First Look at Cuchara

There are no chips and salsa delivered to your table at Cuchara. There are no enchiladas or quesadillas on the menu, although there are margaritas and mole. That's because Cuchara isn't your run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex restaurant. Like fellow new kid La Fisheria and warhorse Hugo's, this is Mexican food of the most interesting sort.

The food served at Cuchara is not purely Mexican, but rather a modern interpretation of the country's native cuisine, especially the cuisine found in the coastal state of Veracruz. And although the restaurant has barely been open for a week, the service and food were already remarkably up to par when I dropped in last Tuesday night for a quick dinner before flying out to D.C. in the morning. (What good Texan doesn't want Mexican or Tex-Mex as her final meal before spending a few days in another city?)

In fact, the only problem I foresee with Cuchara is in its choice of name. I have lost track of how many people have parroted back "Cucaracha?" to me in a quizzical, incredulous voice. This being Houston, cucaracha is a far more common term here than soundalike cuchara, which means "spoon" in Spanish, and it's just way too easy to get the two words confused. Sorry, guys.

On the bright side, Cuchara looks as though it's going to be a very welcome addition to the corner of Fairview and Taft in Montrose -- a corner which already houses popular neighborhood spots like Ziggy's and Boheme -- and should do quite well in the walkable area as another neighborhood restaurant, like Barnaby's or Tex-Chick just down the street.

I also imagine that Cuchara will do much more than walk-up business, though: Its menu is intriguing enough to draw diners from all over the city, diners who are eager to explore chef Adriana Avendaño's modern Mexican cuisine through such dishes as taquitos stuffed with fried hibiscus flowers and white cheese or huachinango a la Veracruzana with strikingly Creole flavors.

The huachinango (red snapper) was my favorite dish on that Tuesday night, although I am still hard-pressed to make that choice: Everything we had was good, and the kitchen is still too young to really make any judgment calls this early on.

But I can tell you that I expect great things out of Avendaño and her staff (which, judging from the open kitchen, seems to be an army of abuelitas making masa from scratch). I liked the format of the huachinango: heavy on tomatoes, peppers and onions, the bright sauce was a natural pairing for the fat, fluffy fish.

That's a more traditional recipe, however -- and Cuchara has plenty of nontraditional dishes to challenge your palate, from a chilled, silky avocado mousse soup that negates any need for guacamole to suflé de chicharrón -- pork rind souffle -- which I didn't get to try, but which I'm headed back for soon. I'm also eager to check out Cuchara's brunch, which is only on Sundays, but which adds a few more dishes than are normally available on the dinner menu and adds a few more cocktails, too.

As Chronicle food critic Alison Cook mentioned last week, Cuchara's cocktail program is currently being overseen by Chris Frankel and Alex Gregg -- both formerly of Anvil Bar & Refuge. The two men have created cocktails as interesting as Cuchara's food, like a nearly amber-colored margarita blended with Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaḉao in place of Triple Sec and simple syrup made from dark brown panela in lieu of sugar. They're serving interesting industry favorites, too, such as a mescal-laced Division Bell with bitter Aperol and sweet Maraschino to balance it all out, a drink first made by Phil Ward of Mayahuel in New York City but which plays just as well to Houston audiences.

The cocktails and bar menu appear to be as much of a draw as the food so far, and it seems as though Cuchara planned it that way: The large, open dining room is split right down the middle, with dining tables on one side and the expansive, warm-toned bar (which has an almost Nordic, mid-century look to it) dominating the other.

Wherever you sit, though, you'll be anchored by the exuberant, Haring-esque murals of artist Cecilia Beaven, sister of co-owner Ana Beaven and Mexico-based muralist -- art which keeps intact the tradition of murals inside Mexican restaurants while cheerfully turning that tradition on its ear. Look above you in the bar, and you'll even see one suspended from the ceiling.

There's also a small lounge area, which will be instrumental in accommodating the overflow I imagine showing up en masse to Cuchara on weekend evenings. I hear there's already a wait, in fact, and Cuchara hasn't even held its grand opening party, which will take place this coming Saturday, September 15. And one day soon for brunch, I'll be happily waiting for my next meal at Cuchara too.

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