La Fisheria isn’t going to get my award for most consistent restaurant of the year, but I’m giving the puckishly named Mexican seafood place a shiny gold star for being so much fun.
This fresh and effortlessly cool, beachy room is the new American home of Mexican TV celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez, a quirky guy with a pirate’s short dreadlocks and, until he trimmed it recently, a theatrically waxed-out handlebar moustache that is part of his brand.
Chavez blew into town like a cheerful tropical front, trailing TV crews in his wake and announcing that he was going to show Houston how real Mexican seafood was done — in an inventive modern form, no less. I’m not sure that’s what he has accomplished in the four months since the restaurant opened, because the food can be a roller coaster of highs and puzzling lows. But La Fisheria certainly isn’t boring.
Not when plump mussels arrive at the table in an unexpected bath of red wine and beet essence, a broth so delicately earthy and naturally sweet that it brings out the mussels’ oceanic character in a brilliant way. Or when a simple tuna tostada from the lunch menu shows up with the fish cut gossamer thin, rich and soft against the crackle of fried corn tortilla, with a little burst of fried leeks on top. It costs $5.50 and tastes like a million bucks.
Or how about those little shrimp tacos from the lunch menu, each clasped around a single tempura-battered shellfish, dressed with crunchy red cabbage and a squiggle of chipotle mayonnaise? Each one delivers a very large bang for its $2.50 buck. So does the counterpart luncheon taco of nicely grilled octopus in the same setting.
I’m zeroing in on those lunch items for a reason. I like La Fisheria best in its noontime mode, when the prices are friendlier and the menu is, too. The more ambitious and expensive dinner menu is a bit of a minefield, although it has its rewards. But I’m happiest here dropping in for a casual lunch or, at night, for a quick snack of smaller plates from the inviting bar.
I find myself constantly tempted to breeze in for one of the sumptuous shrimp cócteles in an oversize goblet, the precisely cooked shellfish as fresh and pearly as if they had slept, and slept well, in the Gulf of Mexico last night. I love the brothy tomato sea in which they swim, with its subtle currents of sweetness (is that tamarind?) and salt and spice, with soft green islets of avocado bobbing around.
The cocktail broth is so good I picked up my goblet toward the end and just drank it like soup. It’s far superior to your basic run-of-the-mill Mexican seafood cocktail awash with jazzed-up ketchup. Indeed, the shrimp cocktail broth and that surprising mussel-and-beet dish point toward an unusual skill with soups in this kitchen.
Check out a suave, poblano-chile-laced essence of eggplant poured around hunks of tuna that poke up above the surface like volcanic peaks. Or a similarly appealing cauliflower soup mined with sauteed shrimp. Even a simple tortilla soup with shrimp exudes authority, vivid red-orange against the blue enamel cup in which it is served.
The soups here are a good example of a chef who’s swimming against the current. Soups are given short shrift not only in Houston but in America these days, and it’s fun to see them show up as a significant part of the kitchen’s repertoire.
Fortunately, the air conditioning and fans in the crisp dining rooms are strong enough to make even a hot soup seem suitable for a Houston summer day. Dare I even hope for a cold soup or two to make an appearance?
Chavez has a nice way with octopus, too. He says it’s the only sea creature he buys frozen (the rest is all fresh from the Gulf of Mexico), and he cooks it without water in the pan, then finishes it with duck fat (!) and herbs on the grill.
If you’re leery of octopus, try it on baby tostaditas with a gentle pink chile mayo and fried leek. If you’re an octopus fan, get it grilled with duck-fat-fried potatoes that are delicious, if floppy — unless you do what Samba Grille chef David Guerrero told me he does and order it “extra crispy.” Guerrero spritzes on lime and a jot of serious, pitch-dark, off-the-menu habanero chile sauce for maximum grilled octopus mileage.
Trouble can creep in with some of the weightier entrees. A woefully sludgy beet risotto sported a lobster tail that was woody-textured in places. An interesting stew of duck, chorizo and mussels suffered from too much salt; what should have been a nuanced dish ended up sounding only a double note of salt and pork fat.
The fish entrees here can be beautifully cooked, but the various parts of the dishes do not necessarily hang together. Red snapper pibil-style would have made a bigger splash with a more of its resonant brick-red achiote daub and sprightly Xni-pec relish, a sort of refined pico de gallo. Instead, the dish went long on sweet potato puree and a rather faceless medley of chopped grilled vegetables.
That same vegetable medley underpinned a Catch of the Day that was advertised wrongly by a waitress as grouper; it turned out to be far meatier cobia instead. Its lovely texture and flavor would have been even better had there been more of the lime-and-caper sauce. As it was, the citrus and briny notes got a bit lost among all the vegetables and neutral chunks of yuca.
A slab of Gulf tuna seemed overmatched by its cargo of vegetables in a piercingly sweet-sour escabeche mode, and further zapped by an intense dice of soy-pickled cucumber, so that the top-billed lentils and nopalitos were all but lost in the flavor shuffle.
The same thing happened to a tiradito of red snapper (none of the advertised salmon was available the day I tried it) cut so thin it shattered apart the minute it was touched by a fork. Such thin fish simply couldn’t stand up to the “Mexican school salad” garnish of pickled carrot, cucumber and radish. The carrot in particular was so tart it dominated the plate.
Chef Chavez was making one of his frequent rounds of the dining room while I attempted to eat that tiradito. He asked how I liked it and, perhaps because he is so solicitous and down to earth, and because I hadn’t been busted as a critic yet, I told him the truth. He told me the origin of his “school salad” idea — it’s a combo that was an after-school favorite for kids when he was growing up — and I ended up charmed and mollified, even willing to try it again someday.
That’s key to my enjoyment of the place. It’s full of personality, from the protean and hard-to-peg organization of the menus to the quirky details of the décor, many of which were devised by Chavez’ s business partner, Mirna Roy, who was working in the offshore oil industry when she met the chef in Tabasco state on the Mexican Gulf Coast. The handsome tables are cobbled together from pale wood salvaged from offshore container crates, and when the pewtery industrial lanterns cast too much light, Mirna covered the bulbs with shiny peach cans.
“Mexican tech,” jokes Chavez, but it’s a quip with pride behind it. He and many of his well-to-do countrymen may have left Mexico for the more secure environs of the United States, but the ties still bind. They’re manifest in the excitement with which Chavez extols his all-Mexican wine list, which may very well be, as he claims, the only one of its kind in America. (The wines, many of them made in Baja, are surprisingly good and often well-priced.)
They’re apparent, too, in the typical crowd that fills La Fisheria, which always seems well-populated with Chavez’s casually chic fellow expatriates. I always feel as if I’ve taken a little trip when I people-watch at the friendly bar, perched on my stool of oilfield lumber and sipping a well-made frozen margarita.
Or maybe trying out a glass of very nice Mexican cava with one of the best desserts in town — fat batons of yuca fried into crunchy and caramelized fritters, served with a semifreddo-style “ice cream” flavored with hoja santa. That’s the licorice-minty leaf that grows as well in Houston as it does in Villahermosa.
At such moments I’m in Houston, but I’m not. I’m inhabiting some Gulf Coast of the future, right here in the now. That’s what I call fun.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.