In every romantic comedy there is a moment when either the hero or heroine, after screwing up and pushing their love interest away, finds himself (or herself) miserable, alone, and standing outside a hip, popular restaurant gazing in the large, jealousy-inducing windows at all the young, fun people who are deep in the middle of lively conversations and good meals, having an effortlessly great time.
In Houston that restaurant is Cuchara.
Taking over the corner space in a revamped 1940s brick building on Fairview, the restaurant has a modern, open aesthetic that is juxtaposed with jolts of color and texture in the rainbow-hued plates and bowls and rough-hewn half-aprons worn by waiters that reference the menu's Mexico City origins. There are also a trio of eye-catching murals by Ana's sister, Mexico City artist Cecilia Beaven. A chaotic maze of cars and roads frames the largest, which runs the length of the dining room.
"Every other time is just crazy, traffic, chaos, but when you eat, you eat, so that's what she tried to show there."
"It's the chaos of Mexico City, the subway and all the people everywhere and guys that blow fire, and then inside the family having dinner, which is actually the peaceful time in Mexico City, when you sit down to eat," Ana Beaven says. "Every other time is just crazy, traffic, chaos, but when you eat, you eat, so that's what she tried to show there."
Smart details abound that make the space feel cool but also comfortable — water served from former Patrón bottles, thick, dish towel-style napkins that actually cover the entire lap space, a little straw donkey holding court, tables for two that actually fit all the food that two normal people would order onto them without effort.
Led by chef Adriana Avendaño, Cuchara has the only all-female kitchen in Houston, according to Beaven, and several of the recipes she's serving come from her staff's grandmothers. The presentation might be modern, but the roots are in authentic comfort food, Mexico City-style.
The presentation might be modern, but the roots are in authentic comfort f ood, Mexico City-style.
Tortilla chips and salsa aren't served at the beginning of the meal, but that doesn't mean they aren't an offering. I opened with the picaditas, thin (but not crispy) corn cakes topped with a layer of firm refried black beans, a cream sauce and crumbled panela cheese.
While the bite was mild and appealing, it was the side of vibrant red salsa packing a flavorful heat that stole the show. Despite just a brief taste, it might be one of my favorites in Houston, but to be sure I'll have to order the salsa trio with tortilla chips for further research.
My friend ordered the mole verde with pork tenderloin, which came in a quartet of pots: one for the mole dish itself and the other three holding sides of rice, refried black beans and white corn purée, which tasted intriguingly like a thicker, sweeter polenta. As for the mole, this half-Mexican declared it the best he'd ever had (though he admitted competition was limited). I loved the power of the tart, slightly earthy tomatillo-based mole — it hung out in my mouth for a while and demanded attention — and the juicy, slow-cooked pork seemed to fall apart just by looking at it.
Despite an enticing special of chiles en nogada, I was determined to try the mula de nopal, or cactus, for the first time. Thick slices of nopal were sandwiched between sizeable hunks of panela cheese and sat atop a bed of a deep red, smoky and intensely hot salsa. When combined, the heat and flavor of the salsa meshed well with the thick softness of the sauteed nopal and the hint of sweetness from the cheese, but the nopal itself was less exciting, and came in on the flavor scale somewhere between a green pepper and zucchini.
When my friend tasted it, he made the same face that he made when I told him what "YOLO" stands for.
For dessert we tried the trio of ice cream in exotic flavors — fig with mezcal, mamey (a Mexican fruit) and chongos zamoranos, a sweet dessert of milk curds with cinnamon and sugar. I liked the fruit flavor, loved the sweet chongos, especially on the wafers served with it, but the fig and mezcal ice cream was a bitter mess.
When my friend tasted it, he made the same face that he made when I told him what "YOLO" stands for. So for now, alcoholic ice cream is still a dream deferred.
With foods that many Houstonians might not be familiar with, one of Cuchara's strengths is the service. For a new restaurant, mediocre or poorly choreographed service can be a temporary issue, an anomaly or a sign of bad things to come, but service this good can only be the result of passion and excellent training. My waiter gave fantastic descriptions of off-menu dishes like the nopales and fideo, walking us through the ingredients like an attentive culinary tour guide.
If Cuchara hadn't opened only a couple weeks ago, I'd be convinced our server had worked there for years.
Of course, enthusiasm can be a double-edged sword. I ordered a side of grilled onions after his recommendation included rapturous appreciation of the transcendent interplay between the onions, a squeeze of lime and some salt. While not bad, the resulting order reminded that onions, even with acid, salt and a hint of caramelization, are still just onions.
Before sitting down for dinner, I stopped in the bar, which is currently run by consulting mixologist Chris Frankel, formerly of Anvil and Underbelly. In addition to a menu of Mexican beers and a small wine selection, Frankel has created a cocktail menu that mixes classics like the refreshing paloma and a margarita made with Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao and a touch of orange bitters with new inventions like the Bandido, an alcoholic version of the traditional Chihuahua drink Iskiate with Sotol, fresh lemon juice, Pimm's #1 and chia seeds.
"I think brunches here could turn into a thing, just with the neighborhood, and the kind of food, it could be like a La Strada flashback. It c ould happen."
"Fresh juices, good tequila … it's simple," Frankel says, although even with a large portion of Cuchara devoted to the bar, "the food's clearly the star, I'm just trying to do stuff for people to drink, these are just going to be in the background.
"But I think brunches here could turn into a thing, just with the neighborhood, and the kind of food, it could be like a La Strada flashback. It could happen."
Cuchara is still in soft opening mode, serving dinner and Sunday brunch, with a grand opening party scheduled for Sept. 15 to correspond with "Grito de Dolores," a holiday commemorating the beginning of the Mexican war of independence.