Restaurant Reviews

Strip Mall Hopping

In the triangle formed by Bellaire, Bissonnet and the Southwest Freeway, there are approximately one million restaurants. Several new eateries have opened up in the strip mall at 5800 Bellaire, and since I am always looking for the next great thing, I decide to try a few: sushi and ceviche joint El Pacifico, Chinese buffet China Taste Buffet & Sushi and taco truck-turned-counter-service-joint Taco's La Bala #2. As I walk through the parking lot, I realize it's barely dry, and I see a new dollar store with people camping out in front of it waiting for the grand opening. Crazy.

The El Pacifico sign screams at me in bright colors about ceviche and sushi. It's a blistering Houston day, and a cold beer and spicy seafood sound good. El P is vast — you could drive a Mack truck through the dining room, it's so enormous. There's a soccer game going on, and several guys are sitting around staring at it and drinking Coronas.

El Pacifico is a fusion Latin/Asian concept from the people behind Miyako. Fusion is so '90s! I order a Kirin Ichiban, crunch into one of the free yellowish fried wagon wheel chips and pick a few things off the menu: stuffed jalapeños, octopus, snapper and tuna sushi, a small Pacifico special cocktail (ceviche with ketchup) and a Vietnamese pork sandwich.

The ceviche comes in a sundae glass with saltines. There's plenty of pickled shrimp, octopus and fish with avocado, and I run out of saltines before I run out of seafood. If I had just eaten that, I would have left El P with a great impression.

But when the sushi arrives, I suddenly remember why so many "fusion" restaurants suck. The sushi is like something you would get from a vending machine. The octopus is inedible, and the tuna tastes like carbon monoxide. I almost don't bother to stick the sticky snapper in my mouth, but, hey, how bad could it be? The bland and dry rice falls apart, and my snapper sushi is about as delicious as a bunion off my grandma's toe.

El P's menu has pictures next to each selection so you can see what you're getting. But when my stuffed jalapeños show up at the table, they don't look like the picture. Maybe they should make a copy of the stuffed jalapeños from the menu and hang it up in the kitchen so the cooks know what they're supposed to look like. They're actually not bad, but they're just like cheap bar food. The seafood stuffing is tasty, whatever it's made out of.

I take my Vietnamese sandwich and make a mad dash for the door before anybody can ask me how the food was. But later, when I eat the sandwich, I'm pleasantly surprised by how good it is. It isn't as authentic as some of the Vietnamese sandwiches I have had in Houston — we have some really amazing ones here, of course — but it is satisfying. The pork is tender, with hints of allspice and black pepper, the carrots are thin and crispy, and the bread is crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside.

I recommend coming here with some friends, eating ceviche and sandwiches and drinking beer. But I advise you to pass on the sushi.

My next visit to the Bellaire strip mall, I decide to gorge myself on the Chinese buffet. Buffet eating is an art form; quantity versus quality is a general rule to follow. Although the food is usually mediocre, the variety draws me in, and China Taste is no exception. The spread here includes the usual General Tso's chicken, barbecue ribs, salted crabs, crawfish, sweet and sour chicken, pizza rolls, egg rolls, hot and cold green-lipped mussels, various unmentionables and mounds of undesirables.

I have come to the conclusion that all buffet restaurateurs shop at the same warehouse. Everything must cost $.93 a pound. That is the only way they could make money. C.T. has beer, and that is always a plus. Most buffets don't bother with a wine and beer license, because most patrons are there to eat, not waste valuable space on beer. Iced tea and Diet Coke are the favorites.

I think the sushi available at C.T. is better than what's on offer at El Pacifico, which is sad, but the mound of wasabi shaped into a plant leaf is...interesting? I've never seen a wasabi sculpture.

Of course, no buffet would be complete without the soft-serve ice cream. I take some of the other desserts and make a sundae with Rice Krispies treats on the bottom, tiramasu in the middle and a big peak of soft-serve on top. If you don't have the soft-serve, you're not a real buffet.

Just as I'm starting to think my explorations of the strip center have been a waste, I try Taco's La Bala #2, and it turns out to be the real deal — authentic Tampico street food in the heart of Houston. I order barbacoa, tripa and chicharrones to take back to my coworkers from Mexico to see what they think.

I ask the helpful gentleman behind the counter if Taco's La Bala has a house specialty. He points at the huge sandwich on the laminated menu and says, "This is very popular in Mexico." The mound of meat love he speaks of, a torta de la barda, is this crazy sandwich made with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, black beans, fried pigskins, chorizo, ham, headcheese and plenty of other things to tickle your taste buds. It is by far the best thing I've eaten in my ventures to 5800 Bellaire.

In fact, besides pitching a tent for the grand opening of the dollar store, I think this is the only real reason I would come back to this strip mall. When I show up to work with a bag full of meat, one of my coworkers says, "Where did you go, Taco's La Bala?" That speaks volumes.

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Jason Kerr