"As much as I loved Felix for its historical significance, it was hard to explain the food," wrote former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh back in 2008. "I once compared eating there to 'listening to scratchy recordings of the Delta blues' to understand our roots."
In that cover story, "Temples of Tex-Mex," Walsh recounted the tale of how Tex-Mex has become arguably the state's most important cuisine -- not only for its longevity, but also for the many ways in which the food has become a cultural touchstone in and of itself. It's a sentiment I agree with, and one of the many reasons that the new Galleria-area restaurant Vida Tex-Mex has left me so aghast time and again.
You do not trifle with Tex-Mex in Houston. Serving bad Tex-Mex here is like pissing on the Alamo in San Antonio; not only is it offensive, it's just not done. Our city may certainly have its fair share of average or mediocre Tex-Mex, but to open a restaurant with a big splash and deep pockets, then insult your guests by offering them food not fit to serve a dog?
Well, there's a reason that this week's cafe review of Vida Tex-Mex is called "Get a Rope."
Sometimes, and those times have been many, the food at a restaurant is either so terrible or so inept that to write a bad review would be poor sportsmanship, the critical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But when it comes to Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston, I am an admittedly hard-line ideologue who does not accept excuses. I didn't go easy on the sorrowful Tex-Mex at Mucho Mexico last year, nor did I reserve any pity for Vida this week.
My hackles were raised even further when I read an interview with Vida's owners, Yvonne Melcher and Magic Schwarz, in the River Oaks Examiner that saw Melcher defending her choice not to hire a chef for the kitchen after the initial deal with Austin-based chef Paul Petersen (and the initial plan to call the restaurant Vivo) fell through.
"We thought 'how hard can it be?'" Melcher told the paper. "We thought we'd just open it up and it would run itself. But there's so much to bring together."
How hard can it be to open a restaurant? Ask guys like Justin Yu and Justin Vann, who are struggling to get Oxheart up and running. How well does a restaurant run itself? About as well as a toddler supervises itself. A restaurant is a living, breathing thing that needs guidance and passion to run -- not just deep pockets and a vague idea of what goes into your core dishes (sample hint: enchiladas require more than just cheese and tortillas).
It was infuriating to read someone being so dismissive about opening a restaurant, when dozens of incredibly talented chefs around Houston would throw themselves into a pit of vipers in order to secure the funding necessary to open restaurants of their own.
But Melcher seems to be content with Vida's direction for now, and bafflingly mollified by the food her kitchen is creating: "Our food is less greasy, better tasting and of a higher quality, but it isn't weird," she told the Examiner.
I'd argue that the food at Vida is in fact just as greasy than at most Tex-Mex places, especially apparent the day that I received a side of refried black beans ringed by a large, viscous pool of oil.
But that's not the most perplexing issue here: When Melcher says that Vida's food is "better tasting," to what other foods is she referring? Better tasting than a freezer-burned gas station burrito? Better tasting than a Taco Bell Crunchwrap? Better tasting than the dregs of the buffet at Pancho's? Those are just about the only things I can think of that Vida's food tastes better than, and that says all you need to know.
Get a rope, indeed. This is not the sort of Tex-Mex that Houston will stand for.