Friday, July 27, 2007

Pico's Traditional and Contemporary Mexican Cuisine

If there is one thing I missed as I have lived in the USA for most of my life it is that there is a lack of good, authentic Mexican food. Or at least that is what I thought. Growing up in a Mexican household and actually visiting my family in Mexico practically every summer, I had access and grew up eating the most delicious and authentic Mexican food directly from the source. However, when I moved to Houston, I thought my connection to the real deal was gone. Then I went to Pico's. This charming little restaurant located at 5941 Bellaire Blvd is my connection to meals of my childhood long past.

The decor of the restaurant is an interesting amalgam of Mexico. The outer facade reminded me of trips to Acapulco. There is a thatched roof covering an outer patio with a blue fountain in the middle. When the weather is agreeable it is nice to sit outside, enjoy pleasant drinks and even more pleasant company. As you walk inside you are funneled into a mini corridor with a half wall on the left and a counter with cash registers on your right. The half wall contains multiple large containers with varying ingredients common to Mexican cuisine. Directly in front of you as you walk in is the bar. There is some seating close to the bar, but the main dinning room is to the very left. Separated from the bar area, the dining room resembles something of a courtyard to me with melon colored walls decorated with Mexican artwork and vibrantly colored plates. There is at least a Trio group playing and singing music there. The decor and the music really set the atmosphere for a quite pleasant evening.

This trip to Pico's was not my first. However, this was the first time I was trying to look at the delectable meal laid out before me with an objective eye. Lucky for me, I was also surrounded by friends, so I could take a glimpse into their Mexican culinary adventure. As I had dined there before, I had already had and fallen in love with Pico's version of Cochinta Pibil. This is shredded pork seasoned in achiote(annatto) and orange juice, making it a perfectly balanced sweet and tangy mix. It is served with pickled red onions. But like I said, I had already had that before and wanted to check out some of their other fare.

At the onset I was torn between ordering the Chiles en Nogada, which are roasted and stuffed poblano chiles which are then cooked in peanut sauce with olives, almonds and raisins, covered with a cold creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates. This dish is usually called the national dish of Mexico because the green chiles, the white sauce and the red pomegranates give it the color of the national flag.

The other dish I was considering was the Filete al Chipotle. This is an 8 oz. charbroiled piece of tenderloin smoothered in Chihuahua cheese and topped with a chipotle and parsley sauce. Can you see why I was torn? In reality it was an easy choice to make. My tongue was screaming for the tender beef doused in cheese and sauce. However, my Mexican pride was pulling at my heart strings to try the chiles, since this would be the first time and what kind of a Mexican would I be if I had never even eaten the national dish?

Well, in the end, it was neither of these dishes that won out. No, it was a daily special. When the waiter came by to take our order, he dutifully informed us of the specials. The one that caught my ear was the Pescado Tampico. It was described as a sauteed fillet of red snapper topped with a delightful mixture of pico de gallo and lump crab meat. I was hooked. Seeing as how red snapper is one of my favorite fish and then it was being topped with crab meat and pico de gallo, how could I lose? Well, I was not disappointed.

When my plate arrived I gazed upon the fillet topped not only with the aforementioned combo of crab and pico de gallo, but also with fresh avocado slices and accompanied with freshly grilled vegetables. The fish was perfectly cooked so it was nice and flaky. The avocado, crab and salsa mingled together as if they had always meant to be playing ever so gaily on my palate. The mixture of juices made the perfect sauce as it pooled gently around my vegetables which were ever so masterfully grilled. They were nice and tender, the sweetness of the veggies balanced with the slight bitterness of the char marks.

One unexpectedly pleasant thing I discovered was that with the usual suspects of yellow squash and zucchini, I found some grilled carrots. Now, normally I am not a fan of cooked carrots because I don't like the mushy, over sweet flavor, but in these I found a new way to appreciate carrots. They had retained some of the crunch that makes carrots appealing to me, but were still tender enough to cut easily. The sweetness was accentuated by the grilling, but not over powering.

Like I said, I was happy with my selection. I was now curious of the choices of the people around me. I asked my fiancee how her chicken mole enchiladas were. She let me have a bite. From that one bite I could discern that while the mole was indeed tasty and edible, it was a bit too tangy for my taste. Like I said, it was good and I took another couple of bites, but it just did not live up to expectations. Maybe it was the slight sourness of the cheese, and yes the cheese is supposed to be that way, maybe it was because of what I was eating and not having cleansed my palate, but the mole is something that just did not excite me tonight.

Another friend of mine tried the Cochinita Pibil on my recommendation. He was happily satisfied with it. My next task is to ask my mom how to make said dish and share this with my friends. The humorous part about the cochinita was when I instructed my friend how to eat it. I "informed" him that the best way to eat the dish is with the pork placed in warm corn tortillas and topped with the pickled onions. The onions add sourness to the pork and wrapped up in the corn tortillas just make the best tacos one has ever eaten.

As I have said before, this was not my first trip out to Pico's and I am sure it will not be the last. I think next time I will try the Chiles en Nogada.

Pico's Mex-Mex Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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