For some, the vuelve a la vida (or “come back to life”) soup at La Fisheria may conjure fantasies of waking up in a cottage on a Mexican beach where white-capped waves break and lap the sand. This particular soup might stop just short of bringing the dead to life, but it would at least do a good job of returning someone from the last vestiges of slumber. In fact, vuelve a la vida is often hawked as a hangover cure, but, truly, it’s even more enjoyable without the headache and dehydration. It’s chock-full of sizable shrimp, and chunks of fish and oysters, but the best part is the broth. It’s rich, tinged with red chilies, and the combination of brawny spice and salty tang is a mouth-filling wonder of flavors.
La Fisheria’s Houston location has made a much-needed move out of the two-story house on Inker Street and into downtown. It was a spacious place near the junction of Shepherd and I-10, but not actually visible from either thoroughfare.
Back in 2012, when the Houston Press reviewed the original location, La Fisheria had thrown all its chips into one basket, banking on the fame of celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez for its success. Maybe that worked during the first year, but the truth is there are very few celebrity chefs Houston gives a fig about (and either they’re homegrown success stories or don’t have restaurants open yet).
This is a city built on business and practicality. When it comes to restaurants, Houston is Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire jumping up and down screaming, “Show me the money!” except when it comes to dining out, substitute the word “value” for “money.” If restaurants can’t do that, nothing else really matters.
In this new incarnation, neither Chavez nor his branded merchandise is apparent. It feels like an improvement. Having a chef’s celebrity-ness in your face kind of cheapens the dining experience, and it’s good to see that La Fisheria’s focus now seems to truly be on the food. (It would be great if the restaurant would finally get its website up and running, though.) These days, the dishes are simpler and more streamlined than in the beginning (the start of that process was noted in former Houston Press restaurant critic Katharine Shilcutt’s review), and although it’s sad that some of the more complex dishes are gone (good-bye, duck, chorizo and mussels stew), clearly this wasn’t a bad direction in which to go.
The new downtown location is a smaller, one-story oblong space, but it doesn’t feel cramped at all. The decor, mostly in shades of blue, is festive but tasteful. There’s an ocean-like quality in the perky turquoise front doors, darker blue walls, and tile in yet more shades of blue, plus white. Copper fixtures that are like upside-down kettles lend a gleam to the bar area.
It’s only been open a few months, and downtown workers don’t yet seem to have discovered what a great place it is. The dining room was nearly empty on a Monday at lunchtime and only half full on a Friday night. Still, on that evening a talented live band helped give the restaurant the hustle, bustle and overall general sense of liveliness that is so crucial in maintaining an air of festivity. No one wants to dine in a morgue.
There’s a lot of liveliness on the menu, too. On Houston’s hot days, a crunchy snack that features cool seafood is a wonderful treat, and few dishes fit the bill better than La Fisheria’s tostada de atún. A bubbly, deep-fried tortilla is covered with slices of rare tuna. Of course, there practically have to be lush, creamy hunks of fresh avocado to complement the tuna, and so there are. On top, wisps of battered and crispy-fried leeks add their gentle, vaguely onionlike flavor. A sporty chipotle mayonnaise adds just a touch more silken creaminess and the faintest whisper of spice.
La Fisheria specializes in Mexican seafood, but there are meatier options for people who aren’t wild about things that swim. (This isn’t an ideal spot for vegans or vegetarians, by the way, since there aren’t any meatless dishes other than a salad or two and some sides.) People who don’t mind eating off-cuts can get good deals on beefy dishes because they’re not limited to a traditional cut of steak. A meat lover can revel — revel! — in the $18.99 plate of thick slices of lengua de res. What is it? Well, it’s stewed cow tongue, and those who have not tried it should not knock it.
Back on the side of dishes familiar to most, get the trio of ceviches and don’t bother burning any brain power trying to figure out which is best. Is it the “natural” style, with fish brined in lime juice and accented with cucumber and avocado? Perhaps it’s the “enclamatado”-style shrimp in tomato, clam and lime juice. Wait, maybe it’s the chunks of snapper in tomatillo sauce and Seville orange juice! Just eat them all and luxuriate in the fresh, firm fish and seafood, fresh herbs, thinly sliced onion, and tart juices. Every one of these ceviches is worthy of being declared anyone’s favorite.
The only dish at La Fisheria that disappointed was the flan, which was boring. It was served in a pie-wedge shape, like New York-style cheesecake, and not as the typical custardy round topped with gentle, liquid caramel. In fact, it seemed as if someone had gone to great lengths to figure out how to make flan fancy, as if it were somehow inferior before. The outer curve was decorated with four frills of whipped cream, and someone had made ten passes (no exaggeration) with a squirt bottle of thick, decorative caramel sauce. Innovation is great, but only when it’s an improvement on the classic. You just be you, flan. You don’t have to dress up to impress anyone.
Service is pleasant and eager to please, but non-Spanish-speaking diners may need to be a little patient. There is a bit of a language barrier. Our server spoke some English but wasn’t fluent. Somehow, a second margarita appeared when it hadn’t been ordered. It seemed pretty certain it was due to a misunderstanding and the server was not just trying to slip another $11.50 drink onto the tab.
Speaking of margaritas, there are several different ones to choose from at La Fisheria. A habanero margarita on the rocks had a disappointing lack of bite, even though a few red pepper slivers were floating amid the ice cubes, but the tamarindo version was much more fun. The bright yellow straw in the drink was heavily coated with tangy and sweet tamarind paste. How many cocktails come with a bonus of candy-on-a-stick? No one cared that drawing the tamarind-laden end of the straw out of the drink to nibble was a messy endeavor. It was a fun addition, and anyone who loves tart, mildly sweet candy will find the concept exceeds expectations.
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Since La Fisheria is now located downtown, the only source of consternation is parking, especially during weekdays at lunchtime. In the evenings, there’s a valet and a lot next door that will cost $10 to park in. During weekday lunch, that same lot isn’t available, nor is there a valet on duty, so drivers may be stuck circling the area to hunt down a spot. People who work nearby can simply walk, and the most stress-free option by far is cab or a rideshare service.
La Fisheria, though, is well worth the typical downtown parking hassles. Seafood lovers in downtown Houston should move this to the top of their list of restaurants to check out for the perky margaritas, festive decor, pleasant service and beautifully composed dishes.
213 Milam, 713-802-1712. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Tostada de atún $8.99
Vuelve a la vida $12.99
Trio de ceviches $15.99
Pulpo a la parrilla $16.99
Lengua de res $18.99
Flan de la casa $7.99
Margarita tamarindo $11.50