UPDATE: After many requests, I've uploaded a full copy of La Casa de Caballo's menu -- with prices.
I admit: I was wary when I heard the news that a Mexican steakhouse would be moving into the old La Strada location in Montrose. The two-story building at Westheimer and Taft has housed a succession of failures over the past five years: La Strada itself, which closed in 2009 after 22 years hosting the city's bawdiest brunches, followed by Caffe Bello and Don Julio. Both of the latter were ventures from well-established restaurateurs, and if they couldn't make it in Montrose...who could?
The answer may be Carlos Abedrop, the owner of La Casa de Caballo. It's the second location of his popular steakhouse -- and the first in the United States. The original La Casa de Caballo in Saltillo, Mexico, operates out of a converted ranch house and serves glistening hunks of steak on wooden plates nearly the size of tables.
Abedrop was disappointed to learn that the City of Houston's health department wouldn't allow wooden plates, but you can see a sort homage to the original steakhouse's serving ware in the butcher block-style tables throughout the attractive dining room. Although nothing has been changed structurally inside the new La Casa de Caballo, it's been outfitted in reds and blacks that evoke a colonial Spanish feel gone slightly modern. Glass tiles mimicking licks of flames work their way up the stunning central staircase, where Abedrop eventually plans to open a lounge on the second floor.
For now, though, it's the ground floor of La Casa de Caballo that's open for business as of this past Monday -- and business here is all about steaks. Almost.
It's very clear from the way that Abedrop talks about steaks that he's a man in love with meat. His steaks are simply seasoned with only salt and pepper, an ascetic sort of treatment a la Aaron Franklin at his namesake Austin barbecue joint. The aggressive char and fatty endcaps on the rib eye I ate the other night called to mind the same smoke-scented allure of a good brisket, save one important point: The rib eye was cooked to a perfect medium-rare.
As with your standard American steakhouse, the rib eye came with an assortment of vegetables served family-style. These vegetables, however, carried the same smoky flavor of the rib eye; both are cooked on the same wood-fired grill. And in lieu of any creamed spinach or potatoes, the steaks at La Casa de Caballo come with lard-laced refried beans -- the ultimate Tex-Mex accompaniment.
"I ate three bowls of those the other night," I heard the man to my left lament. As with the beans at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe just down the road, the porky musk is unmistakable and you will either crave or loathe the beans for that very reason. I stand firmly in the "crave" camp, although lard-loathers have been warned.
Other pleasant Tex-Mex touches are found throughout the menu in clever little twists. A wedge salad, for example, is presented with the standard tomatoes and blue cheese scattered on wedges of iceberg lettuce. The bacon, however, is a house-smoked jalapeño bacon and the peppery dressing is more like the creamy, avocado-based green sauce at Ninfa's than blue cheese or Ranch.
You can order enchiladas and queso flameado here as easily as you can order a filet mignon or lamb chops, although all entrees receive equal treatment. The flameado is thick with dark orange chorizo, served alongside scorchingly hot corn tortillas. Both the chorizo and tortillas are made in-house.
You can order classic steakhouse desserts like a rich, flourless chocolate cake. But you can also order a velvety, jiggly flan or a dense rum cake with a mischievous burn underneath the sweetness. Regardless of which dessert you order, though, all of them come with a cup of rice pudding made according to Abedrop's family recipe.
"The rice is still a little...ah, how do you call it in English?" Abedrop said as he presented a dessert platter to our table of five earlier this week.
"Al dente?" offered one of my dining companions.
"Yes!" Abedrop replied. "You should still be able to feel the rice, taste it." Indeed you can, along with plenty of warm cinnamon and vanilla.
Although Abedrop won't always be on-hand at his new Houston steakhouse, he has an able team to keep things running in his absence. Roger de la Fuente, a certified sommelier and previous general manager at Capital Grille, is no stranger to steakhouses or wine lists. Chef de cuisine Kirby Smith and de la Fuente have 60 years of restaurant experience between them.
History has proven that even a wealth of experience isn't enough to keep a restaurant running at this difficult location, but La Casa de Caballo has something going for it that its predecessors didn't: It's just different enough.
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It's a steakhouse for nights when you need something in between Saltgrass and Vic & Anthony's, between Texas Land & Cattle and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. It's both elegant and relaxed, especially when you're perched at the bar, newly topped with a soft spread of leather. It's a restaurant seems to be able to satisfy two very Houstonian appetites for steak and for Tex-Mex very well, without skimping on either side.
Time will tell if Houston is willing to embrace this dual concept, and I have a feeling that's what La Casa de Caballo's success will come down to. Because in terms of both planning and execution, this Tex-Mex steakhouse seems poised to finally break the La Strada curse.