Taking the Family to Pico's

So my aunt Libby is in town from Atlanta with my two cousins, 13-year-old Kevin and 14-year-old Joshua. To celebrate, my grandparents took her family and mine - my wife Jacqueline, soon-to-be-11-year-old son John Henry and two-year-old daughter Harriet out for a Mexican meal. After some debate, we settled on Pico's (5941 Bellaire), the "original Mex-Mex" restaurant on Bellaire in the heart of the Gulfton Ghetto.

We traveled in a convoy, and my family arrived before Libby, or Moe and Susy, my grandparents. We decided to sit outside in the palapa, which is well-ventilated and sports a view of, well, the pain management clinics, tire outlets and storage units of the Gulfton Ghetto. Outside with us were a large redneck family, a larger Tejano family, a table of trendy lesbians, and a group of people who looked like they worked for NASA. I wanted a margarita, and the waiter asked me if I wanted a small or medium, and of course I asked for the larger of the two. Which turned out to be the size of my head, which is an 8, but hell, better to have too much than too little.

Pico's passes the chips n' salsa test, with much thicker chips than usual. I enjoyed both the smoky, chipotle-stoked roja and the tomatillo-based verde, but Jacqueline thought the verde was a bit too "raw." (She's a big fan of Ninfa's creamier green sauce.)

I had heard that Pico's was fairly rigorous about not stooping to ladling out Tex-Mex stuff like quesadillas and fajitas, but if that was ever the case, it isn't now, as all that stuff is available. Libby and her kids and my grandparents had arrived and were studying the menus, and I was recommending that they try something other than nachos, as this place was known for its interior Mexican stuff. Undaunted, Jacqueline said she was going to order fajitas. "Well, I'm not," I said. "This is not a Tex-Mex restaurant, and that is not their specialty."

"Know-it-all," said Libby.

"Tell me about it," said Jacqueline. "He's a total Nazi."

She ended up ordering spinach quesadillas with cilantro-poblano dipping sauce. Moe got the seafood enchiladas. Libby ordered Nachos Gabachos, a smoky pork nachopalooza. I ordered a bistec tampiquena that came with a mole poblano-drenched white-cheese enchilada. The kids all got nachos, which come in both adult and child-sized portions. (I think Susy had the spinach enchiladas, but I'm not sure and she was unavailable at press time.)

Pico's has a fountain in the patio, which was good, as Harriet spent the entire time between placing our order and its arrival pitching pennies and making wishes. I think they got an extra ten bucks from us, because it was a fairly long wait. Two guitarists came out and played requests. The Tejano family asked for "Volver Volver." The rednecks shamed all Gringos by making two of the most obvious requests ever - "Oye Como Va" and "La Cucaracha."

I had to back up off the basketball-sized margaritas and lay my cup down. Aside from the gristly steak, my dinner was excellent. The refried beans and rice here are noticeably tastier here than at most Mexican places, where they are mere afterthoughts. I have never been much of a molè man until I had that sublime enchilada - the rich red-brown sauce was creamy, spicy, complex and downright ambrosial, and set off the soft tortillas and chewy cheese beautifully. Moe seemed to be enjoying his crab and shrimp-stuffed enchiladas, as he spoke not a word throughout the meal. Jacqueline's quesadillas were stuffed with Chihuahua cheese, spinach and almonds, and were quite bland unless they were dipped in the electric green cilantro-poblano sauce, which acted as a sort of neon for the taste buds, a fiesta for your mouth.

As the meal wound down, Harriet was getting restless as she had already tossed all our pennies in the fountain. I took her for a walk out in the parking lot and beyond, into the backstreets of the barrio. These streets are lined with what used to be office parks and storage units, all of which have been transformed into businesses with vague purposes and storefront Mexican Pentecostal churches. Immediately behind Pico's there's a 1950s era Quonset hut amid a large yard, which is enclosed in razor-wire topped hurricane fences. The grounds are studded with those puny peach trees our soil reluctantly surrenders - the ones that produce little more than an abundance of green fuzzy rocks. Around the perimeter of the fence, though, the mysterious gardener was having much better luck with some sort of broad-leafed plant, which ran riot around the entire yard in neat rows. It looked a bit like the pumpkin plant we had accidentally grown at home, and we were admiring it when a Hispanic guy drove up in his car and rolled down his window.

"It's a beautiful garden, no?" he said.

"Sure is," I said. "Do you know what they are growing back there?"

The guy looked none too sober, and in Gulfton, English is definitely the second language. He thought long and hard, struggling with his English and a belly full of booze. At last, he remembered the name of that plant.

"Sushi," he said, and drove off. - John Nova Lomax

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