Houstonians should be well-accustomed to the idea of restaurateurs from Mexico opening locations in the Bayou City.
La Casa del Caballo's original location is in Saltillo, and La Fisheria chef Aquiles Chavez moved to Houston from Mexico to open his seafood restaurant. Another seafood restaurant called Peska — an off-shoot of places in Mexico City and Acapulco — will open later this year near the Galleria.
To ensure that diners can enjoy an appropriate number of margaritas, the restaurant will pay for taxi service.
All of which helps explain why Grupo Impulza, which operates 84 bars and restaurants across Mexico, chose Houston for its first American outpost. Newly opened La Bikina operates in an environment where diners are already primed to accept its traditional Mexican cuisine. Tacos al pastor and queso with chicharron are familiar flavors for all but the most stodgy diners.
However, several things set La Bikina apart.
The first is location. Rather than opening inside the Loop, La Bikina chose The Woodlands, where it hopes to appeal to the well-traveled population of oil and gas employees who are flocking to the northern suburb. Second, all of the restaurant's decor has been sourced from Mexico: From floor to ceiling including tables with custom glass holders built into the legs.
The lyrics to the song that gives La Bikina its name are painted on the walls and Spanish-language hits mixed with American '80s classics play on the sound system. Eventually, trained songbirds will perform on the patio.
While the cumulative effect might not be so dramatic to transport diners from The Woodlands to Mexico, the lively atmosphere sets the restaurant apart from some of its more staid neighbors. To ensure that diners can enjoy an appropriate number of margaritas, the restaurant will pay for taxi service within The Woodlands or subsidize it for trips back to Houston.
Eventually, trained songbirds will perform on the patio.
General manager Jorge Cabrera tells me that so far they're getting a good response for area residents. He's particularly happy that the location on Research Forest Drive is already something of a food destination thanks to the presence of both Japanese and Italian restaurants in the shopping center.
"Americans are ready for this food," Cabrera says. "They travel. They know Acapulco." Furthermore, La Bikina isn't trying to be too avant garde. "Our dishes are a little step (from the familiar) with different flavors you're going to like," Cabrera says.
While an organized tasting prior to dinner service doesn't demonstrate what the kitchen is like when its trying to satisfy a full dining room, my visit demonstrated that the food at least has potential to please. Credit chef Daniel Miranda, who trained in Mexico before coming to America to work at La Lupita in The Woodlands, for getting the food off to a solid start.
Of the starters, the panuchos, black bean-stuffed corn tortillas topped with cochinita pibil (spiced pull pork) had a good balance with the pork, creamy beans and slightly crunchy tortilla. Instead of Tex-Mex queso, La Bikina serves its cheese bubbling-hot in a stone molcajete.
Both tacos al pastor and a slow-cooked pork shank further demonstrate the kitchen's ability with that protein. Both preparations were flavorful and well-seasoned. Shrimp tempura tacos had a crispy batter and were nicely juicy, but the fried lobster tacos were a little chewy. Salmon served over black rice (dyed with squid ink) was a more successful seafood preparation — served properly medium with clams, chorizo and a mushroom sauce.
La Bikina's churros are easily two-feet long, with a crunchy exterior and chewy interior. All of the three dipping sauces are good, but the dulce de leche is the table favorite.
It's too soon to put the newcomer in the same league as Pico's or Hugo's, but La Bikina's style and flavors are reminiscent of the two local favorites. Woodlands residents looking for a change from Tex-Mex would be well advised to check it out.