Restaurant Reviews

The Other South American Restaurant

A Houston restaurant that presumes to serve South American cuisine automatically invites stringent comparison: so skillfully have the Cordua brothers defined the genre at Churrasco's and Americas, upstarts are doomed to labor in their loooong shadow. That's why Los Andes, a hard-working Greenway Plaza newcomer with a talent for grilling and saucing, comes as a likable surprise.

Is Los Andes capitalizing on the Corduas' smashing local success? Absolutely. But while the kitchen can't match Churrasco's for consistency or polish, there are spirited dishes to be had here; the droll young Ecuadoran host, Fernando Echeverria, fosters a "nothing-is-too-much-trouble" school of service that can leave you feeling outrageously coddled; and the location is a real boon for patrons of the nearby Summit.

The Spanish Colonial mock-courtyard setting feels expansive and quirkily urban, its industrial-trussed, transparent ceiling revealing a sci-fi stack of high-rises. Evenings on which there is a Rockets game offer the further urban attraction of potential Rudy T sightings, or a visitation by one of those tall basketball beings who seem to hail from another planet -- Venezuelan Carl Herrera on one recent Saturday, very dark and regal and otherworldly in an intense turquoise jacket.

Los Andes hasn't quite figured out what it wants to be when it grows up. From lively empanadas to elegantly fried plantain chips to an agreeable churrasco steak, much of the menu reads like Churrasco's Jr., with a crib from Americas (grilled shrimp over corn fettuccine) thrown in. The pasta section summons up the troubled ghost of Rao's, the Italian restaurant that once occupied this space, doing business for a time as Maremma before becoming Rao's again. Indeed, a cook from the Rao's era remains in the kitchen, and Echeverria, himself a Rao's alumnus, talks about putting even more Italian dishes on the menu. That makes its own peculiar brand of sense, since South America is as much of a melting pot as North America.

One of Los Andes' secret, off-the-menu pleasures, in fact, is Echeverria's version of the Italianate Shrimp Paesano -- the same fall-down-on-the-floor dish made famous at San Antonio's Paesano restaurant (he once worked at the Houston branch). Butterflied and sauteed, lightly gilded with crumbs, these big shrimp land in a giddily lemoned and garlicked butter sauce that has an almost feathery texture: it's beurre blanc with an attitude. I'd kill for these shrimp. Fortunately Echeverria is so obliging I won't have to. Next step: put them on the menu.

Otherwise it's the South American stuff that's interesting here. A first course of gently fried yuca (a Latin root subtler and more graceful than potato) is rolled around lime- and cilantro-zapped chunks of avocado, tomato and red onion; it tastes like a grown-up burrito plucked from some tropical garden. The perfectly nice cilantro cream sauce that comes with it isn't even necessary. Same goes for the first-rate empanadas of beef or chicken (the shrimp version is a distant third), which are seasoned so well that a sauce is beside the point.

A sauce is not beside the point with the restaurant's gratis fried plantain chips, unbroken longitudinal paddles made to scoop up what a young waiter reverentially catalogs as "Los Andes Sauce": vinaigrette composed of extra-virgin olive oil, cilantro, oregano, tomato, garlic, red onion... a decorous variant on the green chimichurri sauce we learned to love at the C-restaurant. It's even better on the churrasco steak (here dubbed Cana de Filete Argentino), which has a slightly tenderized texture compared to the C-restaurant's version, but is expertly grilled and something I'd cheerfully order again.

The cream sauces here are a revelation: glossy, fastidious reductions that in no way resemble the awful-sounding "thick cream sauce" touted on the menu. A version laced with sherry graces a chicken breast that stays moist in defiance of an aggressive char-grilling (its billing as "Pollo Sofisticado" -- or "Sophisticated Chicken" -- ranks as a vintage bit of silly menu prose).

Grilled tuna is a dish that doesn't sound like it wants a cream sauce, but at Los Andes it wears it well: they cook it beautifully rare, if you want, park it on top of spinach briefly sauteed with cilantro, poblano chiles and green onion, then pool the plate with that graceful, glossy cream. Terrific stuff. So is the vigorously tart garlic sauce on the Camarones al Ajillo; if only the shrimp involved had been a shade dewier the night I ordered it.

The cold mixed seafood in the mariscos salad, however, should have been many shades dewier; this was my first encounter with calamari the texture of ancient, sodden cardboard. With its peppery lemon-and-olive-oil dressing, the mariscos was a good, simple idea made too far ahead. Two more dishes to avoid here: the Sopa del Mar, a nice, thin lobstery bisque sabotaged by -- so help me -- frozen mixed vegetables; and the pollo criollo, whose citrus-shot tomato-and-pepper sauce quarreled fiercely with its charcoaly chicken.

The South American dishes come with caramelized plantains and rice to douse with complex, subtle black beans from a baby tureen: Latin soul food. Caesar salad comes clad in a wonderfully untamed anchovy dressing. Plates come decorated with a parsley confetti, of course; after two months of uninterrupted restaurant-going, I confess that I would be grateful to eat from a plain white plate untrammeled by... ingredients. Such a prospect, alas, seems unlikely.

Los Andes serves its Bailey's Cream-spiked rendition of the excessive Tres Leches dessert on a plate decorated with (surprise!) cute gelatin rosettes. But I'd go for the more magnificently excessive chocolate Tres Leches, which literally oozes cream; this is nasty in the best sense of the word. Nasty in the more literal sense of the word is a so-called bread pudding that's really a tequila-soaked trifle made of watery fruit and leftover Tres Leches cake. Escalante's serves a very similar dish; I've got to wonder why.

In the end, thanks to Echeverria, Los Andes provides an old-fashioned sense of being catered to that is increasingly rare in this vale of tears. Can't decide between two chicken dishes? He'll have the kitchen do a sampler of both. You're sharing? Your orders will arrive neatly split, no fuss, no annoying buck-or-two extra added to your tab. Both of you want to try a little churrasco steak, but one prefers rare, the other medium rare? No problem. Need a Rockets ticket? He can do that, too. After a while, you start wondering whether you could induce Fernando Echeverria to take charge of your entire life. He certainly is the soul of this establishment -- a perfect example of the way a single personality can inform a whole business. Would that there were more like him.

Los Andes, 3700 Richmond (12 Greenway Plaza), 622-2686.

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Alison Cook