Tranquility abides on Sunday mornings in La Grange — not the Texas town but the combination bar and restaurant just off Westheimer where freewheeling gay hangout EJ’s used to be. The migas would shine even if not already lit by the friendly sunbeams on the patio. The plate is full of golden color, from the perfectly moist scrambled eggs strewn with in-house crisped strips of corn tortilla to the yellow grits accented with a goodly amount of cheddar and chunks of deep green poblano peppers. Two links of dense sausage anchor each side of the plate, and a puddle of gently seasoned — albeit soupy — black beans accented with cotija and pico de gallo provide a final hearty touch.
Alternately, La Grange’s powerhouse take on shrimp and grits is another great way to get the day started. So many versions of the Southern classic are bland and boring, but this one is amped up with a dose of chorizo chili, tortilla strips and pico de gallo on top. A handful of verdant peas is a surprising addition, but really works nonetheless. There’s plenty of firm, tail-off shrimp to go around, too.
There’s an indoor bar and seating area at La Grange, but the big draw is the enormous patio. During good weather, the prime spot to dine is on the narrow second-story deck. It’s as pleasant a view of the shops across the street as it is of all the action on the bigger patio below.
La Grange is one of several establishments that have cropped up over the past two years that straddle the line between restaurant and bar. The bar scene is definitely a big draw (and probably the prime moneymaker), but these places include a full-fledged menu that offers appetizers, entrées and desserts. In that sense, La Grange is very similar to El Big Bad, Bovine & Barley and sister bar-restaurant Cottonwood, which has the same owners. The deliberately relaxed atmosphere at each helps them to avoid getting tagged with the haughty label “gastropub.”
On Friday and Saturday nights, La Grange is a total party scene with three bars to accommodate the crowds. On weeknights and during weekend brunch hours, it’s much more sedate. In fact, brunch is so good and relaxing here it’s one of the best new options. For better or worse, the scene bears no resemblance to that at dearly departed La Strada. There’s no dancing or servers still in drag makeup from the night before. It’s kind of a pity, but Montrose isn’t the same boundary-pushing world it used to be.
In fact, during the peaceful times, La Grange is even fit for families. One couple was enjoying a meal with their two young kids during our Sunday morning visit. The sole complaint was that there’s no children’s menu, but kid-friendly items like pancakes and tres leches French toast were still perfectly acceptable.
Grown-up diners will more likely aim for appetizers like chargrilled Gulf oysters thickly encrusted with broiled Parmesan cheese. The resulting crust is so good that scraping the toasty brown remnants from the shell is an irresistible temptation.
On the other hand, the salmon aguachile is an equally fine choice. (The term aguachile references the process of pulverizing fresh peppers with a bit of water before they’re incorporated into a marinade or sauce.) The salmon is doused in an herbal green marinade that derives its color from cilantro and mint and its tartness from lime juice. The strips of salmon remain mild and soft, but little cubes of crisp jicama and ruby-rimmed slices of radish balance textures beautifully. Halved black grapes add sweet surprise, and finishing dashes of habanero oil light up the dish with a mild, fruity burn.
Chef Daniel Ajtai, who also oversees the food program at Cottonwood, has a lot of great ideas. There’s a mix of classic dishes, with a few specifically conceived to meet the needs of a diverse dining crowd. Take, for example, the clever idea of squash fajitas. Zucchini is cut into sticks and served on a hot comal along with sautéed strips of poblano, onion and red bell peppers. It’s a great dish for the health-conscious, although rolling the zucchini sticks into a tortilla and taking a bite is dangerously messy. Zucchini have a high water content, and there may be a way to improve on the dish by pressing the excess moisture out before cooking. Also, adding a few other types of squash to the mix would lend additional textures and colors.
Stacked enchiladas with diced chicken layered between a trio of crisp corn tortillas, on the other hand, needed no improvement. A goodly amount of creamy salsa verde served to moisten and season chicken and tortillas alike, and all nestled under a big, stretchy tent of broiled cheese.
The dessert part of the menu needs to be taken more seriously. It’s good to have fun, but it’s not okay for $6 desserts to be similar to what you’d find at a Chinese buffet. The bananas dulce de leche consisted of a scoop of ice cream and bananas deep-fried with a pale, simple batter, resulting in an unfortunate appearance. One diner chortled, “They could do better than these banana penises.” The dulce de leche, a milky caramel sauce, was missing, too.
The Mexican tiramisu didn’t evoke lewd comparisons, but the combination of crushed animal crackers and a mountain of whipped cream topping looked like one of those sloppy, no-cook dessert recipes kids could make at home (sans the espresso and tequila).
The cocktail program under bar director and manager Linda Salinas is every bit as astute as one might expect from this industry veteran. Salinas brings experience from Anvil Bar & Refuge, The Pastry War and Liberty Station as well as experience with upper-scale dining from the defunct Voice in Hotel Icon and Branchwater Tavern. The drinks pair perfectly with the approachable, lighthearted Mexican menu — fun and high-quality but never overcomplicated. Juices are fresh-squeezed, and a deep respect for the classics is evident. Palomas are enhanced but not overwhelmed with smoky mezcal, while Manhattans get a spicy spike of Ancho Reyes chili liqueur.
Service at La Grange is friendly but needs to be tightened up. It’s more casual than the food deserves. There’s no need to be concerned about up-selling because the servers don’t seem to be in a big hurry to take orders. On our first visit, the server wandered off to parts unknown after we ordered cocktails, and never even asked if we’d like to place a food order. We passed that message along by way of the person who brought our drinks. Courses weren’t paced on the next visit, and our tiny, two-seat table was overloaded all at once, leaving the entrées to sit and cool while the appetizers were consumed.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Still, prices at La Grange are incredibly affordable. After the sticker shock of an $18 dirty martini at a steakhouse a few weeks ago, it was a mental “ahhhhh” to see a list of cocktails ranging from $7 to $10. A hearty brunch that included two entrées and two appetizers cost $26.81 per person, and dinner with a shared appetizer (before tip and beverages) was a mere $21.65 each.
La Grange is a fun place and a good fit for Montrose. It begs not to be taken too seriously, yet the savory dishes and cocktails are so well-executed that diners will sit up and take notice. It’s a perfect place to unwind after work on weekdays or bask on the sunny patio, with migas on the table and michelada in hand, on the weekends.
2517 Ralph, 832-962-4745, lagrangehouston.com. Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays.
Squash fajitas $7
Salmon aguachile $9
Chorizo shrimp and grits $12
Parmesan garlic oysters $12
Stacked chicken enchiladas $12
Smoked tomato campechana $15
Banana dulce de leche $6
Mexican tiramisu $6
Michelada roja $7