Andes Café marks chef David Guerrero's return to the Houston dining scene
Dishes inspired by Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Venezuela
“Sometimes things happen for a reason,” chef David Guerrero said, sitting in his new Andes Café flooded with warming winter light on a near freezing Houston morning.
It’s a sentiment that could be interpreted as filled with regret. After all, he’s struggled with the hardships that come from failed restaurants: Samba Grille, the South American steakhouse where he was executive chef, shuttered in July 2012 and his follow-up restaurant, Alma Cebiche & Bar, which despite raves for the food, closed last March.
But it is an upbeat Guerrero who proclaims that restaurant adversity brought him to this place and time. Andes Café, his casual neighborhood restaurant tucked in an office building on Canal near Navigation, seems very much born of a happy mindset instead of misgivings.
“I’m in love with this place,” he said of the 40-seat café dedicated to home-style food of countries that the world’s longest continental mountain range slices through: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. “I took those (setbacks) as a big learning experience. Now I’m happy. Very happy.”
He should be. The sunny spot (large storefront windows are painted with the words “food, art, love, culture, community”) features tangerine-colored walls sporting murals, an artsy wall installation of painted wood boards, and light fixtures sporting lampshades covered in coffee sack burlap. The space, a former pizza joint, bears the stamp of shoestring-budget creativity. “I went to Home Depot and Lowe’s 300 times,” Guerrero joked.
But the real charm of Andes Café is the menu. For this Ecuador-born chef, it was a chance to embrace the flavors of his homeland and the foodways of other South American countries – a culinary vernacular he knows well. It also fit well into the edict from his landlord who stipulated no Tex-Mex (the area already is famous for its abundance of Tex-Mex including Ninfa’s on Navigation and El Tiempo).
“Our style is casual. Everything is real home cooking,” he said, adding that he has two chefs – one from Colombia, the other form Peru – who ensure South American authenticity.
Andes Café is an all-day affair. Breakfast options include Venezuelan cachapas (sweet corn pancakes stuffed with cheese); calentado con huevos (Columbian mix of rice, beef, pork, sausage and black beans with two sunny-side eggs served on top); Chilean-inspired huevos con tomate (two baked eggs topped with peeled tomatoes); and Ecuadoran bolon de verde (green plantain dumplings filled with cheese and pork). At lunch there are sandwiches hailing from Venezuela, Peru, Argentina and Chile, as well as salads and small plates including empanadas, tamales (from Ecuador and Peru), and even salchipapas, the South American street food snack of fried potatoes and hot dogs.
Guerrero has always been a ceviche wiz, and his marinated seafood glories are well represented on the menu. From Peru: fresh chunks of corvino (firm white fish) mixed with lime juice, South American corn, red onions and cilantro on a bed of sweet potatoes. From Ecuador: “Concha negra” fresh black clams marinated in a stew of clam juices, lime, ketchup, mustard, tomatoes, olive oil, cilantro and pickled red onions, served with toasted corn). Also from Ecuador: Poached shrimp in a broth of lime juice, sour orange, mustard, tomatoes and olive oil).
Traditional dishes of the Andes countries include charcoal-roasted Peruvian chicken; Argentine skirt steak with chimichurri; Peruvian-style Chinese fried rice; Venezuelan shredded flank steak with black beans, white rice and fried plantains; and Chilean pan-fried fish with fries, rice and Chilean salad.
“Some people in Houston never tried this food, so it makes me nervous,” he said. “But I’m also excited because I’m able to break it down and give it a little exposure.”
In March, he plans to use the restaurant to stage special dinners – collaborations with other chefs or perhaps preview meals for EVO the fine dining restaurant he still wants to pursue. EVO, his project after Alma, never got off the ground – a sore point for Guerrero, but also a source of determination.
“After Alma, there were so many doors closed to me,” he said. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Maybe things do happen for a reason.
Here are some other things you might not know aboutAndes Café:
Fresh fish is marinated in lime juice with Peruvian corn and peppers on sweet potatoes.
Sliced boiled potatoes and eggs are covered in Peruvian cheese sauce.
Beef patty, ham, bacon and pineapple sauce are sandwiched on challah bun.
Stir fry of beef, peppers and tomatoes with rice and french fries.
The dough of Peruvian tamales is made with yellow corn, cilantro and cheese.
Café Andes serves a frappe of prickly pear, pineapple, orange and honey.
2311 Canal, No. 104, 832-659-0063
Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays