La Bikina in The Woodlands Can't Decide What Type of Place It Wants to Be

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If there's a "can't-miss" dish at La Bikina, it's the molcajete de queso, in which two stubby sticks of Monterey Jack cheese are breaded in crumbled chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and gently placed atop a tangy tomatillo sauce with onion and cilantro. It's served in a searing molcajete (a footed stone mortar), and the cheese is stirred into the sauce tableside. The pork adds fat and flavor, while the cheese contributes stringy texture and creaminess. A few more of the small, warm corn tortillas served alongside would have been appreciated, but the complimentary tortilla chips are fine, too.

La Bikina's sophisticated website makes it look as if there was once a dream that it would be a fine-dining establishment. There are big, beautiful photos of bowls of spices, extreme close-ups of appetizers and a picture of the large marble-topped bar. On the menu are fancy-sounding dishes such as tiradito de atún, or seared ahi tuna with a "Chile toreado" sauce; filete huachinango de la costa, or fried red snapper with roasted garlic; and pulpo la parrilla, or grilled octopus with roasted peppers and onions. The prices approach "fine-dining" levels too, with main dishes costing between $15 and $27.

The original location is in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the website proclaims that The Woodlands location, which opened in August 2014, serves "authentic Mexican cuisine enhanced with unique flavors and seductive spices."

Alas, if only there were some seductive spices, especially for the woeful chamorro, a flavorless roasted pork shank. The pork came with a side of acceptable if uninspiring lime-tinged guacamole -- a saving grace was the outstanding charro beans that were thoroughly permeated with smoky bacon flavor. (It's a shame that La Bikina's rice isn't as good as the beans are. Instead, it's dry and strewn through with some sad, withered green peas.)

When La Bikina does make an effort at seasoning, it's often wrongheaded. Such was the case with the camarones momia, or bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with queso fresco that would have been better off without the reddish lake that was supposed to be flavored with chipotles but was more like a blend of Kraft barbecue sauce and soy. The shrimp alone won't win medals for creativity (wrapping them in bacon isn't a novel idea these days), but they were fresh and there were plenty of them -- eight, to be exact. It would have been nice if they'd been properly cleaned, since there were still a few spiky little legs attached here and there.

The complimentary tortilla chips are served with a guajillo sauce the color of rich mahogany instead of the typical tomato-based salsa. It could have been really good and interesting if it were not so watery and thin.

Like these items that manage to be both good and bad within the same dish, La Bikina itself has a split-personality disorder. That even physically manifests in the dining room, which is divided between a casual bar area and a section of more formal booth seating. That sophisticated-sounding menu and a serene patio lie on one side of the equation. On the other are loud music videos that play on big-screen televisions at night, free Wi-Fi and paper place mats touting the "scorpion challenge," in which you're invited to dare your friends to consume a shot of tequila along with an actual scorpion.

Service can be exceptional when there are enough employees on the floor. On the first visit, our server checked in on us numerous times without being intrusive and annoying. Most important, she seemed to actually care if the food was enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it's often not enjoyable, as was the case with the horrible, mushy lengua tacos. Many people are still skittish about (or at least unfamiliar with) eating cow tongue, so if a restaurant is going to serve lengua, it's important for it to do a good job, be an ambassador and win some converts.

La Bikina had cooked its version into a bland, dark-brown mess the consistency of potted meat. One bite was so off-putting that there wasn't a second. There wasn't even any spicy red or green sauce alongside to doctor the tacos with. Most taco trucks serve better lengua -- much better, in fact.

Our observant server noticed that the tacos went nearly uneaten, and was concerned. "You didn't like them?" she asked, and we admitted we didn't, explaining that we preferred our lengua sliced, seasoned and seared. She nodded and said, "Yeah, that's how I like it, too." We did not ask for the tacos to be removed from the check, but they disappeared anyway.

