I am in so much trouble when it comes to Xuco Xicana, the restaurant formerly-and-sort-of-currently known as El Patio Midtown.
See, I have this job that requires me to dine in different restaurants on a near-daily basis. But I'm so hung up on some of the new dishes consulting chef Jonathan Jones has rolled out on the Xuco Xicana menu that I keep finding excuses to return.
Um, I just have to see if the chile con queso really is as good as I think it is, with its roasted green chiles and sparks of pico de gallo and its perfect, chip-clingy viscosity. It's made with a combo of Chihuahua and American processed cheese (namely Solana, an Extra-Melt-style product that Jones says contains more milk solids than Velveeta). And it has vaulted right onto my short list of the best quesos in town.
So there's that. Then there are the hot wings, er, "Hot Wangs," in patented JJspeak, JJ being one of the several nicknames by which the chef at Beaver's neo-icehouse, his primary post, is known. Normally chicken wings don't interest me much (I am certainly not one of those connoisseurs who pursues them relentlessly), but for these brilliant specimens I make a very big exception.
Essentially they are Buffalo wings seen through a Houston lens: painted in a tart-hot red daub of toasted chile arbol, sesame seeds, pepitas, garlic and spices bound together with vinegar, a potion that Jones leaves to develop over several days. Yow, is it good. On top go soft local queso fresco and swizzles of crema that Jones cultures himself; and on the side, in the role of celery sticks, come slices of cucumber and jicama zapped with lime and red chile. Yes, there is a cilantro-ranchy dressing to stand in for the traditional blue cheese dip, but the wings don't need any help.
Actually the chicken wings are a bit of an anomaly on this reconfigured menu. Jones has moved a middle-of-the-road Tex-Mex bill of fare more toward interior Mexican flavors, with fine results. His reworked cheese enchiladas feature pale Chihuahua cheese and a resonant ancho/guajillo red chile sauce that has deepened and intensified over the past few weeks, as Jones brings the kitchen up to speed.
You can get the same red chile sauce on simple Tortillas Enchiladas strewn with crumbly white cheese and lettuce, which is pretty much the fountainhead recipe for all enchiladas, everywhere. It's daring to try that kind of basic, rootsy dish at a Midtown restaurant that trades heavily on its bar and patio, or to trot out enfrijoladas, in which tortillas are dipped in a black bean sauce before being lavishly garnished. (Split an order of these if you try them, because a giant platter of enfrijoladas, while very good, doesn't wear well as a solo entree.)
Jones has introduced serious tamales, too: lamb with guajillo chile, orange and cinnamon; as well as shreddy pork shoulder with guajillo. And I loved the enchiladas of mushrooms sauteed in red pasilla chile adobo, made lusher with earthy huitlacoche fungus and finished with a brisk salsa verde. It's a vegetarian's dream dish...if you pass on the lard-infused refried beans, that is.
There's lots more to sample, from daily Third Coast Ceviches to sopes to carne guisada to typically over-the-top Jonesified versions of nachos, that Tex-Mex staple that operators ignore at their peril. On Sundays, there's an appealing brunch menu in the swaggery spirit of Jones's oeuvre at Beaver's, with fried eggs plunked on anything that moves and even a Tejano-ed up version of French toast, with a bit of ancho in the syrup.
The specialty margaritas need work (they're way too sweet), but the classic El Patio frozen job still has its classic diesel-fuel charms. I am not being sarcastic.
Already I count Xuco Xicana as one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in town, and it's just getting started on its new life. The menu comes with a pronunciation guide (say "Chuco Chicana") along with a slightly tangled history lesson in the guise of a "Mission Statement."
I get nervous when I see restaurant mission statements. I'm a "show me, don't tell me" sort of diner. But at Xuco Xicana, the philosophy is on the plate. And I had to chuckle at the thinly veiled challenge flung down by the following: "Our food is the food that INSPIRED "Tex-Mex," however is NOT "Tex-Mex," even though our food may share elements of that cuisine."
Gosh. Whoever could they be referencing there? I guess it could be the new Tex-Mex Revival mega-project, El Real, spearheaded by chef Bryan Caswell and cookbook author Robb Walsh. Ya think?
Bring on the competition and the food dialectic, I say. Houston will be the richer for it. In fact, it already is.
(Xuco Xicana, a.k.a. El Patio Midtown, 2416 Brazos, 713-523-8181)