Fish a la Plancha

John Stage, the founder of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a famous barbecue joint in upstate New York, was here in Houston for a barbecue convention a couple of years ago. He and his posse asked me to recommend a restaurant. They had already eaten a lot of Houston barbecue and wanted some Gulf seafood. So I took them to Tampico, the Mexican seafood restaurant on Airline across from the farmers' market.

For appetizers, we snacked on the free chips and salsa, and ordered Mexican beers and tequila shots. And then we got some cócteles. You can get a shrimp, octopus or ceviche cocktail here, but I like the mixed seafood cocktail called vuelva a la vida. The name translates as "return to life," so I guess it's a hangover cure. The cocktail contains all of the above seafood items in a sweet and spicy ketchup-and-chile sauce, served in a tall ice cream glass and garnished with avocado, onions and cilantro. You spoon the seafood onto saltines and chase each cracker with a sip of cold beer. Is that the glory of the Gulf in a parfait glass, or what?

For our entrées, I dragged Stage to the fish counter. The beauty of Tampico's Mexican seafood market concept is that the fish are kept on ice in the front of the place where you can see them. You pick out the exact fish you want and pay for it by the pound. There are several varieties depending on the season, but my top choice is Gulf red snapper, which is referred to by its Mexican name, huachinango (pronounced "watch-ee-NONG-o") here. When you order whole snapper a la plancha, you get the fish griddle-cooked with onions and green peppers. It runs $11 a pound, and a five-pound fish will feed a big crowd.


Tampico Seafood and Cocina Mexicana

2115 Airline Drive, 713-862-8425.

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 10:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

Vuelva a la vida: $7.95
Shrimp cocktail: $6.95
Octopus cocktail: $6.95
Red snapper a la plancha (per pound): $10.99
Add shrimp (per pound): $14.99
Add frog's legs (per pound): $10.25

In a city where restaurants routinely pass off frozen tilapia as red snapper, it's a joy to eat the real thing. At Tampico, I usually add a pound of shrimp and a couple pairs of frog's legs to turn my huachinango a la plancha into a custom seafood platter. You get your choice of french fries or shrimp fried rice on the side.

Our fish came to the table on a hot comal with the vegetables underneath and the shrimp and frog's legs over the top. The sides of the fish had been slashed and seasoned, and the cooking process made the skin crispy. Thanks to the cuts, the fish meat came away in nice big chunks. They give you hot tortillas too, so you can wrap up some fish tacos with the grilled onions and green peppers doused with a little hot sauce.

The NYC BBQ boys were blown away by the sizzling whole fish and by Tampico's atmosphere. The décor is simple -- gleaming white tile walls, Formica tables, lots of plants, and neon beer signs. The restaurant is in a Mexican-American neighborhood, and the crowd is mostly Spanish-speaking, as are the staff. The guys from upstate had never heard of ostionerías (Mexican oyster bars), micheladas (beers spiked with hot sauce), or cócteles before, so they were easy to impress.

But I take a lot of out-of-town visitors to Tampico, and even the folks from Austin and Dallas are pleasantly surprised. That's because the place offers a unique combination of Gulf seafood and the kind of unpretentious neighborhood Mexican cooking that's unique to the our little corner of the world.

But sometimes, my guests surprise me, like the time I took a visiting Japanese-American photographer, his Japanese wife, and their five-year-old daughter to Tampico. When the fish came out, the five-year-old, whose name was Hikari, squealed with delight.

"Can I have the head?" she asked her parents excitedly. No one at the table was about to fight her for it. I watched in awe as the little girl dissected the fish head like an anatomy expert and methodically ate every teeny edible morsel. When she was finished there was nothing but shiny bones on her plate.

People who don't normally eat whole fish surprise me with their enthusiasm for the huachinango a la plancha at Tampico too. "What's the difference?" I asked a frequent dining companion.

"It's one big fish for everybody, not a little fish sitting there on your plate, staring up at you," the normally whole-fish-ophobic woman explained to me.

After I first ate at Tampico around six years ago, I started to notice all the ostionerías scattered around the city. I was eager to visit more of these Mexican seafood joints and to explore this new genre of dining. I ate at Seven Seas, Mambo, Arandas Ostionería, and some others whose names I have blocked out of my memory. They ranged from fair to abysmal.

At Arandas Ostionería on the East Freeway, there were no fish out on display. So I ordered a shrimp cocktail. And I got "see-through" shrimp. Nearly all shrimp are treated with sodium bisulfite, a preservative that keeps them from turning black and getting mushy. But shrimp that have been dosed with too much sodium bisulfite appear transparent, even after being boiled. And they taste slimy. I pushed away my shrimp cocktail and asked for a dozen oysters. The teenager who was shucking ran each oyster under tap water until he washed all the flavor away. I left without eating anything.

In fairness, I have to say that running the oysters under tap water is the unfortunate practice of every single Mexican seafood restaurant I visited, including Tampico. Is this because the shuckers were trained in oyster shucking plants?

Seafood plants that sell shucked oysters always wash the oysters before they put them in the bottle. Washing raw oysters does remove any grit from the broken shell. And it may even help to remove vibrio bacteria. But people who love oysters on the half shell expect to taste some brine and smell the sea. Tap water-washed oysters smell and taste like chlorine.

At Seven Seas, also on the East Freeway, they didn't have a fish counter either. I ordered mojarra al diablo, which turned out to be a small fried fish covered in a nasty red sauce that tasted like ketchup. At Mambo, I stuck to the fried shrimp. But I had to ask myself: "Why go to a Mexican seafood joint to eat fried shrimp when you can get it almost anywhere in Houston?" Eventually, I gave up on finding another Mexican seafood joint. Then several people suggested Connie's on Airline, right up the street from Tampico.

Connie's has their fish out on display too, and they have some interesting stuff you don't see everywhere -- like gar. The first time I went, I tried to duplicate the huachinango platter I'd learned to love at Tampico, and I was disappointed. The whole fish tasted like it had been fried, and there weren't any grilled onions or peppers with it. Rather than a sizzling comal, it came on a red-and-yellow plastic Chinese platter. And the shrimp I ordered with it were battered and fried separately, not cooked a la plancha with the fish like they do at Tampico. The restaurant was garishly decorated in dark blue and yellow, and the fluorescent lights gave me a headache. The whole experience was a far cry from good old Tampico.

I gave Connie's another try at lunchtime one weekday afternoon, and I think I figured out the appeal. Connie's has a lunch special with six fried shrimp and a huge pile of shrimp fried rice on the side, all for $3.99. The shrimp are a nice size too. So I guess there is a good time to eat fried shrimp at a Mexican seafood joint after all -- when it's on a lunch special for under $4.

Meanwhile, down the street at Tampico, I didn't see anything for lunch under $7.95. But Tampico isn't really a place to go if you are looking to eat cheap. Your dinner tab for four or five people with cócteles, a fish platter, and a couple of drinks apiece is going to be well over a hundred dollars.

It's what you get for your money that makes it worth it. For skillfully cooked, quality seafood presented with a bang, Tampico is a whale of a value.

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