The trio of variations on chile relleno is a must-try dish at Trenza

Trenza has been on my list to visit since it opened. It’s hard to not be intrigued by a restaurant run by a Food Network Star contestant who was literally one win away from having her own show. But that’s never been the only draw for me, or even the main one. Houston has a distinct lack of good fusion restaurants.

Vivacious chef and former Food Network Star contestant Susie Jimenez of Trenza

Trying to establish a fusion restaurant in Houston is a decidedly tricky proposition. Despite the great strides forward we’ve made in our food scene, certain cuisines remain unfamiliar. I recently spoke with a Peruvian restaurant owner who had to start marketing his fare as “Latin” because people in the area just don’t know much about food from his native country. Chefs from struggling tapas restaurants have said Houstonians don’t “get” tapas.  It seems that we may have a hard time understanding fusion cuisine, too.

“People come in thinking that we’re a Mexican restaurant,” says chef-owner Susie Jimenez. Trenza is, in fact, a melding of Indian, Mexican, and Latin American flavors.

I love fusion cuisine. I appreciate the creativity that happens when chefs toss away preconceived notions of what a dish “should” be and come up with something new. And Jimenez masterfully strikes a balance of flavors from the cuisines that inspire her.

On my second visit there last night, I found that early complaints about prices and small portions are being addressed… mostly. I really dug the complimentary appetizer basket of housemade tortilla chips, plantain chips, and papadum (a crispy Indian lentil cracker) accompanied by chimichurri and tamarind chutney. I think it’s brilliant, actually. It’s a signpost, an introduction to the flavors you’ll experience throughout the meal. My only issue was the chimichurri; on the first visit the chimichurri was too salty, while on the second it was too oily. 

A specific dish that has drawn customer complaints about portion size was the chicken tikka empanadas. Based on some articles and consumer notes I’ve read, the dish used to be one empanada for $12, later changed to two empanadas for $14; now it’s three for $15. The filling, by the way, is a heady mix of shredded chicken and curry spices with an innovative addition of a tangy blue cheese sauce. I even liked the way the empanadas warmed the lettuce bed underneath, catching the flavorful sauces. The dough does need improvement, as it was rather flaccid in some areas. With a consistently flaky, crispy crust, the dish could go from very good to outstanding.

While the flavors were spot-on, the paltry size of this romaine wedge was a disappointment.

I was really disappointed by the narrow wedge of romaine used for the grilled Caesar salad. That said, we loved the smokiness from the grill, the fluffy goat cheese, and the jalapeño dressing, although we could've used a bit more of it.

I didn’t find $20 to be outrageous for a dish of three different outstanding takes on chiles rellenos, and I enjoyed the leftovers the next morning for breakfast. There was a sweet red chile pepper stuffed with chicken and quinoa, a yellow onion with beef and pine nuts, and a poblano filled with shredded short rib and queso. To me, this dish represented some of the most exciting fare that Trenza is producing.

The short ribs with garam masala

As far as the $22 short ribs with polenta, peas, and lovely, fresh, crisp baby carrots: the short ribs were dense and perfectly rendered, benefiting from the mélange of spices in the garam masala sauce, but Trenza needs to smooth out the lumps in their polenta-making process... literally.

I think the back room will henceforth be my favorite place to dine at Trenza.  Instead of individual booths, there’s one big, long couch on the back wall with dozens of colorful throw pillows. Next to it are individual tables and chairs so that two people can sit across from each other. Through the big glass windows, we had a lofty view of Kirby Drive, which is not the most romantic view, but it’s not bad, either. Sitting across from my partner, over glasses of red wine, I realized Trenza was a great place for date night.

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