Andes Cafe brings South American soul to East End
By Alison Cook | April 29, 2014 | Updated: April 29, 2014 3:46pm
Unassuming Andes Cafe brings talented chef David Guerrero’s take on casual Latin dining to East End
Squirreled away in a bland low office building on a corner of Canal, just east of downtown, Andes Cafe feels like a semi-secret clubhouse. Aside from a “Now Open” banner, there’s not really a sign. The front window panels are hand-lettered with the mottos “Food,” “Art,” “Love,” “Culture” and “Community.”
Inside, past a dining counter, a crazy plywood collage assembled from materials straight out of Home Depot crawls down one brick wall. Muscular graphic art by Wiley Robertson, the artist who did the landmark restrooms at Oxheart, radiates in emphatic shades of orange and blue from the back of the room.
At spare molded-wood chairs inside and cafe tables outdoors, a cross-section of Houston sits casually dressed, conversing in English or Spanish or both. They’re eating from an all-day menu on which most items are less than 10 bucks and even the costliest third tops out at $15. Offerings from a serious juice and coffee menu glow in multicolored chalk above the counter seats.
This is not the modest context in which I expected the prodigiously talented David Guerrero to surface next. Guerrero first attracted notice for his work at the late Samba Grille, a downtown outpost of fine dining, South American style; and afterwards at his own Alma Cebiche & Bar on the far west side, where I despaired of the service and nonexistent wine list but felt compelled to give three stars to Guerrero’s lapidary modern Peruvian food, designating it as some of the best in the city.
Alma was severely undercapitalized. After it went under, Guerrero’s plans to open a similarly ambitious spot on Westheimer fell through. Now he’s put together Andes Cafe on a shoestring, but its casual pan-South American diner format, which takes customers from breakfast right through lunch and dinner, makes the gritty East End shoestring vibe feel comfortable and right.
As a longtime East Ender, I love the pure welcoming usefulness of the coffee and juice counter. I can grab a seat there any morning of the week (including Saturday and Sunday) for a respectable cappuccino or cortado and a cheese-stuffed Venezuelan corn pancake that has to be one of the finest breakfasts in town.
It’s called a cachapa. And it costs all of $6.
The cachapa arrives as a bronzy glazed semicircle oozing pully white queso a mano, a slightly salty counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the corn used to make the pancake. Guerrero allows the kernel to stay whole for the house-ground cachapa mix, giving the pancake a more varied texture. It’s soft in the middle, crisped to brittleness on the browned edges and unforgettable when a thick, tangy crema gets spooned over the sweet cake and salty cheese.
Much of Guerrero’s menu, from breakfast to antojitos-style small plates, is an ode to corn in its various South American forms. The Ecuador-born chef is grinding and treating not just his cachapa corn mix but a variety of tamales and empanadas and arepas as well.
It takes days to process the cracked white hominy that makes the delicate, pale envelopes for his Empanada de Morocho, an Ecuadorian turnover stuffed with a spicy pork-and-rice mixture, then served with an aji criollo that has the effect of a refreshing Thai cucumber dip. The thin pastry is crisp on the outside and ever so slightly sticky within.
You can sample the steamy fluff of a yellow-corn tamal mined with egg and olive and pearly hunks of paiche, an Amazonian river fish. Or comb though the distinctive rubble of the Tamal de Mi Abuelita (“My Grandmother’s Tamal’), composed of rough-cut rice and potato steamed in a banana leaf with chicken, egg, olive and raisins.
As always, Guerrero’s dips and sauces vibrate with flavor. Cylindrical little fried cheese rolls of white “queso palmita” – they’re called Tequeños in Venezuela, and they put fried mozzarella sticks to shame – come with tart guasacaca avocado relish so riveting I ended up eating it with a spoon. Virtually any sauce incorporating the distinctive Peruvian chile peppers (aji amarillo, rocoto, limo) are worth eating.
What, I wondered, has happened to Guerrero’s formerly glorious Huancaina sauce for the famous Peruvian cold potato salad of the same name? At a recent dinner, it was bland and forgettable, and even a slab or two of potato seemed undercooked.
There were other blips that surprised me. An arepita, or white corn patty, that appeared on the La Colombiana snack board was hopelessly tough one evening. (Fortunately, the juicy house-made sausage hunk and the beef empanada that came with it were excellent.)
Beef-heart anticucho skewers tasted as good as I remembered from Guerrero’s Samba era, but they were tougher than they should have been. And a couple of courses on the four-course tasting menu Guerrero stages each Wednesday, with help from guest chef Kenten Marin, simply missed the mark.
A dish of sun-dried alpaca jerky (no, really) was so intensely salty/sweet that it gave the palate no place to rest. And a tiradito of wild Peruvian smelt that had been exhilarating the week before arrived at the table with the small, pungent fish watery and dispirited, its garnish of uni redundant. Yes, its passionfruit leche de tigre still sang, but the tiny dots of Peruvian Botija olive emulsion got lost in the passionfruit sea.
These are uncharacteristic flubs for a chef as tightly wound and as exacting as Guerrero. The restaurant is busy, and he’s been working like a dervish every time I’ve been there. Maybe he has to do too much of the work himself. Maybe the fact that his sense of taste was compromised during a scary bout of brain cancer has added extra pressure – although that never seemed to be holding him back in his work at Alma, and I never felt compelled to mention it.
Whatever the cause, or the cure, the occasional dud at Andes Cafe goes down easier because of the very reasonable prices. And when Guerrero and company are on, they’re really on: whether it be in a sun-gold El Machu Picchu smoothie that combines soursop and passionfruit with a luxurious swirl of thick honey; or a captivating plate of roast pork leg with a lively agrio (vinaigrette) that takes the accompanying sautéed hominy and annato-tinged potato cakes on a fast ride.
Guerrero does the beloved Peruvian staple of lomo saltado in fine style, the beef strips stir-fried in a Chinese-inflected sauce that holds the tart, sweet and salty flavors of vinegar, oyster sauce and soy in perfect tension. (I wish the french fries that thread through the dish weren’t frozen, but then, I wish that about every lomo saltado I’ve ever encountered.)
And the chef’s ceviches are as brilliant as ever – although here, instead of taking elaborate composed form, they are presented in bowls swimming with leche de tigre, like exotic cold soups. Start with the shrimp version, the shellfish dewy and sweet in their racy bath; and work up to the black clam ceviche, made with fresh black clams Guerrero imports for the purpose. The clams are earthy and oceanic at once, and the dish looks (and tastes) like it was made by some dark lord.
For the moment, until the wine-and-beer license comes through, Andes Cafe is BYOB. That makes it even more of a bargain. Guerrero says he’ll be offering only South American wines, an interesting move. At Andes Cafe he has already added a sensibly priced yet ambitious option to Houston’s growing spectrum of Central and South American restaurants, and a targeted wine program and weekly tasting menus will add even more value.
Perhaps even more to the point, Andes Cafe already feels like something important to its neighborhood. Not every chef can create a social institution out of next to nothing. Guerrero seems to have done exactly that.