Pot Luck

Tunnel Explorer: Rico Mexican Food

The tunnels never cease to amaze me. While the preponderance of crap is a constant, there's a spirit of endless possibility there. Every once in a while, I stumble upon a small diamond amidst all the rough, something unexpected to make me smile, and to give me hope. Recently, it was the discovery of a little shop putting out sandwiches. Funny, then, that my most recent fit of optimism should be found right next door.

I stumbled across Rico Mexican Food while beating a path in search of a decent below-ground breakfast (still looking). Zigging through one of the many mini-hallways that stitch together the tunnels, I nearly ran into the sign, then walked right past it. Something, though, caught my eye and turned me back. Halal. While there are many parts of Houston in which storefronts so emblazoned are a dime a dozen, the tunnels are not usually so worldly.

A quick investigation revealed that this unassuming Mexican joint is totally halal, and is now serving a modest assortment of Indian dishes, alongside food-court Mexican mainstays like taco salads. Among the offerings are several vegetarian plates, centering around chickpeas and cauliflower. I can only imagine that interesting vegetarian tunnel fare is even more difficult to come by. I continued on my breakfast hunt, but returned for lunch.

For around $6, I got a feast of flavors - Chicken biryani, korma, naan, yogurt raita, and jalapeño chutney. Don't get me wrong; I've had much better versions of each of these. None of them was in the tunnels, though, and that's an important distinction. When dining in general, and tunnel dining in particular, all of the variables should go into consideration before judgment is passed. The relative dearth of good food down here makes a decent meal shine by comparison, especially when the items on offer also represent a change in the status quo. Give me something different, and I'll give you a little slack.

Thankfully, Rico didn't need all that much slack. This was surprisingly, admirably decent food. The korma (ground nut-based, perhaps?) had a nice spice level with plenty of garlic in the background, though it was a bit heavy on the cloves. Dusky cumin and bright cardamom shone through, as did the subtle tang of a yogurt marinade. If the kitchen would back off on the cloves, this would be fine stuff.

The biryani didn't show quite as nicely, but was by no means bad. It came across a bit greasy, and the rice was ever so slightly overcooked. Coriander, cardamom, maybe a hint of bay, tomatoes, and garlic all played their roles, both standing up on their own and contributing to the overall character of the dish. The cilantro on top was a little worse for wear, and that one minor adjustment would have made a huge difference, the fresh herbal current cutting through the heaviness of the dish, lending a sprightly balance. Chop it fresh next time, guys.

The naan was passable, though not freshly baked or particularly flavorful. It was woken up a bit by a turn on the flattop, giving it some char for character. The raita was simple but properly put together - thin and mildly tangy, with just a hint of cilantro brightening it up further. The chutney gave me a little smile, obviously pulling double duty for both sides of the kitchen. It was nothing more than pico, albeit a good one, with bright, eye-catching color and flavor, and a good balance of heat, freshness, and herbal punch.

A bit of the korma rolled up with naan, shredded lettuce, and chutney makes a nice bite. I'd thought the compartment filled with shredded lettuce was odd, another nudge from the Tex-Mex lunch plate side of the menu, but it added a nice crunch and cooling effect in that guise. A swipe of naan through that mild raita, and I was happy.

This might not be earth-shattering Indian food, but it is admirably authentic, and a lovely diversion from the workaday tunnel. I'll be back for more, and plan on trying to get them to add some Indian dishes to their breakfast menu. I figure that the only way to make tunnel dining better, is to be a better tunnel diner. I like to think of my tunnel meanderings as a reverse Field of Dreams in that regard. If I eat it, more will come.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall