Restaurant Reviews

Eats for the Beach

I remember the time -- not ten years ago -- when I had to plead with people to listen to the Gipsy Kings. Now they're everywhere, invading restaurants, elevators, even restrooms. Just think: From cutting edge to cliche in less than a decade. The cycle gets ever shorter.

At Sabroso Grill, you'll hear lots of Gipsy Kings and lots of merengue. But what you'll hear most of is salsa. If Sabroso, which draws its inspiration from South America, has a reigning trope, it's tropicalismo. It's the kind of place you'd expect to find flip-flops and snorkeling equipment and hammocks and suntan oil and coca locas. And it draws a festive crowd, some looking as if gearing up for a party, others as if gearing down. There's a third group as well: people who give the impression they've just popped in for a quick bite before heading back to the beach.

I'll tell you, it does the heart good to see people enjoy themselves this uninhibitedly. Perhaps the margaritas have something to do with it. Sabroso offers three varieties: mango, papaya and blackberry. Since all three are equally delicious, I suggest that you treat yourself and sample one of each.

Sabroso looks great. In places, the plaster has been pried away to reveal the brick below -- the skull beneath the skin -- and there are sections of wall where paint has been applied to paint. These new walls are really old walls, we are to believe; walls with history. Which, of course, they aren't. But that said, there is something archaeological about them: a suggestion that they might have sheltered numerous generations, just as they now shelter us.

Along one wall are three shallow niches, each flanked by painted wooden panels -- yes, they've been aged as well. Silver crucifixes line one niche, while a mosaic of beans -- red and black, brown and tan -- fills the second. From the third, a tiny house in cross-section extends from the wall on a narrow platform. There are paintings, too, their subject matter bananas and melons in a variety of configurations.

Those crucifixes, by the way, are not the only Christian symbols here. Behind the bar stands a wooden saint, his hands raised in supplication, his expression one of mute appeal. Perhaps he's pleading with Sabroso's patrons to go easy on the margaritas.

Under the guidance of chef/co-owner Arturo Boada, the menu at Sabroso is still being developed. (Boado is chef/co-owner at Solero as well.) For now, though, Sabroso is a cross between a restaurant and a tapas bar, in that you can eat a full meal here -- either of the two pasta dishes makes a more-than-substantial main course -- or you can choose to snack on such things as salads, tortas (sandwiches), picadas (described on the menu as appetizers) and boquitas (described as little appetizers). It's a curious distinction: Of the two, the boquitas are considerably bigger.

Among the picadas, we tried fried yucca ($3.25) and South American ceviche ($5.95). The yucca was perfect. Cut into thick wedges -- they looked like home fries -- and cooked in oil, they came to the table piping hot and golden brown. Fried like this, yucca doesn't have a lot of taste, which is why Boada provides as accompaniment a serrano-cilantro mayonnaise not afraid to flex its muscles. They're big on cilantro at Sabroso. Which is fine by me. The grilled chicken salad comes with cilantro, as does the roast beef salad. There's cilantro in the sauteed mussels and cilantro in the guacamole. And cilantro accents infuse one of the pastas.

The ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice) is served in a sundae glass and comes with popcorn. Not a bad idea, I suppose, though it failed to inspire much enthusiasm at our table. One person thought it okay, and another said it "wasn't bad." The combination seemed incongruous somehow. Perhaps the next time we try it -- when the shock of the new has been sufficiently absorbed -- we may find it more to our liking.

The spicy shrimp tempura taco ($3.95) was delicious. The lightly breaded shrimp are fried and served in a double tortilla with carrot strips, grated yucca and cilantro leaves. There was hot sauce as well. Rather too much of it, I'm afraid. It ended up stealing the show.

Arepas con queso ($4.95), one of the boquita selections, are grilled corn cakes topped with cheese and guacamole. The menu describes them as a delicacy, which I find a little generous. They were cold when they reached us, and tasted rather stodgy. They put me in mind of day-old pizza. I do like the idea, though. Remember those movie secretaries who, when they let their hair down and were persuaded to set aside their glasses, became great beauties? If the enterprising Mr. Boada, so adept at juggling emphatic flavors, were to spruce his arepas up a bit, he might yet make them work.

Grilled chorizo ($4.50) -- another boquita -- comes with a "spicy tomato sauce and rice." (At Sabroso, "spicy" is something of a mantra.) Actually, the sauce proved a lot more spicy than the chorizo did. A bright red in color, the sausage suggested intense heat. Uh-oh, I thought. Proceed at your own peril. But I needn't have worried. This chorizo, for all its posturing, proved something of a wimp.

Another boquita -- a particularly large one, it turned out -- was the sauteed mussels ($6.50) served with jalapenos, tomatillo, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and a white-wine sauce. As good as the mussels were, the broth was even better. It contained too much salt, perhaps. And yes, someone had been overly generous with the lime juice. But oh, how irresistibly briny it tasted. It provided one of those felicitous moments -- all too rare, unfortunately -- when you chance on something so captivating, it transforms you. For days afterward, I thought only of that broth.

The mussels come with a wonderful flat bread perfect for mopping. And boy, didI mop.

Sabroso Grill, 5510 Morningside, 942-9900.

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Eric Lawlor