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Pappasito's finally opens in downtown hotel — and it's pushing the envelope with new city tricks

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Pappasito's chorizo queso
Queso a la Plancha made with homemade chorizo and served with fresh flour tortillas. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
Pappasito's ceviche
Pappasito’s ceviche: shrimp, scallops and fresh fish marinated in lime and cilantro with avocado. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
12 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 interior
A look into the main dining room. Photo by Eric Sandler
3 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014
Artwork by Cuban artist Jose Fuster adorns the walls of the main dining room. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014
The bar is all new. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pappasito's Cóctel de Mariscos octopus ceviche
Cóctel de Mariscos: shrimp, jumbo lump crab, octopus and avocado with habanero cocktail sauce. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
Pappasito's salmon ceviche
Chilean salmon ceviche with green apple, cilantro, serrano peppers and Spanish olive oil. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
Pappasito's churros
Churros with chocolate dipping sauce.  Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
Pappasito's hamachi ceviche
Pacific hamachi with pineapple, ginger, serrano and sweet soy. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
Pappasito's tuna ceviche
Hawaiian big eye tuna with mango, chipotle and avocado. Photo courtesy of Pappasito's
7 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 interior
The tequila room. Photo by Eric Sandler
11 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 poster
Artist Jaelah Kuehmichel drew this sketch based on a Mexican Folklorico dress. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pappasito's chorizo queso
Pappasito's ceviche
12 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 interior
3 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014
Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014
Pappasito's Cóctel de Mariscos octopus ceviche
Pappasito's salmon ceviche
Pappasito's churros
Pappasito's hamachi ceviche
Pappasito's tuna ceviche
7 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 interior
11 Pappasito's downtown Houston June 2014 poster

One of Houston's most popular restaurant concepts has officially joined forces with one of the city's most successful hotels.

The new Pappasito's Cantina in the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel opened quietly last weekend in the space that formerly housed Spencer's Steaks and Chops. At 8,200 square feet, the restaurant is able to seat over 200 in its dining room and another 65 or so on its Crawford Street patio. 

While the company has long operated a Pappas Bar-B-Q location downtown, partnering with a hotel might seem like a big change, but director of marketing Christina Pappas says the company "isn't afraid" of operating inside a larger institution and cites the company's successful airport restaurants as proof. She adds that working with the Hilton has been "top notch."

 "Change is what's going to keep this ball rolling. We just have to keep on pushing."  

Furthermore, the space has been transformed from its former incarnation. Only a few stone accents remain on the walls. It's a bright, fresh take on the familiar Pappasito's decor that's surprisingly attractive. 

Abstract paintings by Cuban artist Jose Fuster adorn the walls of the main dining room, and local artist Imago Dei created paintings inspired by classic advertisements for the adjacent tequila room. The "curved" room blends an original painting by  artist Jaelah Kuehmichel of Austin with culinary photographs and antique cookwear for what Pappas describes as a "relaxed feel."

As for the challenge of the location, the company is confident that it can attract downtown office workers during lunch and happy hour revelers after work. The hotel parking garage is a bit of a walk from the restaurant, but diners get two free hours for their trouble. Valet is available, too, but the brief walk helps justify ordering queso. 

More than decor and parking, food quality and service will determine the success of this new venture. Georgea Pappas, one of the chefs on the company's R&D team, explains that the restaurant has a few unique dishes to entice happy hour diners. These menu items are designed to be shared over cocktails.

Healthy Tex-Mex?

For the health conscious, Pappasito's offers six new ceviches and crudos. They are lighter and fresher dishes than one might expect from a restaurant known primarily for fajitas that are served with a sizzling side of melted butter. For example, a dish of Chilean salmon uses sliced green apple for sweetness, serrano peppers for spiciness and is marinated in a custom-blended Spanish olive oil. A hamachi dish that incorporates pressed pineapple, ginger and sweet soy is equally delicious.

 More than decor and parking, food quality and service will determine the success of this new venture.   

Of course, not all of the new dishes are so friendly. The menu also includes new beef and chicken fajitas nachos and "Queso a la Plancha" made with housemade chorizo and served with plenty of flour tortillas. The chorizo gets a boost from a heavy dose of allspice, which practically guarantees someone at the table will be using the tortillas to mop up every last bite. Those looking for a shareable dessert should consider the new churros that rival the classic version at Hugo's for their mix of a crispy exterior and soft, chewy interior.

Yes, the rest of the menu is familiar (the fajitas are the same), but Christina says the restaurant doesn't want to rest on the laurels of 30 years of success. "We want to push the envelope," with the new dishes, she explains. The ceviches will make their way to the other locations "if we can make them work here.

"Change is what's going to keep this ball rolling," she says. "We just have to keep on pushing."

Cocktails are another area where Pappasito's is mixing things up. Former Anvil manager Matt Tanner draws upon some recent trends with new drinks like a tequila rickey made with half a lime and a tequila-based riff on the ultra-popular Moscow Mule. While none of the cocktails utilize mezcal, Christina says the company is "going to keep on pushing (the spirit) until the consumer is ready to have it."

In the meantime, the bartenders are happy to swap mezcal in for tequila (try it with the rickey, seriously).

As for the future, Christina is non-committal. Will the company ever open a second location of Greek restaurant Yia Yia Mary's or Dot Cofee Shop?

"You never know," she replies. The company still plans to bring Pappas Bros. Steakhouse to the former Strip House space, as soon as the city will approve the necessary permits. 

In the meantime, Georgea says that the R&D chefs are always trying new restaurants, even sharing pictures of dishes as they eat.

"We go out all the time," Christina adds. "You've got to keep your hands on what's going on." 

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