Lots to consider from this week's reviews. In this week's Houston Press, Katharine Shilcutt discovers the worst Tex-Mex in Houston at Maggie Rita's. The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook enjoys solid neighborhood barbecue at Ray's Real Pit BBQ Shack. Newcomer Solea, a restaurant with both Persian and Creole elements, confuses CultureMap's Sarah Rufca. Over on the blogs: Ashli Michelle from Almost Veggie Houston checks out the lighter side of Underbelly, and the ladies of Urban Swank spend a night at the recently remodeled Hotel Icon.
Last month, Eater published an interview with Maggie Rita's owner Santiago Moreno in which he discussed plans to transform the three Ninfa's franchises he owns into the Maggie Rita's concept he developed with Carlos Mencia. In that interview, Moreno promised that Maggie Rita's would serve lighter, fresher fare more suited to contemporary tastes. He also said his market research shows that women pick Mexican restaurants for margaritas and not for food. Unfortunately for him, Katharine Shilcutt is not most women. As anyone who remembers her review of Vida Tex-Mex can tell you, Shilcutt has no tolerance for substandard versions of Houston's favorite cuisine. Rather than attempt to summarize what may be the most entertaining review she's ever written, here are some of the best lines:
On the food: "I can't imagine that someone would have any recipes for food this bad. Stealing would be pointless; you couldn't give these recipes away ... It was the wax-fruit version of a burrito, all substance and style but no flavor." On the decor: "The walls are painted in dreary shades of rotten eggplant, while the bizarre drop ceiling and crooked, mismatched, Kirkland's-bargain-bin paintings give it an air of institutionalism ... I've been in jail cells more welcoming." On the service: "Our previous waitress, who brought out the wrong food and disappeared for long stretches of time to chitchat with her fellow waitstaff — so long, in fact, that our dinner stretched to an intolerable three hours."
Just down Shepherd from Maggie Rita's sits Solea, which confused Sarah Rufca during her visit. The menu has dishes with Cajun, Mediterranean and Persian influences, but most of what she tried wasn't "beyond the bell curve of mediocre." The only bright spot was the Natchitoches Meat Pie with its "warm spiced beef inside [that] made for an immediately appealing comfort food." Ultimately, she decides that "It feels like no one wanted to make any decisions, so it's a mix of genres and concepts all stuffed uncomfortably together."
The secret to good eating then may be to stay away from Washington Avenue and head to the area near UH, where Alison Cook pays a visit to Ray's Real Pit BBQ Shack. At a time when barbecue fans drive hundreds of miles and wait hours in line to indulge their obsession, Cook finds comfort in this solid, neighborhood joint. Located in a strip center with a gas station, Cook is particularly enamored with the spicy homemade sausage links and pork ribs that "strike the right balance between tenderness and meaty chew." Even the sides are good with potato salad that is "the endangered real deal and not scooped from a Sysco vat."
THE BLOGS: Trying to visit Underbelly, chef Chris Shepherd's restaurant with an in-house butcher shop, from a pescetarian/vegetarian perspective seems like a daunting task, but that doesn't stop blogger Ashli Michelle from trying. She enjoyed shrimp fritters, shrimp and grits and an eggplant with Thai-style green curry. However, it was dessert, particularly the peaches and cream fried pie, that vaulted it to a full five strawberries. Shanna and Felice from UrbanSwank attended a party at the newly remodeled Hotel Icon and found the whole evening to be the perfect escape. They describe it as "the nostalgic feeling of old Hollywood meets modern day Texas." The post also features a full gallery from every aspect of the evening.
· Maggie Rita's Takes Over Ninfa's [Houston Press]
· Get a Rope: Serving Bad Tex-Mex in Houston is a Crime and Vida is Guilty [Houston Press]
· What's the Concept? New Restaurant Solea Tries to do Too Much, Leaves One Baffled [CultureMap]
· Review: Ray's BBQ Shack Does Solid Neighborhood 'Cue [Houston Chronicle]
· Underbelly [Almost Veggie Houston]
· Urban Swank Does...Hotel Icon [Urban Swank]