Anyone who has a question as to whether or not he likes lamb should try the sheep version of a T-bone at Saltillo Mexican Kitchen. If people don't like these, then no, they don't like lamb. It would be a challenge to find any better in Houston than these thick, well-seasoned, slightly smoky renditions with ruby interiors, and exteriors neatly kissed with grill marks. People who order these beauties cooked to anything more than medium have only themselves to blame.
Aside from the fine grilled meat, steakhouse Saltillo Mexican Kitchen lacks some of the luster of its predecessor, La Casa Del Caballo. That has little to do with the relocation to a more humble space in a Bellaire Triangle strip center. Indeed, leaving the huge, two-story Montrose building that used to house La Strada was probably a wise economic decision. (It's now a vast El Tiempo location.)
The ornate, gorgeous paintings of beautiful horses that used to adorn La Casa Del Caballo (which means "the house of the horse") hang on Saltillo's walls, adding a welcome dose of drama and beauty to the humble digs. The stellar steak program has also relocated. The $190 tapa de lomo, or four-pound rib eye cap, is still one of Houston's most coveted meals for sharing among friends.
The problem is that the sides haven't had the same level of upkeep. It's easy enough as it is for side dishes to be upstaged by glamorous, meaty co-stars, but when the kitchen acts as if no one has ever heard of the word "seasoning," it's a substantial issue. Good sides make the difference between a full-fledged meal and an unbalanced one.
Simple chunks of roasted potatoes can be a real crowd-pleaser. However, roasted potatoes with no salt and little browning are a big, bland disappointment. Ditto for the creamy borracho beans cooked in Mexican beer. Without a dash of salt or heat, it was impossible for the otherwise worthy dish to live up to its full potential.
At La Casa Del Caballo, the cheese enchiladas were the must-order side dish, especially with steak. That's the kind of dinner that bridges both Texan and Mexican cultures – a dish that reflects Houston as much as Saltillo. Unfortunately, something bad has happened with both the consistency of preparation and the recipe. Instead of being hot, gooey and glorious, as they used to be, a dinnertime order of cheese enchiladas arrived at the table lukewarm. A second batch, at lunchtime a few days later, seemed hot enough, but the cheese inside stubbornly retained the shape of a oblong rectangle. Mozzarella-like queso Oaxaca is used in the center, and it's not a cheese that readily melts. That said, the red chile-laden sauce is still a complex, smoky wonder, and the main event—an eight-ounce rib eye—was just as tender and thick as in memory.
Heat issues plagued the cubos de queso frito (fried cheese cubes), too. The quick deep frying led to pretty, frizzled exteriors, but finding a cube that wasn't cold in the center was a game of chance. A better appetizer was the coctel de camaron (shrimp cocktail), which employed huge, firm specimens from the Sea of Cortéz. The cocktail sauce dipped ever-so-slightly to the sweet side, but the lively heat kept the taste buds engaged.
Another issue with sides: The same combination of grilled rounds of zucchini with strips of red and yellow bell pepper shows up constantly. It makes the entrées seem tired and rote. The lack of interesting vegetable choices may be due in part to Saltillo's Norteño heritage at work. The cuisine hails from an arid region of Mexico that evolved from a hunter-gatherer culture. Ranching lends itself to meat. Cheese comes from cattle and goats. The native wheat is incorporated into flour tortillas. Vegetables are of the hardy, ancient kind, such as squash, beans and corn. There is a selection of salads to appease those looking for lighter fare, but this is simply not a vegetable-driven type of place.
One of the most interesting cuts of meat is cañita de diezmillo, or beef shoulder clod. Any concerns about tenderness evaporated after a hunk of the Angus beef was cut off. There's more heft in a bite than in a steak, but the payoff is more concentrated beefy flavor. The Tampiqueña plate features this mighty hunk, as well as serviceable guacamole that was a little too warm, two enchiladas (in a richer, deeper mole sauce this time), a forgettable cheese quesadilla and a fine example of Mexican rice that benefited from the meat juices running across the plate.
Desserts represent the same lackluster situation as the sides. As was the case at La Casa Del Caballo, the most interesting offering is a single-serving, rum-soaked Bundt cake. It's fine if unsurprising. Steer away from the café de olla. The "handcrafted cookies" alongside were as arid and crumbly as a Mexican desert, and the coffee itself was cloyingly sweet. No amount of cinnamon could balance it. More disconcerting was the big thumbprint on the side of a smallish slice of tres leches cake.
The attentive yet unobtrusive staff waiting tables at dinnertime was nowhere to be found on a lunch visit. My dining companion arrived mere minutes after I did, but we were, curiously, abandoned with nothing but water, chips and salsa for more than 20 minutes. If my fellow diner hadn't taken the initiative to flag down a server and ask for our order to be taken, it's unclear how long we'd have still been waiting. The issue seemed to be understaffing — only two people on the floor to take care of 20 well-dressed suburban customers.
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Speaking of being well-dressed: Don't forget the wallet. These big, meaty dishes don't come cheap. Very few dishes cost less than $24.
Saltillo Mexican Kitchen's cuisine is a good fit for Houston because of our shared reverence for cowboy culture. It's a wonderful place for enjoying big hunks of grilled meat. It would be great to see the kitchen embrace a little more finesse and ambition, though. When La Casa Del Caballo opened, the food was exciting and interesting. That was more than three years ago, though, and the honeymoon is over. Saltillo is serving exactly the same menu items that La Casa Del Caballo made its name with, and there doesn't seem to be any interest in innovations or improvements.
The best outcome for any review is that noted issues are solved, and that is definitely the hope for Saltillo. Much of the essence of La Casa Del Caballo has been retained. Shore up the side dishes and service, and there's no reason not to expect Saltillo to enjoy a long, pleasant ride.
Saltillo Mexican Kitchen
5427 Bissonnet #200, 832-623-6467. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays.
Cubos de queso frito $8
Coctel de camarone $17
Steak and enchiladas $30
Lamb T-bone $39
Tres leches $8
Caribbean dark rum cake $7
Café de olla $6
Prado Rey Roble Tempranillo $12