About the review: Andes Cafe
By Alison Cook
Working on this week’s review of Andes Cafe gave me the occasion to ponder the ongoing evolution of the South and Central American dining scene in Houston.
Mexican cuisine is such an important factor in our local food scene that the growing influence of Central and South American cuisines is easy to overlook. But our city is an important way station between the two Americas for trade that’s cultural as well as commercial. More and more — especially after a recent exhilarating tour of Mexico City — I believe that it makes sense for Houston to look South for an exchange of ideas and inspiration.
In a way, we all speak the language of corn and chiles, coffee and chocolate, tomatoes and beans and potatoes. There’s a deep culinary currency we have in common.
A growing number of Central- and South American-born chefs have made a name for themselves here over the past few decades, too. There’s Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordua of the fine-dining restaurant chain, whose original 1988 Churrascos was a seminal event in Houston dining history. Gerry Sarmiento, who is from Peru, runs the two best restaurants up in Cypress — one of which, Piqueo, offers upscale Peruvian food.
Carlos Rodriguez’s Venezuelan roots come out in subtle ways at Vic & Anthony’s, especially at special-event dinners. Noted pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, who has Bolivian roots, recently announced he’s returning here from Austin to join chef Erin Hicks at the Marriott’s upcoming downtown luxury hotel. And don’t forget chef Roberto Castre, who moved from catering to running the wonderful modern Peruvian restaurant Latin Bites, which grew so successful in its tiny warehouse district digs that it eventually relocated to a posher Tanglewood address.
Ecuadorian-born chef David Guerrero’s work at the fle
dgling Andes Cafe helps to flesh out Houston’s South American dining in the mid range: it’s ambitious but moderately priced, with a contemporary sensibility that makes it seem fresh. That makes Andes Cafe a nice alternative between high-end spots like the Cordua family’s Américas and fast, inexpensive venues such as the estimable Peruvian Pollo Bravo mini-chain; or Chuyo’s Peruvian Fusion Deli in League City, another modest gem; or chipper little Honduran Las Hamacas.
The interesting thing about Andes is that it provides both high-end thrills — in the form of a weekly Wednesday tasting menu that’s priced a la carte — and everyday satisfactions: homey South American breakfasts, humble corn-based snacks, a tropical smoothie bar, respectable coffee drinks. And while Guerrero may be Ecuadorian by birth, he has a nimble feel for South American ingredients that lets him move easily through the cuisines of the Andes and up into Venezuela — a country whose oil business and political upheavals have sent so many immigrants our way.
In 1983, when I catalogued the growing international influences in Houston for Texas Monthly, I only had a few South and Central American restaurants to write about. My beloved El Sol de Oro, the city’s first Peruvian spot, had already gone belly up out on Bissonnet; but Lalo’s, the great little Argentinian pizza place, was still thriving on West Bellfort. (I still miss their fugazetta pizza, a molten festival of onion and pully white cheese.)
Too, I miss a couple of Chilean places that failed to catch on over the years: Don Pepe out on Highway 6, where the salsa verde was a thing of electric beauty; and little El Temucano, where I first tried conger eel. And liked it.
While small, family-run South and Central American restaurants often have struggled to find a foothold here, I’ve been astonished at the way Brazilian-style rodizios — both chain and independent — have caught on. Our freeways and major arteries are now spangled with a necklace of these all-you-can-eat meat palaces. (Given Texans’ native appreciation of beef and open-fire cookery, I suppose I should not have been surprised by the rodizio boom. But their sheer number continues to amaze me.)
I’ll admit to liking the occasional rodizio meal. Quite a lot, in fact. But it’s places like Andes Cafe, and the restless curiosity and ambition of chefs like David Guerrero, that will end up expanding Houston’s taste for South American flavors beyond that which is already known.