Restaurant Reviews

Diner's Notebook

I've had slippage on the brain lately. I keep going into old-favorite restaurants only to find that all is not well; it would be nice to suppose they're all just having an off-day, but can my luck really be so consistently bad? I doubt it. I think slippage is occurring in the same way entropy sucks the energy out of the universe, and I don't like it. I want to be able to rely on the things that matter.

The grub at Berryhill's Hot Tamales, 2639 Revere, for instance. I was nuts about the place when it opened -- as far as I was concerned, they could hardly do anything wrong. Not anymore. On a recent visit I was confronted with crab cakes that had been cooked until they were literally blackened. And I can barely bring myself to describe the soggy heap of wafer-cut fried potatoes. What's going on, I wondered, apologizing madly to the friend to whom I had recommended this unfortunate plate of food.

At least I didn't have to apologize to myself. I felt like it, though, once it sank in that the fish taco I had held in such high esteem was not exactly its old self. Nice, thin tortillas? Check. Tactfully fried catfish? Check. Lots of shredded red cabbage? Check. But where was the feisty cilantro of yore, and why had the remoulade-style sauce mutated into something sweet? Sugar snob that I am, a sweet taco seemed like slippage of the most grievous sort.

The shrimp taco was better. And the iced coffee was still ambrosial. Still, I departed in a funk, convinced that civilization was on the downslide.

A trip to the original Grotto at 3920 Westheimer did not improve my outlook. The crab claw appetizer I have long been fond of still wore its winy marinara sauce, but the crab fingers themselves had been cooked to a mush. I took a chance on the arancini, but this particular fried rice ball tasted so sour I wondered if it had "turned," as they used to say in pre-refrigeration times. I couldn't eat it.

Nor could I do more than pick at a pork dish that sounded great on the menu, but which turned out to be a large piece of fried, breaded meat with a salad on top. I had asked the waitress if it was fried and she had assured me that it was not. "We don't fry anything here," were her exact words. Yeah, but we pan-fry the dickens out of that pork!

I sulked until my companion offered me a taste of the fedelini with sausage and peppers that he was enjoying so much. It was swell -- so much so that I remembered why I had gotten it into my head that Grotto was my favorite of Tony Vallone's restaurants. Finally, when I could cadge no more, I resorted to the spinach on my plate. Pure. Garlicky. Perfect. Like always. It was enough to make me forget all about slippage ... for a whole 60 seconds.

-- Alison Cook

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Alison Cook