Restaurant Reviews

Cancún Cuisine

Water cascades over the glistening ersatz stones of a 12-foot-high waterfall while palm trees sway in the gentle evening breeze. Beneath the dramatically lit scenery, a duo on guitar and piano plays Latin oldies. It's one of the first cool evenings of the fall, and the patio at Cascadas Cantina y Restaurante, a new Mexican restaurant on Westheimer west of Kirkwood, is hopping. All the tables are occupied, and the margarita-lubed patrons are shouting at each other in order to be heard over the amplified music. The waterfall obscures the busy thoroughfare. Just above it, a neon sign blinks relentlessly: "Open 7 Days."

The weather is delicious, the frozen margaritas are generously served in big tumblers, and the chips are extra-thin and crispy. "It's so nice to sit outside again!" I say to my companion, a connoisseur of Houston patio dining. But I'm afraid that, compared to Backstreet Cafe, Noche Cocina and Daily Review Cafe, a few of her favorite alfresco venues, Cascadas isn't going to get a very high rating. She appraises the environs with a 360-degree look-over. "A fake waterfall with palm trees, bad Latin music and loud American drunks -- it's like a cheesy package tour to Cancún," she says. "Not that that's all bad."

It's an assessment that applies equally well to the menu. If you ask, employees will tell you the food at Cascadas is authentic Mexican. But both-sides-of-the-border classics like burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas and tacos all rate their own menu sections here. Especialidades include purely American food such as chimichangas and chicken breast in poblano cream sauce. Under sopas y ensaladas, you'll find such familiar items as tortilla soup, taco salad, stuffed avocado and Caesar salad with grilled chicken. Grilled specials include the usual Chili's standbys -- beef or chicken fajitas and baby back ribs -- along with a few unusual dishes like alambres (mixed meats on skewers). The seafood section features "snapper" (whatever that means) and shrimp. Yes, you can find most of this food in Mexico -- in places that cater to tourists. So let's call it authentic Cancún cuisine.

The appetizer menu is dominated by that Tex-Mex classic, the nacho. We order nachos a Las Cascadas, a platter bedecked with two each of the restaurant's most popular varieties. The first one listed, nachos frijoles, features "the Mexican flavor of beans, cheese, jalapeños, sour cream and guacamole," according to the menu. It's a soft parade of flavors, each differentiated by its own dissolve rate. The sour cream and guacamole melt in your mouth first, then the beans and finally the cheese. Served on oversize round chips, these are exquisite -- if you like nachos.

Personally, I love them. In fact, last year I served as a judge at the International Nacho Festival in the border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, the birthplace of the nacho. The snack was invented there at the Moderno restaurant in the late 1940s by a waiter named Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, who served them to a table of American tourists. The Moderno is still open; in fact, it won the competition last year. The restaurant's two entries were classic nachos (cheese and jalapeño only) and special nachos loaded with fresh jumbo shrimp.

Shrimp nachos are one of the offerings on the nachos a Las Cascadas platter, too. Unfortunately, these are made with spongy little cocktail shrimp, and they are the worst of the assortment. The other three varieties -- carne (beef fajita), pollo (chicken) and picadillo (ground meat) -- remind me of the fabulous botanas platters of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The word botanas means "bites"; it used to be slang for the happy-hour food served in the little cantinas between Brownsville and McAllen. But Otilia Garza's Round-up Restaurant in Pharr created a special botanas platter some years ago that redefined the genre. On a plate of nachos and tostadas topped with beans, cheese and jalapeños, she heaped chopped grilled fajita meat and a scoop of guacamole. Originally they were served for free during happy hour, but as demand soared, botanas platters became a regular menu item in the Valley. The nachos carne, nachos pollo and nachos picadillo at Cascadas look and taste just like they came off the original beef, chicken and picadillo botanas platters found in Mexican restaurants all over the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It's Tex-Mex snack food at its finest, if you ask me.

For her entrée, my dining companion orders a stuffed avocado salad. Unfortunately, the stuffing is made from the same watery cocktail shrimp we got on the nachos. At least on the salad, they're mercifully cloaked in a mayonnaise-heavy dressing. My entrée, the grilled shish kebabs, comes with a choice of beef, chicken or shrimp. I opt for "all of the above." The beef tenderloin is the standout; the meat is rare and tender, with lots of mesquite flavor. The shrimp are bigger and fresher than the cocktail size, but they're a little overcooked. And the chicken is bland breast meat.

It's an excellent entrée if you're on a low-carb diet, as long as you don't eat the rice and beans. Neither is terribly tempting, anyway. I ask for frijoles a la charra (cowboy beans) and get cold black beans. But since I never see my waiter again, there isn't much chance to complain. When he finally stops by our table at the end of the meal, I point out the bean mistake and ask him if the grilled meats aren't supposed to come with warm tortillas. "No, those are extra," he tells me. "Do you want some?" It's a little too late now. But I suppose one night on the Atkins diet won't kill me. He also kindly offers me a cup of beans for dessert.

On a previous visit, I sampled Cascadas's cheese enchiladas, which were served on a big plate with lots of rice and beans and garnishes. The enchiladas were amply stuffed and sauced, but they lacked the gritty vigor of real chili gravy and the gooey velvet texture of processed American cheese. Seems like the kitchen is trying to upscale the Tex-Mex, and that's always a bad idea.

The restaurant's prime attraction for me -- and worst attribute for most Inner Loopers -- is its location. I like it because it's located in the same strip center as Phoenicia Specialty Foods. In fact, I've never eaten there without taking a side trip to Phoenicia, which a friend of mine describes as the Sam's Club of ethnic food. Danish butter, Armenian string cheese and Swiss black currant preserves are a few of the deeply discounted items that made it into my shopping basket last time I visited. This west Houston shopping center is also home to Cafe Caspian, an upscale Iranian restaurant, and Samovar, a Russian dining room for parties and special events. I'm told by a waiter that Cascadas is owned by the same group as the other two restaurants.

Cascadas is a beautifully designed space on the corner of the shopping center. Its exterior windows form a long curve so that all the tables look out at the waterfall. Another wall of glass inside the restaurant mimics the curve of the exterior wall to create a large separate dining room that can be used for private parties. The handsome stone floors and solid furniture give the place a classy feel. And the mango-colored umbrellas on the outdoor tables by the waterfall will lure you outside even if the weather isn't perfect.

Some people fly to Mexico to explore the ruins, visit the markets and steep themselves in the culture. Others go there to lie on the beach and drink cheap cocktails. (And then there are those confused souls who are forever torn between the two.) I don't recommend you drive out to this shopping center west of Kirkwood if you're looking for a Mesoamerican cultural experience. But the margaritas and botanas on the patio at Cascadas are great if you're in a Cancún state of mind.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh