Getting Reacquainted with Amazon Grill

When there was still an Amazon Grill on Gessner near Westheimer, I ate lunch there -- on average -- once a week. It was an easy choice to please a pack of picky co-workers, as it offered everything from fun South American food to "diet" food (gross, guys) and hamburgers. It had fried plantains just sitting out there next to the soda fountain, just begging you to help yourself to as many platefuls as you could grab. It had comfortable seating and an easy, pay-at-the-counter arrangement that allowed us all to get in and out quickly and conveniently.

But then, one day, a group of us showed up eager for our Amazon Grill fix to find it shuttered, unceremoniously and without warning. That was perhaps four or five years ago. And until last week, I hadn't been back since.

It's not that I was angry with Amazon Grill. Far from it, in fact. I missed having my weekly lunches there quite a bit, but -- as it's so easy to do in Houston, the City of Restaurants -- I quickly found other lunch spots to fill the vacuum and, before long, Amazon Grill was just a faint memory.

It just so happened that I was searching for some great, overlooked french fries last week, when former Eating...Our Words contributor John Kiely suggested the place I hadn't thought of in years. "Amazon Grill," he wrote on Twitter, "dipped in the creamy cilantro sauce." Not only had I forgotten that Amazon Grill even had fries, I'd forgotten how good they were.

So together with another friend who hadn't ventured into the restaurant in years, I went back to investigate. As I understand it, the flagship restaurant on Kirby underwent a remodel a few years ago and the makeover did well. Although it's still invitingly casual -- and still has that same, handy counter service -- the jewel tones of ruby and mustard throughout give the space a more adult ambiance. The addition of booths with quirky shapes and lines called to mind the eccentric decor of its big sister restaurant, Americas, and I found it a nice reminder that Amazon Grill is still very much a part of the Cordúa Restaurants empire along with Churrascos and Artista.

I was also pleased to find that the food was as good as I remembered, if not better. My plate of Chicken Amazon -- my old go-to dish -- was still wonderful, and I admired the way that even this fast-casual place could cook a chicken breast better than many restaurants in town and still leave it tender and juicy. The roasted breast meat is covered with a sort of tribute to elotes in a way, with grilled corn and crema fresca adhering to it the way that batter would to a piece of fried chicken. I ate it quickly, between crisp bites of the escabeche-style diced vegetables on the side. Along with a generous portion of cilantro rice, black beans and a built-in dessert of sauteed maduros, the entire plate was only $12.

"I used to love coming to Amazon Grill when I was younger," mused my friend over his plate of fat, flaky empanadas. "It was the only place I'd eat my vegetables." He picked idly at the sweet maduros on my own plate as he talked. "And these," he said. "These were always my favorite."

For Houstonians of a certain age, it's hard to remember a time when we didn't have Churrascos or Americas. We're spoiled in many ways, and the luxury of having such accessible and affordable South American food on such a broad scale is one of those many things our city is blessed with. It was an uphill battle for the Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordúa to have South American food accepted in Houston at first, but he persevered. After opening his first Churrascos in 1988, he went on to open the critically acclaimed Americas in 1993 and cemented his personal brand of South American food as a fixture in Houston.

And although it's funny to consider these days, dishes that are now commonplace -- the tres leches cakes you buy for birthdays or the ceviches that are seen in nearly every new restaurant that opens its doors -- were novel ideas before Michael Cordúa came along. Indeed, many South American restaurants still struggle to have their cuisine accepted here in the stronghold of Tex-Mex.

"This culinary pioneer showed us the flavors, aromas and dishes of lands such as Nicaragua, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, expanding our vocabulary with words like plantains, ceviche, empanadas, churrasco, yuca, chimichurri and, of course, tres leches," wrote Robb Walsh in 2005.

"The trail he blazed has inspired many other Latin cuisine concepts, broadening our culinary horizons far beyond Mexico."

Michael's son David is now the executive chef at Americas and the Dr. Seussian restaurant on Post Oak has now closed and found new quarters in River Oaks. There's also an outpost in The Woodlands, with a crazy dining room of its own. But not everything has changed. The plantains at Amazon Grill are still gently sweet, crispy and addictive -- especially with that garlicky chimichurri sauce -- and the french fries, too, are as good as ever.

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