Restaurant Reviews

No Tex-Mex!

I can't help smiling when I think about Otilia's. It happens when I consider this family kitchen's sopes, each primal, steamy circlet of masa dough pooled with the raw materials of life: green salsa that could double as jet fuel; a flurry of crumbled farmer's cheese; a scattershot of minced onion. It happens when I remember the way Otilia's improbable roof soars like a witch's hat over the Hispanic commercial strip that is lower Long Point. Or when I picture the painted map of Mexico that looms over the cafe's counter, each state rendered in day-glo shades and dotted with hand-inscribed place names. "If your city is not on the map," advises an adjacent Spanish-language sign, "tell us."

Mostly, though, I smile because I have a worthy new Mexican restaurant to add to my life list -- a circumstance that is guaranteed to improve the disposition of any self-respecting Houstonian. This plain, sweetly unpretentious spot does just about everything very, very well; after two visits and more than a dozen dishes, my sole complaint was the presence of two brown-spotted shreds of lettuce on a beautifully garnished plate of flautas. Big deal.

Otilia's slogan, noted in large type (and with some asperity) on the menu cover, is "No Tex-Mex." As in no cheese goop, no lakes of chile gravy, no knee-jerk combination plates. Instead, there is the kind of food you might encounter, if your luck and instincts were good, in the simple restaurants of interior Mexico.

Otilia's tacos Potosinas could have migrated straight from some arcaded town plaza shaded by jacarandas. Purists will recognize them as a species of enchilada, the authentic Mexican kind, the corn tortillas softened with a minimal cling of chile sauce, then folded around a bit of that distinctive Mexican farmer's cheese and garnished so lavishly you have to excavate in order to find them. In this case, the embellishments run to potatoes and carrots browned in more earthy, brick-red chile sauce, plus what seems to be a quarter-head's worth of texture in the form of chopped iceberg lettuce. Under it all, the age-old primacy of corn and chile comes through loud and clear. Ask for some of the restaurant's pickled red onions and green chile strips, plus a few sliced radishes, and you have a south-of-the-border vacation on a plate.

Otilia's sopes are an imaginary ticket to a certain Mexico City street between the Alameda and the zocalo, where in shop after open-air shop these sturdy masa-dough snacks sizzle on top of huge, drum-like griddles. At their most elemental, the saucer-shaped corn cakes wear only a smear of salsa and a flimsy veil of onion and cheese; they come in time-honored shades of red or green. Otilia's makes both versions count. The plain sopes with gentle red sauce, white cheese and onion seem, to me, like a perfect food: the round, crisped cakes breathing fragrant essence of corn; the salsa and crumbles of cheese highlighting the masa without overwhelming it.

The green sauce, a far more rambunctious substance than the red, is best mitigated by a thin cushion of nutty-tasting refried beans. The sope that results is still breathtakingly simple -- and addictive. A more opulent variant called a huarache arrives in the shape of shoe sole, its corn-cake base clad in electric salsa verde, refried beans and a notably discreet melt of grated white cheese. Strictly speaking, the huaraches and sopes fall under the category of botanas, the Mexican appetizers or snacks. I find myself tempted to eat as many as humanly possible, which for me puts them into the category of lunch or dinner. Either way, they're among the best Mexican dishes in Houston.

So is Otilia's stirring pozole, a deep bowl of darkest russet-colored broth brimming with depth and complexity. Not to mention fat, tender kernels of white hominy. And hunks of long-simmered pork on the brink of falling apart. From its musky chile-cumin flavor to its textural fiesta of mix-ins (radish, cabbage, onion and oregano), this dish is a credit to the soup genre. Squeeze in some fresh lime and feel life's ragged edges smoothing out.

Food aside, it's hard to feel dispirited inside this converted burger drive-in, with its long metal awning still folding automobiles into its embrace and its striped, folkloric cafe curtains cheerfully festooned in pink ribbon rosettes. Faux fuchsia plants tumble from a ceiling punctuated by mysterious yellow crepe paper cockscombs. Neighborhood regulars come and go in the laminated booths. An adventuring couple purrs up in their Mercedes. An amorous pair bends their heads together over twin bottles of Corona. A professorial type gravely scrutinizes a copy of Mayan Life while consuming a solitary torta.

In a less obscure part of town, these fortunate souls would be competing for tables with shrewd foodies and budgeteers, who would long since have figured out that the modestly priced Otilia's is not just another middle-of-the-road taqueria. As it is, space is not a problem -- although Otilia's neighborhood-oriented hours can leave an unwary visitor sitting hungry and disgruntled in the parking lot, feeling like Cinderella's pumpkin. The cutoff time is 8 p.m. on weekdays and a slightly more liberal 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Trust me on this: it's worth it to work around the cafe's schedule. After all, Irma's loyalists are already accustomed to this sort of thing. The rewards at Otilia's range from the simplest taco al pastor -- irreproachable bits of browned, tender pork sharpened by cilantro and raw onion -- to a hard-to-do chile relleno that could take a blue ribbon at anybody's state fair. A light, lively tomato sauce and a straightforward, potato-laced picadillo do their part. But the key is the thin froth of egg-white batter that sheathes each dignified poblano pepper: spongy and graceful, it avoids the horrible, greasy soddenness to which rellenos often fall prey.

Actually, avoiding pitfalls seems to be a specialty of the house. I find myself in the unaccustomed (and pleasant) position of having nothing to warn against. Paler-then-pale lemonade, unassuming and not too sweet, seems the ideal summer drink. Tacos de cochinita pibil come in a surprisingly convincing version, from their tender, spicily marinated pork to their irresistible pickled onions. Footlong flautas come rolled with fluffy potatoes, buried under a mountain of crunchy iceberg, decorated with slender fans of avocado and dusted with a veritable snow field of crumbled queso fresco. It's a striking plate of food. To go with it, you will want a side order of the cafe's good, basic guacamole; some of that astonishing green sauce; or a healthy hit of Otilia's lively, limey pico de gallo. Maybe all three. Indeed, customizing your meal with Otilia's various mix-ins and add-ons is half the fun. It beats going hog-wild at the Marble Slab.

A couple of visits here has left me anxious for more. There are gorditas stuffed with poblano-and-onion rajas to consider, and tostadas topped with pickled pork skin. There's breakfast. There's mole on the weekend. There is, in short, every reason to plot a course to this close-in sector of Long Point, just a short hop north of I-10 between Wirt and Antoine. If you can find Ikea, you can find Otilia's. And you ought to.

Otilia's, 7710 Long Point, 681-7203.

huaraches, $1.75;
pozole, $5.50;
chile relleno, $6.95;
tacos Potosinas, $5.50.

Empire Cafe:
large granita, $3.50.

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Alison Cook