‘Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” This paraphrase from Coleridge keeps running through my brain as I sit at a table inside the new-ish outpost of Ula’s on Washington Avenue, wedged into the old Catalan/Coppa space in what seems like a rushed and surface-level treatment. The space feels weirdly cramped; there are too many tables. At the same time, the high ceilings give the place an echo-y and barren feel. It’s an odd dichotomy. Disconcerting.
In a city whose culinary zeitgeist often hangs its hat on the legacy of Tex-Mex, we should expect better than rushed and surface level. The city is flush with Tex-Mex, but, increasingly, surface level is what we get. That’s the Coleridge Conundrum of Houston Tex-Mex, and it’s on ready display at Ula’s.
While there are some hidden gems, perhaps picking up a bit of their luster by sheer comparison to the rest of the menu, Ula’s lists to the decidedly mediocre. It isn’t so much that the food is bad, just that it feels like it’s not trying. As if someone decided that calling yourself a Tex-Mex restaurant, going through the motions, was enough. Something about ubiquity can have such a flattening effect on quality. Though we may trumpet our native cuisine to the rest of the world, we seem to have decided that complacency is acceptable. We are, in short, living up to the bad name Tex-Mex carried for so many years, a homogeneous and unconsidered pile of melted cheese and sadness.
Take fajitas, arguably Houston’s chief contribution to the Tex-Mex canon, by way of Mama Ninfa’s popularization of tacos al carbon. Here, your sizzling comal isn’t so sizzling, and it contains what looks more like chopped steak from a cafeteria line, poorly realized at that. The beef is cut with the grain, but bearing what look like puncture marks from a jacquard, the meat stabbed into flabby defeat in an attempt to approximate the tenderness the kitchen destroyed with improper slicing. It ends up looking pre-chewed. It is flavorless and watery, bearing little if any sign that it has seen the open flame of a grill, aside from a few Burger King-esque, costume-jewelry marks. This is steamed beef, and it makes me angry.
The tortillas that come alongside add insult to injury. They are overly thin and overly larded, giving them a waxy, windowpane character. They are also cold and seemingly undercooked, doughy and floury. Where the combination of carefully griddled tortillas and simply grilled beef can offer a host of delights, the specimen on display here offers only disappointment. It is an affront to what the dish can be, and we shouldn’t stand for it.
In another page from the Tex-Mex book, Ula’s offers a sort of choose-your-own-adventure combination plate. Pick anywhere from two to four items from a list of six, escalating in price as you go, sided with rice and beans. A bean chalupa wound up a soggy-bottomed taco salad in mini, and a taco al carbon suffered the same fate as the fajitas — no real surprise, I suppose. The cheese enchilada, however, wracked me with disbelief.
Looking back on my tasting notes, in all caps, underlined, is the phrase “PSL ENCHILADAS???” An unfortunate nod to the pumpkin spice mania that takes hold of the country every fall, the pumpkin spice latte tag does well to encapsulate the odd rush of baking spices and sweet bent of Ula’s “Signature Enchilada Gravy.” Other enchiladas in town make use of those same warm spices (Spanish Village and its “Special Enchiladas-A-La-Taylor” comes to mind), managing to avoid turning a plate of enchiladas into a trip through a Yankee Candle store.
Let’s go back to the beginning, though, as my hopes for Ula’s had been different at first. Blessedly, the standard Tex-Mex appetizers ring fairly true here. The house guacamole is simple, svelte avocado stuff. The tableside option just adds a degree of control (and a slight premium), which you’ll want if you prefer heat, acid or herbal twinge. The standard version is fine stuff, though. This is a decidedly mild, restrained guacamole, but none the worse for it. Ula’s lets its guacamole taste rather simply like avocado, rendering it almost in the mode of Spanish Village’s iconoclastic guacamole salad, minus the charming carrot coins and celery stick. A nice comparison, rather than a jarring contrast.
The chile con queso, too, holds its own. This is not queso of the thick, processed-cheese variety. This is a thinnish and almost certainly roux-based cheese dip, with a good cling and an interesting meaty backbone, as if infused ever so slightly with bacon. I prefer the kind of queso that congeals into a single block, rather than the kind that cools to a paste, but this version of the latter type has its own charms.
The nachos at Ula’s look the part, using proper, individually built construction. For all that, they are unbalanced, tasting like the mushy mess they’re trying so hard not to be.
