Houston's next great taqueria
Historic Houston farmers market replaces Texas comfort food with Netflix star chef's hot new taqueria
Houston restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality continues to evolve as it seeks to match the right restaurant with the right neighborhood. The company’s latest move is to relocate Wild Oats, its Texas comfort food restaurant, from the Houston Farmers Market to Spring Branch and replace it withComalito, a taqueria created by chef award-winning Mexican chef Luis Robledo Richards.
Netflix viewers will recognize Robledo Richards from his role as a judge on Sugar Rush: The Baking Point. He’s also been named the Best Pastry Chef in Latin America by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Instead of opening a Houston outpost of Tout Chocolat, his acclaimed chocolate shop in Mexico City, he wanted his first American project to focus on tacos.
“I don’t like fancy stuff,” the chef tells CultureMap. “I love simple things. I love tacos. If we can be successful with a taqueria, something else can come from that.”
Expected to open this fall, Comalita’s tacos will use corn tortillas that will be made onsite. The restaurant will import organic, heirloom corn from Mexico and treat it with a traditional nixtamalization process to make the masa that will become its tortillas. Approximately 1,000-square-feet of the current Wild Oats space will be allocated to tortilla production.
Taco fillings will start with two trompos (vertical spit roasters) — one with pork pastor and another with beef that’s marinated with recado negro, a spice paste from the Yucatan that gives the beef a dark, charred color. Other dishes will be prepared on a plancha, a nod to the comal that’s part of the restaurant’s name. Many of Comalito's ingredients, including spices, produce, and Texas wagyu beef, will be drawn from the market's existing vendors, including R-C Ranch.
To develop the pastor recipe, Robledo Richards said he consulted with local taco experts to identify Mexico City’s 10 best variations. After tasting through the options, he and his chefs developed a pastor that captures their favorite flavors.
“We researched to try to find what Mexico City tacos geeks consider the best. There’s all kinds of guys who publish taco guides. I have friends who have written those,” he says. “We talked about the 10 best pastor tacos in Mexico City. We went to them. This guy the pastor is more spicy, another is sweeter or saltier. That’s how we came up with Comalito’s pastor recipe.”
On the weekends, Comalito will serve brunch that will include sweet and savory breads and pastries as well as Mexican coffee. Desserts will include the chef’s take on flan, chocolate pudding, and churros.
Comalito’s cocktail program will center around tequila and mezcal-based drinks. “It’s not going to be super complicated. Simple, straightforward, delicious agave drinks, pretty much mezcal and tequila,” Robledo Richards says.
The chef acknowledges that Houstonians have extensive choices when it comes to Mexican restaurants, including Picos, which is owned by his cousin Arnaldo Richards. Still, he sees an opportunity for Comalito to find an audience based on its tortillas, traditional fillings, and agave program.
“I haven’t seen a real, Mexico City taqueria like the one we’re going to make,” he says. “If you go to traditional ones in Mexico City, there’s always something different here. We’re going to do something more in the spirit of a real Mexico City taqueria.”
Once Comalito opens, the chef plans to spend approximately 70-percent of his time in Houston and 30-percent in Mexico City. He’s bringing a team with him to open this restaurant and develop additional concepts that will follow if Comalito is successful.
“I love the city. I love the people. It’s so diverse. There’s so many opportunities to do something besides a taqueria,” he says.
As for Wild Oats, the restaurant will remain open until September 3, which will allow it to participate in Houston Restaurant Weeks. Find its two-course lunch and three-course, $39 dinner menus here.
Developed by chef-partner Nick Fine, Wild Oats tells the story of Texas food by serving classic dishes such as chicken fried steak, chili, and campechana. While it earned praise from critics, it has struggled to find a durable audience at the Houston Farmers Market.
Underbelly Hospitality president Nina Quincy tells CultureMap the company thinks the restaurant will be a better fit for Spring Branch, where it will open a new location this fall that will be paired with a second location of Underbelly Burger. She acknowledges that Wild Oats first iteration offered up too many dishes that were personal to Fine — such as the cornbread-stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail he made on hunting trips with his father — without including more iconic Texas classics like San Antonio-style puffy tacos.
“We’re going to stay true to what we do and have creative dishes with great ingredients,” Quincy says. “We’re going to have dishes that are recognizable as Texas without having to tell people a story.”
Of course, she’s thrilled to be working with Robledo Richards on a taqueria that she’s confident will be a better fit for the Houston Farmers Market.
“If you don’t love tacos, you’re not allowed to live in Texas. I think that’s in the Constitution. You can quote me on that,” she says.
Between closing GJ Tavern, opening Italian seafood restaurant Pastore, and relocating Wild Oats, Underbelly Hospitality will complete a series of moves designed to ensure its financial success going forward. Recently, the company has made a number of key hires, including CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year winner Sarah Troxell, culinary director Scott Muns, and Pastore chef (and Tastemaker Awards nominee) Jeff Potts. Working with a chef of Robledo Richards’ caliber only strengthens that.
“I can’t wait to eat his food. I’m really excited,” she says.