On the night between All Saints Day and All Souls Day, the entrance to Cuchara restaurant in Montrose was flanked by life-size skeletons of papier-mâché. They were dressed in party clothes: a rose-covered headdress on one; a frilly white picture hat and ruffled purple gown on the other. It was impossible to pass between them without thinking, “This is going to be fun.”
Inside the 2-month-old restaurant, a chic, casually dressed crowd sent up a happy racket of Spanish and English in the airy space. Fat blooms of bright-hued crepe paper descended from the high ceiling with its dropped wooden grid, floating over the unclad tables. An elaborate Day of the Dead altar, set up just for the two-day celebration memorializing departed loved ones, rose in tiers against the eye-popping mural that occupies most of one wall.
Celebrants crowded the bar and laughed at outdoor tables under young sycamore trees in the autumn dark. They sipped beautifully crafted cocktails, ordering plate after plate of masa-based botanas, those irresistible Mexican snacks so easily turned into a meal — especially when a flaky empanada jacket hides delicately earth-toned huitlacoche, the corn smut that is the truffle of Mexico; or when crisp rolled taquitos ooze molten creamy cheese tinted with the winy-tasting dried hibiscus flowers called jamaica.
The whole corner of Fairview at Taft seemed to pulse with color and life. Looking down Fairview, past the bulb-twined terraces of Gratifi cafe and Boheme, it was possible to imagine a Houston future flourishing with such pockets of walkable urban landscape.
If Frida Kahlo herself had strolled in, on the arm of Diego Rivera, they would not have raised more than a few eyebrows — or seemed hugely out of place. That’s the sort of visual and social magic that Cuchara owners Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel have wrought inside this beautifully converted brick commercial space.
Working with architect Jim Herd and his Collaborative Partners, who designed Underbelly and Haven, they have created a stylish industrial setting that’s a civic attraction in its own right. Much credit for that goes to Beaven’s sister, the young Mexico City artist Cecilia Beaven, who did the black-and-white murals splashed here and there with color. They are done in a sly cartoon style, as if some spiritual daughter of Matt Groening (he of “Life in Hell” and “The Simpsons”) had dived into the urban circus of the Mexican capital and forgotten to come up for air.
If I were in charge of showing important guests around Houston, I’d make sure to take them to see Cuchara’s murals and try a cocktail from the interesting list that Anvil alumnus Chris Frankel consulted on. Then I’d insist they stick around to sample the equally eye-opening salsa trio, with their keenly calibrated levels of chile heat.
In a town that relishes its salsas, these three are actually something new under the sun. Tia Martha, a verdant green tomatillo version, has a surprising current of crushed peanut amplifing its tartness and warmth. The Cinco Chiles salsa features a porky depth-charge of chicharrones underlying its toasty heat. And Jitomate con Chile Quemado rises above its tomato base by virtue of burnt arbol pepper skin, which adds layers of dimension.
Yes, you will have to pay for a sampler of these salsas along with “tortilla fritters,” as the menu rather improbably calls tortilla chips. And, yes, it’s worth it — even though the act of charging for chips and salsa is viewed as heretical in Houston. My counsel is — in this case, anyway — to get over it.
Cuchara will not please Houstonians devoted to the idea that Mexican food should be inexpensive. This is contemporary interior Mexican food based on rarefied homestyle recipes, and the pricing goes way beyond your basic Tex-Mex. Tabs for the botanas, brunch items and cocktails seem well worth it to me. Some of the entree prices on the tightly edited menu approach fine-dining levels, however, and I must confess that I found the more expensive price tags daunting.
I loved my Tasajo y Huarache, its sandal-shaped masa footprint piled with thin-sliced beef filet that had been griddle-seared, as if for some manic Philly cheesesteak. The accompanying tumble of rajas, a sauté of poblano strips and onion and crema, was glorious. Colorful enameled cast-iron mini-potsful of smooth tart avocado mousse and refried beans were good, too. But $24 seemed steep for this glorified antojito, however much I long to eat it again.
