There weren't any steaks like this in Houston 30 years ago. There were trompo and fajitas and filet mignon, but there were no churrasco steaks. Not until the oil business took a hit and a Nicaragua-born man in the shipping industry decided to turn his hobby into a career.
In 1988, Michael Cordúa took a gamble and opened a small Latin American restaurant in the Bayou City. There were hoops to jump through for the fledgling restaurateur, a man with a business background and some good recipes but little idea of what it took to run a successful restaurant. Costs were higher than he had anticipated, hours were longer, and diners were initially confused by this Latin cuisine that wasn't quite Mexican.
"When you have to go through the initial inspections and the restaurant is just a hole in the wall, you get worried," Cordúa said in an interview. "And your initial assessment for how much the restaurant would cost is way too low, and you end up spending three times that much. And then the first guest walks out because they were expecting Mexican food, not Nicaraguan. It was a nightmare, really."
Flash-forward to the present, and Cordúa's nightmares are largely gone. He and his son, David, now own a veritable Houston empire that comprises eight restaurants and a hugely successful catering company. In 2013, the Cordúas released a cookbook, Cordúa: Foods of the Americas, and opened their fourth location of Churrascos, this one at the new Gateway Memorial City Development. Twenty-six years ago, Cordúa couldn't have imagined the success he would eventually achieve.
And it's largely thanks to that steak, a center-cut, charcoal-grilled slab of beef tenderloin lightly peppered and drizzled with a vibrant green chimichurri sauce. It's the churrasco that first won Cordúa accolades from Esquire and Food & Wine and later a James Beard Award nomination. And it's the churrasco — along with a few new dishes that show the evolution of Churrascos restaurants from Nicaraguan cuisine to Houstonian/Nicaraguan cuisine — that's made the latest branch of Cordúa's signature spot as successful as the first.
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Churrascos: A Closer Look."
Immediately upon walking into the new Churrascos, you can tell it's a Cordúa restaurant. It has the same almost-over-the-top modern design elements seen at Américas River Oaks, which was designed by Chicago architect Jordan Mozer. Curvy red cones reminiscent of giant plastic horns flank the entrance, and rustic woodwork accented by bright scarlet chairs ties together structural and aesthetic elements. The bar is illuminated in shafts of red and yellow light, some of which emanates from blown-glass spirals in organic shapes resembling small flames jutting out of the counter.
It's a sight, to be sure — simultaneously imposing and welcoming, with warm hues evocative of the sunny shores and vibrant culture of Nicaragua. As soon as you walk through the doors, the savory smells of steak and grilled seafood invade your nostrils, stirring up hunger before you've even seen a menu. And if it's been awhile since you've dined at a Churrascos, you might be surprised by the menu, which received a revamp at every location when the new restaurant opened in the fourth quarter of 2013.
David Cordúa had a large hand in the new menu, which he explained to me over a tasting when it debuted. He brought out plate after plate of seafood-heavy dishes and innovative twists on traditional Nicaraguan food that show the influence Houston has had on his family. David calls a ceviche verde a play on green juice, something he's seen popping up at local restaurants lately as diners move toward healthier eating. Blue tilapia is marinated in agua de chile, then mixed with tart green apples and spicy red onions before being topped with a sprinkle of crunchy baked kale. It's not a classic ceviche recipe handed down from his family; rather, it's a reinvention, a nod to the restaurants' evolution. And I'm pleased to report it was just as good when I ordered it for dinner one evening as it was when David presented it to me himself.
Even better, though, is a lobster campechana, originally a Mexican dish made with shrimp that father and son redeveloped with sweet lobster meat, a more refined option. It's truly indicative of the melting pot that is Houston: Peruvian leche de tigre coats the combination of lobster claw meat, avocado, yellow onion, Roma tomato and thin slices of jalapeño. Thai Sriracha sauce is mixed with garlic for a slight southeast Asian influence, and the dish is finished with impossibly crunchy chicharrones that somehow manage to stay crisp even when covered in sauce.
Another new favorite is named simply "whole fried fish." Sadly, this dish is not in the cookbook. Maybe that's for the best, because it's highly unlikely I would be able to achieve the same slightly sweet crust and flaky, moist interior if I were to cook it in my kitchen. Best to leave it to the experts to butterfly the whole fish (which varies depending on what is fresh at the market) and batter it in a mixture of cornmeal, cocoa and cinnamon that David explains is an homage to pinolillo, a traditional Nicaraguan drink he remembers from family trips there. The beverage is so integral to Nicaraguan culture that natives sometimes refer to themselves as "Pinoleros" in reference to it.