"You won't ever catch me saying that any gumbo in Houston is 'awesome,'" said my friend Brandi as she considered the last few bites of her cup of chicken, sausage and seafood gumbo at MerCheri's one evening. "But this stuff is pretty good."
11200 Broadway, #1160, Pearland. 713-436-7772.
3 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to midnight, Thursdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Boudin balls: $12
Crab cakes: $16
Bowl of gumbo: $12
Small seafood pasta: $10
Small blackened shrimp: $11
Small seafood touffe: $8
Brandi — and her family — truly know their gumbo. In fact, her mother's gumbo is by far the finest I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The stuff takes weeks to prepare and is only served once a year, at her Cajun family Christmas, after careful consideration of ingredients and many intricate purchasing trips. It's the main reason I wanted Brandi with me at MerCheri's, to get a second opinion — as it were — on what I thought was one of the better gumbos I'd had in Houston.
The gumbo is rich and dark, with a slightly spicy roux that benefits from just a touch of sweet, tomato-added acidity. Sliced coins of andouille sausage bob next to lashings of dark-meat chicken and pert curls of shrimp, and once the buttery rice is added to the gumbo, it's all I can do to keep from eating the entire bowl in one swift, gluttonous move. But I'd also lured Brandi here with the promise of some fine boudin balls. Both the boudin balls and the gumbo, I'm told, come from old family recipes that belong to the owners.
"You weren't kidding about these," she said as we polished off a plate of four, each roughly the size of a racquetball. "I thought these were going to be some little cornball things, but these are great."
Back in early January, I'd been stunned to find a martini bar in Pearland serving the kind of fluffy, fat, richly spiced boudin balls that you normally find in places like Al T's in Winnie, or the Samburger in Denver Harbor (which has now sadly discontinued them).
For all its pomp and circumstance — fancy, metallic menus, high ceilings, an extensive martini list and leather banquettes — MerCheri's is at its best just when it's serving up simple, no-nonsense Louisiana soul food. It's a breath of fresh air in Pearland Town Center, a development choked with mediocre chains and knockoff outlets. And while the menu is short and sweet, I'd love to see MerCheri's tighten it up even more: Take off the incongruous items like chicken satay skewers and spinach-artichoke dip, and the burgers and sandwiches that can be found anywhere and cater to the lowest common denominator, and embrace the Cajun aspect of the menu with a whole heart.
Of course, removing those types of items might mean that MerCheri's might no longer have as broad an audience. But I think the food, the kitchen and the restaurant itself — no longer suffering from split personality disorder — would improve drastically.
The items that didn't wow me the first times around have already shown steady improvement just since January. Take the Creole-style seafood étouffée, for example.
On my first visit, I found the étouffée thin and reedy, with an odd metallic taste that made me cringe. On a third visit nearly two months later, it had improved significantly. It still wasn't up to par — overly sweet and still too thin for my tastes, with too much emphasis on tomatoes (a personal pet peeve) — but the étouffée, filled with plenty of shrimp and crawfish, no longer resembled the halfhearted mess from before.
I attribute this, at least in part, to the efforts of Terentia Boudreaux, one of the owners, who seems to read each and every review with an eagle eye. When it first opened late last summer, there were rumblings on local food Web sites about "slow" service and "confused" waiters. That was swiftly corrected by the time I visited, with each waitress better than the last. (The sole exception was a young man who definitely fell into the "confused" category on my very last visit, but I couldn't fault his eagerness or his politeness.)
I admire owners who take enough pride in their restaurants to not only read but to respond to criticisms in what I think is the best possible way: correcting them and moving on, without any silly antics in forums like Yelp or Twitter. I see so much of that these days — across the country — that I have to wonder whatever happened to civility and basic customer service.
On my second visit, my dining partners — Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty and another friend — and I were tickled by our young waitress, Chanel, who embodied MerCheri's commitment to personal, friendly, well-informed customer service. She'd eaten everything on the menu and tried every drink and was eager to steer us in the right direction.
"You don't want that," she told my female dining companion about the Sweetie Martini. "Trust me."
"But why?" my friend responded, confused. Containing gin, sweet vermouth and an olive, it was the only "regular" martini on the menu of dozens of different options.
"Most people don't like that," said Chanel. "It's not sweet enough for them." With a name like Sweetie Martini, we reasoned, that's probably where the confusion was coming from. Classic Martini might be a better name.
My friend ordered it anyway and was quite happy with it, as was I with my Pearland, a vodka cocktail incorporating pear puree (of course) and tiny, crystalline ice shards that made the day's hot weather more than tolerable. The restaurant's signature frozen drink, a house martini that tastes blissfully like a frozen Greyhound, will undoubtedly increase in popularity as well as the days get hotter from here.
Hlavaty's seafood pasta that night was frustratingly lacking the crab meat that he'd requested, but was simple and very tasty regardless, with shrimp and crawfish tossed together amidst thick strands of linguini. A bit of olive oil, sweet peppers and a touch of spice rounded it out. The portion was large enough to share — MerCheri's serves its entrées in small and large sizes — and I made a mental note to order a "small" next time.
My straightforward plate of blackened shrimp fared equally well, served with a bowl of dirty rice that I loved but knew could probably be polarizing to some people, as it contained nearly as many liver and gizzard bits as rice. I ate every last, livery bite with zeal.
Where MerCheri's does struggle is with consistency, however. On my visit with Hlavaty, the crab cakes — made with husky slabs of lump crabmeat — were buttery and wonderful, with a lightly crispy exterior and nearly no fillers other than crab. On my return visit with Brandi, they were rubbery and tasted microwaved.
"Not to mention they could use some lemon and green onion," commented Brandi. She was right. And although blackened shrimp on my second visit had been perfectly nice, blackened mahimahi on my third was merely burned.
MerCheri's doesn't quite know what it wants to be yet. The atmosphere can be off-putting to those expecting an upscale meal when it gets rowdy, with football games on the big-screen TVs and spades being played raucously at adjoining tables. On the other hand, those looking for a more laid-back meal might be put off by some of the prices — a foursome of boudin balls is $12, after all (as compared to, say, five boudin balls at Ragin' Cajun for $4.99). And while they're wonderful, that's also excessively pricy for an appetizer, at $3 each.
I've also walked in at times when I nearly thought the place was closed: tables and chairs in disarray, as if the staff had been cleaning up after a huge party, and no one to greet or seat you for a good five minutes. It's times like those when I understand why a casual visitor might find MerCheri's to be scattered and aloof.
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"This doesn't look like the kind of place where I'd dig into a pile of crawfish," said Brandi as we walked into the large dining room on my final visit, stern tones of steel gray and Egyptian blue still imparting a slightly imposing air.
"Well," I responded, "I guess that's good, because they don't serve crawfish here. At least not boiled ones." But maybe they should.
I do wish MerCheri's would give in to the less "upscale" side of things here, add some po-boys and boiled crawfish to the menu and let the restaurant play those football games and rounds of spades with wild glee. That attitude would pair nicely with the boisterous, joyful spirit already found in the gumbo, dirty rice and plump, playful boudin balls.