On a subsequent visit, we got the same server. Unfortunately, this time she was the only one on the floor and had to do more than was feasible. It took ten minutes for a glass of wine to be poured (They're on draft. They only need to pull the tap. It's like a draft beer system, only with wine.). One diner didn't get water, and another did. A side order of refried beans never appeared. An "iced tea" wasn't; it was warm with no ice at all. When the problem was pointed out, instead of replacing it with a properly made iced tea, the server brought a glass of ice to the table. "Ice it yourself, buddy" seemed to be the message.

The cóctel de camarón "Acapulco," or Acapulco-style shrimp cocktail, very nearly won us over. As with the bacon-wrapped shrimp, there were plenty of good firm ones, in this case nestled in a tomato sauce with tangy sliced green olives, chopped onion and cilantro. A fan of slightly under-ripe avocado slices garnished the top, but that didn't undermine the dish nearly as much as the overly sweet tomato sauce that ventured dangerously close to ketchup territory. A rescue mission was mounted to save the shrimp from their cloying bath.

Oddly enough, the clear winners were also some of the more inexpensive items. One was the $8 dish of sopa de fideo seco, or "dry noodle soup." Pasta isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one considers Mexican fare, but this was short strands of vermicelli (known as fideo) cooked in a slightly smoky chipotle-tomato sauce. As the name suggests, it's more saucy than brothy. Droplets of sour cream are dotted across, there was another fan of sliced avocado and a sprinkling of queso fresco was the final touch.

The only flaw was that it was too salty, but after so many bland dishes, any flavor was a welcome respite. Interestingly, the fideo is also available as a taco filling, but it's a lot less successful that way. The corn tortilla overwhelms the flavor of the pasta.

According to a manager we spoke with, one of the owners of La Bikina also owns Ambhar tequila. Bottles of it are displayed near the front door and featured in many of the cocktails. A headline on a story by Dave Lieberman at our sister paper OC Weekly called Ambhar "the worst tequila to enter the market since Cuervo Gold." A press release from last year says it's "distilled five times for exceptional purity and smoothness." In other words, it's essentially vodka with a slight bit of agave on the nose, and while it's useful as a gateway tequila, that's not actually the point. A good tequila hasn't had most of the agave flavor distilled out of it. That would be like aging bourbon in steel instead of wood barrels because someone might find the oaky flavor offensive.

That aside, La Bikina's cocktail program is one of its stronger points. Used in a margarita, the tequila flavor (or lack of it) is inoffensive, and it's hard to mess up a two-ingredient cocktail like the carajillo, which contains only Licor 43 and espresso. It's a great drink to have if a long night is ahead. The "1934 Tequila Sunrise" is absolutely admirable for being a simple, classic blend of blanco tequila (Ambhar again), crème de cassis and grapefruit juice. Overdistilled tequila aside, this is the way tequila sunrises are supposed to be, not crazed with orange juice and impostor grenadine made of sugar syrup and red dye.

Compare all that to the fact that on our visits, both during the day and in the evening, most of the clientele were families with young children who don't go there for a big bar scene. It's as if no one at La Bikina has looked around to see who's actually patronizing their restaurant.

It was nearly barren at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, which is normally a pretty busy night. Just down the street, the new Ruggles Green was still packed even at 9:30 p.m. The Woodlands is full of people who dine out and, as a result, has a burgeoning restaurant scene. If La Bikina can figure out whether it's a place for shots with scorpions or a family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a suburban menu, it may find an audience.

La Bikina 4223 Research Forest, 281-419-1985. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays and Mondays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 1 to 11 p.m. Sundays.

Sopa de fideo seco $8 Tacos de lengua $11 Molcajete de queso $12.50 Cóctel de camarón "Acapulco" $13 Tiradito de atún $15 Pulpo la parrilla $20 Chamorro $22 Camarones momia $23 Filete huachinango de la costa $27 Tequila sunrise $9 Carajillo $11 House margarita $7

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