An appetizer of Mexican smoked ribs comes out looking oddly boxy, almost compressed. Two toward the top sport cursory grill marks, as if they’re in costume, a last-second bit of poorly applied smoke and mirrors, minus the smoke; like a McRib with a better pedigree. The meat is tender to the point of mushiness, tasting more of steam tables than slow roasting. The thickly applied barbecue sauce is inoffensive to the point of offense; if it’s not poured from a can or a handled jug, the kitchen should save itself some time and go that route, as it’s already the only assumption one can make.
Other grilled items fare better. The shrimp brochette, for example, is one of the better things on the menu. Mostly, it tastes like bacon and jalapeño. Still, the bacon is meaty and crisp, the shrimp dewy and succulent and tasting sweetly of the sea, even under its bacon girdle and mantle of melted cheese — a hard task to master.
The grilled quail could be lovely, but comes just a bit unevenly cooked. In some spots, the skin is a lovely, burnished gold with just a hint of char. Elsewhere, the bird is nearly incinerated. Still, the simple pepper and lime marinade is nice and, if you pull the breasts and tuck them in tortillas with strips of grilled bell pepper and maybe a hunk of jalapeño, it’s not a bad bite. It’d be better with acceptable tortillas. The bed of comal-caramelized onions is a nicely sweet counterpoint against the rich meat.
Another spot of redemption comes in the form of chicken enchiladas verdes. Three enchiladas peek out from under a blanket of chunky green salsa, straightforward and nicely tart. Melted Monterey Jack cheese adds richness, and the shredded chicken tucked inside is lush and almost creamy. As much as the PSL cheese enchiladas took me by surprise, these snapped my attention back in the other direction.
A plate of shrimp enchiladas finds itself stuck frustratingly in the middle. The enchiladas fairly bulge with plump crustaceans. There’s a nice roasted flavor of shrimp grilled in-shell, though I doubt these were. A few verge on rubbery, but most are still pleasantly succulent. The roast-y shrimp melds nicely with corn tortillas, all blanketed by a creamy “diablo” sauce that doesn’t live up to its name, decidedly unthreatening, adding mostly a creamy texture. Somehow, though, the dish doesn’t meet the sum of its parts. The pieces are all fine, but they never quite seem to come together, the textures competing.
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The service at Ula’s can be lovely, but be careful where you sit. Perhaps many diners who choose the patio are looking for a more relaxed service, the better to enjoy the rarity of pleasant Houston weather and the company of a good friend. Still, that shouldn’t mean 20-minute gaps between seating and menus, menus and drink orders, orders and food. You might think you could simply while away that time with a margarita, but they’re not worth the frustration of flagging down a waiter for the fifth time. ?Inside, the staff is gracious and attentive. It’s not the almost invisible, pre-cognitive level of service you expect from restaurants at the top of the food chain, and it’s not the overly familiar model that finds your waiter grabbing a seat and joining the party (heaven forfend). The staff puts you at ease, though, even if you happen to be dining with a handful of children. I caught ours making faces at the baby when the first cracks of impending crankiness started to show, buying us a few extra minutes of calm and earning himself a few brownie points. Looking around, there were families scattered throughout the dining room, taking advantage of the friendly service.
Oddly, as the night wore on, there were also well-healed young couples out for a night on the town. Ula’s seems an odd spot for it, upscale in neither food nor ambience. That brings me back to the puzzle of just what Ula’s is and what it’s doing here. It’s not doing Tex-Mex well enough to warrant a spot in the rotation, sometimes not well enough to warrant the briefest of considerations. It was packed every time I went by. Are we to the point where we are willing to accept Tex-Mex places where mediocrity is the high road? Do we want to float along in a sea filled with places that claim the Tex-Mex title yet show little respect for the food it represents? If Ula’s is any indication, the answer is yes. And suddenly, I need a drink.
Ula’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina
5555 Washington Avenue, 832-491-0510, texmexicanfood.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays (brunch until 2 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays (brunch until 2 p.m.)
House margaritas $5
Mexican smoked ribs (6) $9.95
Chile con queso $8.95
Nachos compuestos $11.95
One-half order beef fajitas $19.95
Shrimp brochette $18.95
Combo plate (3 items) $14
Grilled quail $23.95
Chicken enchiladas $11.95
Shrimp enchiladas $14.95