So did $20 for a small potful of Mixiotes de Camaron, the big shellfish rubbery from overcooking in their spicy red bath. I felt more comfortable paying $19 for a filet of nicely cooked snapper Veracruz, perched, in its enameled mini-skillet, on an interesting tortilla-style cake of plantain and amaranth, and crowned with a lively profusion of tomato, vegetables and chile. So good was this Veracruzana-style topping I couldn’t help thinking how it would taste in an omelet, after which my mind ran riot with ideas.
While the food coming from this fledgling kitchen is mostly very good, it has yet to even out. A fascinating plate of charolitos, deep-fried little fish to crunch up bones and all, had a vibrant, sardinelike flavor that was compromised by an over-aggressive frying job in which char took over. Still, I could see eating these tiny fish like popcorn under the right circumstances, with serious red salsa to go along.
Green salads are gorgeous here, tricked out with exotica from rose petals to candied nuts to papaya, but they wear such sweet salad dressings they tasted like dessert to me.
Occasionally a side dish like the refried beans, or a habit-forming purée of white corn and potato, will arrive tepid inside its enameled mini-casserole; and those fetching little pots may crowd together awkwardly on a plate, too much of a stylish thing.
But that’s the sum total of my misgivings at Cuchara. For the most part, I consider that I’m paying well-earned rent on a seat in one of my favorite dining rooms in town, eating food that interests and delights me.
I don’t know when I have had racier chilaquiles than the red ones that came with two eggs over easy at a recent brunch service, the tortilla scramble an intricate dance of crisp and soft, the red-chile flavors deep and warm to the point of tasting burnished. Generous lacings of tart crema and soft, crumbly white cheese turned the dish into something luxurious. It was $8 well spent.
So, at that same brunch, was the two bucks each I spent on four Tacos de Canasta, served curled up inside small paper bags and filled with meats so satisfying no salsa was required as a flavor boost. Soft beef barbacoa; carnitas-style pork with a barky crust; potatoes gently spiced with chorizo: each seemed better than the last.
Finest of all was the taco of chicharrones en salsa verdes, the fried pork skins soft yet resilient in their vivid green chile sauce. “This is the best thing I ever ate,” I found myself thinking. I’m still half-convinced that was true.
Brunch is a good opportunity for first-timers to investigate Cuchara, not only because of the gentler pricing but because the room is particularly lovely by day, when light streams in through the two window walls topped by a clerestory, which brings the room’s height to a generous one-and-a-half stories.
It’s easier to spy out Ana Beaven’s stylish details by day: the pretty foursquare nests of cutlery and napkins at the center of each sleek, ridged tabletop; the rough gray homespun of the servers’ aprons, striped in red and black like woven Mexican market bags.
Daylight catches the shimmering beauty of a cocktail or a lime mimosa laced with tiny, gelatinous chia seeds, an allusion to Tarahumara culture; and it lights up humorous details of the murals, so that suddenly you pick out a rogue accordionist or a nervy rodent you had missed on previous visits.
The joys of daytime dining here make me hope Cuchara will open for lunch in time. I’m told that’s the plan. My favorite botana and brunch items already seem suited to that meal, with lovely aguas frescas — like a recent pale-green honeydew version — stepping in for evening’s cocktails.
Until then, such nighttime attractions as the warming green mole of pork tenderloin will have to suffice. It tastes even better when delivered by Cuchara’s courtly, helpful servers, most of whom have a whiff of Old-Worldliness about them that belies their age. Listen to them, and they may steer you to an electric mezcal sorbet; or perhaps to the most sophisticated Michelada on record: light on its lime-shot, tomato-based feet, fizzed with Modelo Especial and elevated with a shot of rum that adds a mellow note of the tropics.
That’s the kind of fun those dressed-to-kill skeletons seemed to hint at on the Day of the Dead. Promise kept.
Cuchara Mexico City Bistro ★ ★
214 Fairview at Taft 713-942-0000
Hours: D: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4-10 p.m. Sundays. B: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $8-$10; entrees $19-$24; desserts $4-$8
Reservations: first come, first served, Noise level: moderate to loud
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.