Just like mom used to make it.
When was the last time you ate at a restaurant and said that to yourself? Probably not very recently. Lots of restaurants advertise "authentic, home-cooked" meals because they use the original recipes from the owner's family, but they're still usually cooked by a battalion of for-hire cooks. Something inevitably gets lost in the translation.
But as I recently discovered when Jay Francis tipped me to a restaurant called Kiko's Mexican Cafe on Fulton Street north of downtown, true family-owned-and-operated restaurants do still exist in Houston. Located in a bustling Hispanic neighborhood that includes multiple taco trucks, a Fiesta supermarket, a Laredo Taqueria and the legendary Gerardo's Drive-In, Kiko's occupies a small corner lot and an even smaller utilitarian building that has certainly seen a few restaurants come and go over the years.
Before a weekday lunch visit, I tried to check the restaurant's entries on sites like Yelp, Citysearch and B4-U-Eat. What I got back was...nada. No entries on any of the major restaurant websites. I Googled around a bit more and found only a Google Maps entry with an address and phone number.
Was this place still in business? Had Houston's prolific food explorers not made it to Kiko's? An undiscovered restaurant in Houston is extremely rare. I saddled up and headed north, pulling into the Kiko's Mexican Cafe parking lot at lunchtime. It was open for business. I walked in having no idea what to expect.
The inside of Kiko's is much like the outside -- spartan and workmanlike. Bare walls are festooned with colorful, handwritten signs (Spanish only) with daily specials. On one side of the dining room is the cash register; on the other is a large window that looks in to the kitchen. I was greeted by a smiling waitress who took my order: a taco y tamal daily special for $5.99.
Peering through the window into the kitchen, I could see the cook preparing my order. Minutes later, the lunch plate arrived: a ground beef taco (tacos de picadillo), a pork tamale (tamales de puerco), rice and beans, and a side of salsa. The picadillo taco was rich and well-seasoned. The tamale was delicious and obviously handmade. The rice and beans were standard-issue but well-prepared. The salsa was smooth and sweet with a fiery kick. Somehow the food reflected the surroundings: simple and unpretentious, created with care and comfort.
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After paying the bill, I asked the waitress if I could take pictures. She agreed and introduced me to her husband, Oscar. He took me in to the kitchen and introduced me to the "cook" I had seen through the window: Señora Maria Moreno, who also happens to be Oscar's mom. As far as I can tell, Maria Moreno is literally the chief cook and bottle washer of Kiko's Mexican Cafe.
As the story was told (translated, actually) to me, Señora Moreno is continuing a long family tradition of restaurants previously located in northern Mexico near the city of Reynosa. In that general vicinity is a large ranch known as Kiko's, for which the restaurant is named.
On this particular day, Señora Moreno had made a chef's special of chiles rellenos. Unfortunately, I hadn't seen the sign in the dining room advertising the special, so I hadn't ordered it for lunch. She offered one to me for free as her guest. I politely declined, as the lunch she had cooked for me was both delicious and filling. I promised to return for what looked like spectacular chiles rellenos, just like mom used to make.
Kiko's Mexican Cafe 3903 Fulton St., 713-692-4202 Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner