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Brisa Cocina Mexicana

I was irritated with Frank Bruni. How could someone with so much insight about food be so obviously pig headed?

Bruni’s enthusiasm for Bazaar may have matched my own when he named it one of the best new restaurants in the country, but I was stunned when Feast became his next pick. I am huge Feast fan, but Houston is not entirely visitor friendly and many restaurants deserving national attention are often overlooked as a result. It was great to see NY Times venture outside of their familiar stomping grounds. The only thing that really bugged me was that Bruni pandering to his base when he described Houston as the “land of big steaks and bold Tex-Mex”. Is the elitist attitude really necessary?

Every time someone makes such a sweeping generalization, I want to show them what the real Houston looks like in just one part of the city – the new Chinatown. Not the usual collection of pseudo-Chinese restaurants and gift shops that occupy a tidy span of 7 or 8 city blocks, but an entire city where real people live and eat. A place where pho, pupusas, boiled crawfish, dim sum and beignets very naturally occupy the same stretch of the road.

176 Vietnamese and cajun cultures collide at Boiling Crab

Frank Bruni, in particular, could also use a visit to Rainbow Lodge, so he can see the formation of the wholly new brand of Gulf Coast cuisine created without the benefit of fanfare that surrounds young NYC wunderkinds like David Chang. Great food is becoming as much the foundation of this city as oil and much of it is grounded in the diverse cultures of it’s residents.

It wasn’t until I walked into Brisa Cocina Mexicana last week that I realized that Bruni was at least partially right. I am certain steaks in New York are just as large as in Houston, but only in Space City can you open yet another Mexican restaurant at the height of the recession and fill every seat in the house within days. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

If Brisa is any indication of what we should expect from a market saturated by Mexican restaurants, I am more than happy for Houston to be pigeonholed.

Rather than take the easy way out, Brisa is setting the bar high. It may already have one of the best salsas in town – smoky, hot and full of bold chili flavor. The crab bisque was a bit off the day I had it, due to the viscous, almost starchy base, but the guajillo pepper spiked flavor was huge. The rest of the dishes I tried were stellar.

It took me a while to extract a proper description of the Taco Chicharron De Fajita from our waiter who was doing his best to keep up with a packed dining room 30 minutes after Brisa opened for business for the first time. I had to ask for the explanation again after the dish arrived at the table because none of it made sense – the cheese “tortilla” made from pork skin tasted like melted chihuahua cheese, but had a consistency much closer to a pork flavored starch.

IMG_1500 Taco Chicharron De Fajita

I am still a little unclear about the specifics, but according to the folks at Brisa the “tortilla” is made from from pork skin that has been powdered and reconstituted into tortilla dough. A touch of molecular technique in a Mexican restaurant in a city full of Mexican restaurants? Sure. Why not? Apparently this is entirely wrong. See comments for more details.

Filled with tender cut of upper beef skirt steak and topped with a perfectly acidic poblano tomatillo sauce, my “tacos” tasted spectacular and unlike anything else I’ve had in the city full of Mexican restaurants.

IMG_1512 Queso Cilnatro

Chicharrones made an appearance on my second visit as well when I ordered the Queso Cilantro – deep fried croquettes of melted chihuahua cheese crusted with crushed pork skin and finished with the poblano tomatillo sauce. I wish the croquette was more thoroughly melted (I am all in favor of processed cheese or another melting agent added to the equation to facilitate this), but again, the starter was a winner.

IMG_1519

Another dish with chicharrones was a bonus, but the reason I came back to Brisa the second time was the Salchi Burger – a macabre stack of 1/2 of beef patty, slice of ham, melted chihuahua cheese, beef sausage, avocado and jalapeno mayo. Not listed on the menu, but I am almost certain I detected a smear of refried beans on the bun as well.

IMG_1523 Salchi Burger

It wasn’t the juiciest burger I have ever had, but all the flavors clicked, adding up to a entirely new experience. If I had my hand in the kitchen, I’d make it medium rare, replace the chihuahu cheese with something that produces more of a messy goo, add some jalapeno and garlic kick to the sausage, toss the lettuce in favor of roasted poblano peppers and increase the amount of refried beans by about 300%. Come to think of it, I think Ill try this at home.

Brisa has only been open for a few weeks, but the kitchen seems to be firing on all cylinders. I hope it continues to add interesting dishes. Hugo’s could use some competition. Long overdue.

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