We love Houston, but it's also nice to have those not-like-Houston-at-all moments. And there are many of them at Macondo Latin Bistro.
By the same people who ran the previous establishment in this spot on Travis Street (Don Diego Coffeehouse and Wine Bar), Macondo keeps the same expansive menu of coffees, teas, beer, wine and licuados (frothy fruit smoothies), ditching the post-work crowd for an expanded full-service lunch menu.
There are only a handful of tables between the brightly covered walls, and soft sounds of bossa nova and Shakira reign — that is, unless a World Cup game is on. With shades that can hide the interiors from passersby, it's a nice place for a date — but only over lunch, with a 3 p.m. closing time.
The beef empanadas in a slightly crunchy cornmeal crust are some of the best in town, especially when topped with the sweet salsa that comes on the side. The ceviche appetizer is large but not exceptional (though it improved much by squeezing a couple more limes into the mix).
Entrees read like a greatest hits of South and Central America, with some Caribbean influences thrown in: Bistec de Argentina (a tampiqueña skirt steak served with a heavy, salty chimichurri, sweet and tangy papaya barbecue sauce, and french fries), arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, burritos, Columbian bandeja paisa, and colorful fish tacos — not to mention the succulent plantain sides.
And since this is lunch, there are also a number of inventive salads and sandwiches to choose from, like the Santa Sofia salad (grilled chicken breast, mixed greens, toasted walnuts, strawberries, apple, raisins and balsamic vinaigrette or raspberry vinaigrette) and the Buen Dia (red beet, feta cheese, chick peas, red onion, chopped tomatoes, croutons, baby spinach and honey mustard). Portions are large but not overwhelming, and nothing on the menu costs over $9.
If there's a drawback to Macondo, it's the service — unstructured, if not unfriendly. It appears that the place is staffed by just one person at times, and there were delays in getting certain orders and special orders not met with success. But if this is a time or preference issue, for downtowners there's always delivery.
Or you could just take it as another facet of the non-American atmosphere. At Maconda, what can we say — it just works.