it apart from everything else on the menu.

This clarity of vision is also what sets Fusion Taco apart from all the other taco places in Houston.

Good luck choosing just one taco for lunch or dinner. Hell, good luck choosing two or three, because the menu lists ten variations on a taco, each description more mouthwatering than the next. With prices between $3 and $4.50 per taco, you can afford to do a proper tasting, which is what I did over the course of several days.

Even after trying them all, I can't pick a favorite, though I was pleasantly surprised by a number of them, including the Agedashi tofu taco, which I'd anticipated not liking because, well, who wants tofu when you can have seared duck? Fusion Taco truly earns its name with this dish, which features a large rectangle of tofu prepared in the traditional Japanese style: breaded, then fried. With it is a Napa cabbage slaw and wasabi aioli, with a strong hit of ginger as well. This is not your abuelita's taco, my friends.

Nor is the chicken-fried oyster, another favorite that's about as reminiscent of a po-boy as a kitten is of a lion, and yet there's a clear familial link. The oysters could almost be plucked out and served in a bowl of gumbo or scattered atop shredded lettuce in a po-boy, but instead, they're laid delicately in a taco on a bed of celery root slaw made with a creamy, slightly tangy sauce. Each gloriously crisp oyster is dotted with a squirt of Frank's Red Hot cayenne pepper sauce, which packs a vinegary heat not unlike wing sauce and Tabasco. It's just enough to set the tongue a-tingle, but not so much that you can't taste the soft, juicy oyster once you breach the chicken-fried shell.

Each of the tacos — except the lamb — is served in two corn tortillas, both of which are needed to contain the heft and juice in most of the varieties. They're necessary mainly as a conduit, though, because I found the tortillas don't really add much to the overall meal. They're lacking salt and a more pronounced corn flavor, which could have enhanced the Chinese BBQ Berkshire pork taco, for ­example.

The pork taco has large chunks of char siu-style meat, which is traditionally skewered, glazed, or seasoned and cooked over an open fire. The meat is fork-tender, and the black beans provide a nice contrast to the roasted corn salsa, a cool, slightly sweet/slightly spicy mixture of fresh corn, red peppers, onions and jalapeños. Though the texture of the pork in this taco is similar to that of the beef short rib, the two tacos are completely different, thanks to unique toppings (raita, a spiced yogurt dressing, and tomato and cucumber relish), as well as the different seasonings used to develop the flavors.

Where the pork is glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce, the short rib gets a curry vindaloo treatment. The pork is Chinese-style, with a hint of Latin America in the form of corn salsa, while the short rib is all Indian, thanks to the traditional raita and spicy cumin-scented vindaloo curry, in which the rib is braised.

All the tacos, in fact, demonstrate a clear understanding of cultural flavor nuances and how they might work well with one another. Even the fish tacos with blackened tilapia, an arguably traditional Mexican dish, get an infusion of worldliness from a vaguely Italian cilantro pesto. So, too, does the grilled chicken taco differ from the classic fajita style, thanks to its Indonesian satay cooking and the unusual tart peanut sauce that grabs you at first bite and never lets go.

The same peanut sauce pops up in the seared tuna and kale salad, which is something of a mishmash of disparate ingredients that really shouldn't work. Mango chunks and peanuts? Delicate, nearly raw tuna and hearty kale? Carrots and cashews? Sure, it's not like mixing ketchup and milk, but the salad fixings don't seem obvious to me, and yet the resulting combination of flavors is something I can't get out of my mind, even weeks after trying it for the first time. It's refreshing yet earthy, tropical yet almost Japanese. It's kale in possibly its best iteration — smothered in peanut sauce with bright bursts of mango to break the monotony of yet another kale salad.

Nachos also bring something new to the table, or new to me, at least. In spite of my affinity for queso, I long ago swore off nachos drenched in a processed­-cheese sauce. I prefer my nachos with freshly shredded cheese on top that's been broiled until it melts and bubbles up in little hollow golden mounds.

The nachos at Fusion Taco do not make use of fresh cheese. There's nothing really melty on them, nothing to cause the chips to stick together like the nachos of my youth. And yet I adore them. Possibly because they're topped with the same queso that initially piqued my interest in Fusion Taco, or possibly because the thick corn chips are cut and fried fresh and delivered still steaming in a handmade ceramic bowl. It could also be the brilliant combination of the corn salsa and barbecued pork, here topping nachos instead of stuffed in a taco. I'm not sure there is any one specific element that caused me to reject my former nacho rules in favor of a new nacho philosophy, but I daresay Fusion Taco brings out the adventurer in all of us.

The word "fusion" is everywhere these days. It's about as trendy as "locavore" or "artisan," and its definition is equally as vague. Back when the restaurant first opened, Grossman even told the Houston Chronicle's Greg Morago that he didn't like the word. In this instance, though, it kind of works.

The tacos truly are a fusion, which is "a combination or mixture of things," according to Merriam-Webster. They incorporate the best elements of many worlds, and the results aren't your typical wannabe amalgamations, but truly thoughtful blends of east and west.

I don't know Sharaby and Grossman personally, but I imagine the restaurant as something of a metaphor for their relationship. There's Grossman, the quieter of the two, with deep-set, heavy lidded eyes, and then there's Sharaby, a take-charge type with a smoldering stare. Their combined talents have produced one of the best new restaurants downtown, a place whose fusion of flavors and creative, love-inducing dishes is worthy of all the strong language and emotion it is provoking.

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Kaitlin Steinberg