Great Gumbo and Even Better Boudin Balls at MerCheri's

In my review of BRC Gastropub last October, I chastised the restaurant for serving tough little nuggets that they dared call boudin balls, and suggested the kitchen staff take a trip to the Fifth Ward to see how real boudin balls should taste, over at Samburger. Light and crispy on the outside, with a soft and fluffy interior of seasoned rice and slightly unctuous meat on the inside: This is how a perfect boudin ball should be. Never dense. Never hard.

Little did I realize that Samburger had just taken those boudin balls off the menu...for good. According to my friend Paul McRae, the manager told him that the boudin balls (and the lovely deep-fried corn-on-the-cob) hadn't been selling well enough. McRae's annoyed and sardonic reply was, "I guess being the best in the city just isn't good enough for Denver Harbor."

I was annoyed, too, from afar. Too wounded to venture back to Samburger for now, I've been looking for replacement boudin balls at other restaurants around the city. To my great surprise, I've found those elusive boudin balls at a new restaurant in Pearland, smack dab in the middle of the gaudy new Pearland Town Center.

MerCheri's (11200 Broadway, Suite 1160, 713-436-7772) opened a few months ago, with its broad patio facing the central pavilion of the Pearland Town Center. It is a "town center" in the loosest possible sense of the term, more like an outdoor shopping mall with very poorly planned parking and no real attractions other than the few non-chain restaurants that pop up between the Forever 21 and Cinnabon stores. Fortunately, MerCheri's is one of those blessedly non-chain restaurants, with a short and sweet food menu that does little to prepare one for the massive drink menu.

First things first: MerCheri's bills itself as a martini bar, so I wasn't expecting much from the food. I was proven wrong. It goes to show that just because a place has more than 50 "martini" combinations on the menu (all of which are made with vodka, FYI), the food can still be surprisingly great. Be warned, however, that the atmosphere inside is more of a laid-back, semi-upscale sports bar, with a raucous game of spades being played at one table and a bar filled with men intently watching the Texans on large flat-screen TVs. Fortunately, this was right up my dining companion's alley, and he happily watched the game as we ate.

Yelp and B4-U-Eat reviews indicated that MerCheri's had suffered from some serious service issues when it first opened. I'm happy to report that we experienced nothing but great service from our chipper young waitress, Janeka, who brought out samples of the "house martini" (that's it, above, with a cherry on top) almost as soon as we sat down. It tastes like a frozen Greyhound, but packs a tremendous wallop the likes of which laid me low for nearly the rest of the day.

I'm also happy to report that the boudin balls here have replaced those at Samburger part and parcel: You're now looking at the best boudin balls in Houston, as far as I'm concerned. The fruity, spicy sauce served alongside it -- like Chik-Fil-A's classic Polynesian sauce with a ton of Tabasco mixed in -- bumps up the likability here considerably.

And although I wasn't at all impressed with the thin, metallic-tasting shrimp étouffée, the gumbo knocked my socks off. Served with a side of perfectly cooked rice -- light and buttery, just like I like it -- the rich gumbo was packed full of shrimp, andouille sausage and dark chicken. The dark Cajun roux could have benefited from a pop or two of Crystal hot sauce, which I'll ask for next time, but couldn't have been any better otherwise.

And next time, I'm not ordering a cup. I'm getting a whole bowl of that gumbo. And maybe even a whole order of boudin balls for myself.

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Katharine Shilcutt