In testament to Houston’s need for lighter alternatives to artery-clogging Tex-Mex (washed down with salted vats of sugary margaritas), the second location of Skinny Rita’s, a haven of healthier Mexican flavors, opened up on West Gray a little more than a year after the establishment of its first spot on North Main.
Skinny Rita’s attempts to differentiate itself on a platform of naturally raised meat that is antibiotic- and hormone-free. That leads to slightly above-average prices on items like fajitas—$24 per half-pound or $45 for a pound of beef. The restaurant also offers good-quality, organic ingredients that are pesticide- and GMO-free, such as its high-fiber nopal, or cactus, tortillas and agave-based drinks featuring fresh juices and organic tequilas.
Despite the promising sounds of high-quality ingredients, it may take a few visits to uncover the hits versus the misses versus the near misses.
Biting into one of the two succulent, well-seasoned “jumbo” shrimp adorning the guacamole del golfo was delightful. Although the portion was on the small side (bulked with tomatoes and butter lettuce) for $14, it was garnished with a generous amount of seared crab meat. Liberally strewn with large chunks of avocado, the dish would have been improved with lime, onion and heat. While tasty, this appetizer would perhaps more aptly be titled “Avocado del Golfo.”
Dining here is generally a relaxed experience — you won’t find the crowds and chaotic bustle of servers that make for occasionally claustrophobic dining at other Tex-Mex restaurants. The dining areas were never more than half-full, and service staff are usually attentive and friendly.
The darkened interior is awash in an eclectic mix of posters, crosses, wood paneling and bright colors; at lunchtime, I was seated next to a gaggle of women bantering with a waiter from the comfort of the sturdy wooden chairs before sharing some tres leches. Dinner on the patio afforded a street view under the twinkle of string lights, with a few standing fans diffusing the humid evening air.
Whether indoors or out, diners are immediately greeted with thin, well-salted, non-greasy tortilla chips — both regular and green nopal, which have a slightly sturdier crunch — accompanied by both smoky red and pleasantly sweet tomatillo salsas.
Vegetarian entrées shine: Tofu tacos sound less than exciting, but Skinny Rita’s tops the list for some of the best vegetarian tacos in Houston. Soft slabs of tofu caramelized on several sides are tucked into the diner’s choice of corn, wheat or nopal tortillas (butter lettuce wraps can be substituted for a dollar extra). The tacos are topped with avocado, pico de gallo, grilled onions and peppers, and a piquant roasted garlic yogurt sauce. Aside from some undercooked onions, the tacos were an ideal light entrée that could have been elevated by an equally tasty side, but the accompanying beans and rice (either Spanish or cilantro rice) were mediocre.
The sexier-sounding take on vegetarian chile relleno — a non-fried, quinoa-stuffed version — yielded well-cooked, flavorful quinoa stuffed in a bulging, tender poblano pepper. Pooled in a smoky cascabel chile sauce and adorned with two deeply grilled vegetable skewers, the dish was satisfying, if erring a bit on the sweet side owing to the sauce and grilled pineapple.
My dining companion named her vegetable skewers the best part of her meal, and certainly better than the pollo milanesa — one of the specialty dishes. Although the dish featured a grilled chicken breast bedecked with rajas con crema, or peppers in cream, she found it slightly bland. Dinner portions here tend toward the big-enough-for-leftovers variety, while brunch and lunch portions are more reasonable for a single diner.
Brunch offerings range from pozole, or traditional Mexican soup, and turkey chorizo breakfast tacos to chilaquiles and breakfast carnitas. The huevos rancheros was composed of perfectly runny fried egg buried under a small pile of refried black beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, salsa, avocado and queso fresco. Perhaps in a nod toward health, the huevos rancheros were slightly underseasoned, though that was nothing a shake of salt couldn’t easily fix.
The juice-spiked margaritas were disappointingly sweet. The Up in Smoke tasted of almost straight pineapple juice, with barely a hint of the fresh lime juice, tequila or chipotle agave nectar promised in the concoction’s description. The watermelon-based Al Fresco was markedly stronger yet still off balance, lacking enough sour to temper the sweet. While these left me reluctant to try the other fruity cocktails on the drink list, perhaps a more classic cocktail is the way to go. In any case, all the margaritas max out at 150 calories each, so they’re at least a low-calorie way to imbibe.
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Be forewarned: All the good you may do in choosing light menu items may be undone if you order dessert. The $9 slice of tres leches is mammoth and could easily serve four people. Though the thin stripes of dulce de leche separating the thin cake layers are visually arresting, they allow the caramel flavor to override the milky flavor of the cake more than they should. Still, there’s something pleasing about the shaggy texture of the cake — particularly once a forkful is dunked in the surrounding puddle of condensed milk.
Funky margaritas aside, Skinny Rita’s is a solid option if you’re craving Tex-Mex flavors but don’t want to leave a restaurant feeling as if you’ve just doubled your body weight. Depending on what you order, that is — if you get dessert, don’t expect to lose much weight anywhere besides your wallet.
607 West Gray, 832-834-4430. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Guacamole del golfo $14
Quinoa chile relleno $14
Tofu tacos $12
Huevos rancheros $12
Pollo milanesa $17
Tres leches $9
Up in Smoke margarita $9
Al Fresco margarita $9