It hasn't even been open for two weeks yet, but I'm already keenly interested in Cuchara, the stylish new interior Mexican restaurant at the corner of Fairview and Taft. The self-styled "Mexico City bistro" would be worth a visit for the handsome industrial interior alone. Designed by Jim Herd's Collaborative Projects (they did Underbelly and Haven, too), the space is galvanized by the fierce, cartoony murals of Cecilia Beaven.
This Mexico City-based artist is the sister of Cuchara co-owner Ana Beaven, and she's a treasure. The more I gazed at those murals — one of which flies high overhead in the bar area — the more I saw, and the more entertained I was by their energetic wit.
The same thing happened as I sampled the agave cocktail menu put together by Chris Frankel, formerly of Anvil and Underbelly, who is working behind the bar and training staff in these early weeks of the restaurant's life as part of his consulting gig.
Frankel is one of the few mixologists who can coax me out of my cocktail comfort zone and get me to appreciate sweetness in my drinks. It's all about the balance he achieves in cocktails like Cuchara's house Margarita, in which the regulation fresh lime juice and Espolon Blanco tequila are mellowed by a piloncillo sugar syrup that adds a burnished warmth to the drink. Instead of the usual Triple Sec, there's a dash of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaḉao.
No, no, no, that that sickly-sweet blue stuff: we're talking an antique version of Curaḉao that's more like an orange brandy with a dry and slightly bitter finish. It helps make Cuchara's Margarita both fascinating and familiar. I ordered my Margarita straight up and liked it that way, but it's usually served on the rocks here, with a fresh lime garnish.
Way less familiar is Frankel's Bandido cocktail based on Sotol, which is distilled from a wild agave native to Chihuahua state. Frankel adds lemon juice, gelatinous little chia seeds (they're reminiscent of the basil seeds that float in some Chinatown drinks) and a float of Pimm's #1 Cup to produce his homage to Iskiate, the chia frescabeverage of Chihuahua's Tarahumara people.
Again I found myself appreciating a cocktail that's sweeter than I normally like, because of its interesting balance of flavors. The herbal notes in the Pimm's seemed to pick up the vegetal flavors of the Sotol, and the bouncy little chia seeds made me laugh out loud. That can be a good thing in a cocktail. Like those Cecilia Beaven murals, this drink had energy and wit.
But what about the food? The tightly edited menu looks interesting enough that even though I was headed for dinner elsewhere, I immediately wanted to sample it from top to bottom. Botanas (or appetizers), salads and soups run from $6 to $10. Grit your teeth, Tex-Mex diehards, because a trio of salsas — from tomatillo served with peanuts to a five-chile version served with pork rinds to burnt-arbol-skin salsa served with tortilla "crackers" — goes for six bucks. Cuchara isn't a gratis chips-and-salsa sort of place, and they make their Mexico City slant abundantly clear starting with the outdoor signage.
I loved my small plate of deep-fried taquitos, little flour tortillas rolled around a molten cream-style cheese tinted purplish with dried jamaica flowers, like the ones you'd use to brew hibiscus tea, or perhaps an agua fresca. With their subtle floral filling and brittle, pastry-like crusts, the tacos were interesting enough not to really need a dunk in the good red salsa that came alongside. They worked as well with the cocktails as they would with the brief selection of wines by the glass or Mexican beers.
Cuchara's half dozen entrees range from $14 to $20, and one that caught my eye was the vegetarian-friendly grilled cactus pad (er, cactus "filet") stuffed with panela cheese on a bed of house salsa, served with grilled green onions. I want that. I want the pork mole verde, too, with its side of white corn puree; and the mixiote of shrimp steamed in a maguey packet with guacamole; and the snapper Veracruzana on a base of crisped plantain and amaranth grains,
The esquites of white corn kernels with epazote, lime, oregano and manzanao pepper sounded good to me, too, as did the entire lineup of tropical ice creams and sorbets. Nieve de guanábana? Yes, please.
So I'm crossing my fingers, hard, and waiting eagerly to return when Cuchara has had a chance to get some practice. Houston can use more thoughtful, modern Mexican cuisine to flesh out our rich Texas-to-Mexico culinary spectrum. With the advent of restaurants like La Fisheria and Cuchara, it looks like we're starting to get it.
Cuchara: 214 Fairview at Taft, 713-557-2608. Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday—Thursday; 5 p.m.—11 p.m. Friday & Saturday 5 p.m. —11 p.m.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday