Sunday Brunch at Yelapa: Texan Twists on Old Favorites

Last Sunday morning, a table of friends and I attacked our plates with a vengeance on the sunny back patio at Yelapa Playa Mexicana (2303 Richmond, 281-501-0391). Although it's been open for nearly a year, I'm still convinced that Yelapa's cozy, sun-drenched rear patio is one of Houston's most well-hidden secrets.

Chef L.J. Wiley has made brunch here in the past, but those seemed to be simply test runs for his final product: the simple, five-dish brunch menu that's offered on Sundays starting at 11 a.m. This flip-flop in hours for the restaurant -- which is now open on Sundays and closed on Mondays -- is a welcome reversal, allowing patrons one more weekend day to enjoy a lazy afternoon with doors thrown wide open in the main dining room or relax under an umbrella out back.

It's on this new Sunday brunch menu that Wiley -- whose dishes can verge on manically constructed with, as Milos Forman's Emperor Joseph II would say, "too many notes" -- is at his most restrained. It's a refreshing way to start a fall afternoon, as well.

The thing that strikes me about all the dishes (in addition to their relative simplicity when compared to the rest of Yelapa's menu) is how utterly Houstonian they all are: Frito Pie Migas. An eggs Benedict dish made with Gulf crab on top of sopes in place of English muffins. Huevos ahogados verdes served in a housemade tomatillo sauce with kimchi fried rice and a giant chicharron on the side.

Mexican, coastal, even Korean -- all these broad-ranging influences coming together in a few well-edited dishes. This is what people talk about when they talk about Gulf Coast Cuisine.

The huevos ahogados were the star of the show at our table, served with that enormous piece of fried pork skin on the side that sent me launching into stories about the nearly pig-sized chicharrons you can buy at Oaxaca Meat Market in Dickinson. That slyly tart neon green tomatillo sauce is the antithesis of the dreadful, acidic glop served at Mucho Mexico a few weeks ago. Mix the creamy egg yolks into the sauce, snap off a hearty piece of chicharron to sop it up, and you're suddenly at peace with the world, if only for an hour.

At $16.50, the Yelapa Benedict is the most expensive item on the brunch menu, but with the sheer amount of lump crab on top of the poached eggs and sopes, it's not as if you're getting ripped off. The Beefy Benedict is only a smidge less expensive, but there's enough richly fatty brisket in there to once again make the dish worth it.

On the very short list of things I wouldn't recommend is Yelapa's Bloody Mary, which is made with a housemade tomato juice that tastes as smoky and thick as that brisket. This might appeal to certain connoisseurs -- probably the same people who like the Smoked Whiskey version at Beaver's -- but I was not a fan. I sent the drink back (a first for me) and ordered a prickly pear mimosa instead, which complemented the heavy dishes far better and didn't taste like smoked tomato puree.

Between brunch and planned movie nights in the future, Yelapa's beautiful patio will hopefully become less of a hidden garden this fall and finally see the patrons it deserves.

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