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Brisket flautas at Edgar's Hermano

Not so long ago, downtown’s culinary scene was little more than a subterranean network of chain restaurants intended for office workers, who rarely saw the light of day. There’s still plenty of that, of course, but for those who wish to dine above ground, the last half decade has seen a renaissance among the skyscrapers. Many of the restaurants are new, but to us, it’s even more exciting to see what happens when an eatery is reimagined. Our case studies this month are Edgar’s Hermano, in the snazzy Whitehall hotel that replaced the neglected Crowne Plaza Downtown last April, and La Fisheria, which moved to Milam Street with a new chef and a larger space in January.

For far too long, hotels bought into an unflattering notion about their guests: “Serve them slop, the more expensive the better, and they will eat it because it’s there.” We’ve all had that overcooked $20 burger with pickles and slaw by Sysco at a Holiday Inn somewhere. The Crowne Plaza was one such purveyor of the cynical Field of Dreams–style tenet with its restaurant, Brazos.

There, a Mexican-born chef by the name of Silvia Couvarrubias served the fare you’d expect to see in a hotel chain—club sandwiches, a salad bar and a blackened chicken penne dish featuring something called Mardi Gras sauce.

But when the Crowne Plaza was reborn as the Whitehall, part of the upscale Sotherly Hotels chain, Couvarrubias kept her job. And instead of treading culinary water, a new restaurant, Edgar’s Hermano, allowed her to dive with abandon into creating a menu of Southern-Mexican food, represented equally by street tacos and by Southern fried chicken stuffed with macaroni and cheese and served with Dr Pepper–bacon jam.

Southwest or Tex-Mex it’s not, but the modern turquoise-and-white room, decorated with colorful representations of cattle skulls made from wire, does embody the region, and the menu features one Tex-Mex offering, a sizzling fajita platter. The dish is Couvarrubias’s only major stumble, with dry chicken and stiff homemade tortillas. Nevertheless, the lime-heavy guacamole and cumin-scented Mexican yellow rice that come with it are several steps above most Houston standards.

In reviewing any restaurant, it’s the critic’s job to assess how it meets its own stated goals. The intent of Edgar’s Hermano, named for Edgar Sims, Jr., the late, Georgia-born Sotherly founder, is to serve better-than-average hotel food with a uniquely Houston aesthetic. It succeeds on both counts, which makes it especially sad that we were the only party in the entire restaurant during one of our visits. Perhaps it’s due to all the empty seats that the menu has been significantly scaled back since our original visit in May, both in size and ambition.

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Braised short rib tamale at Edgar's Hermano

The options at dinner now hew more closely to what was previously available only at lunch. But it’s a pleasure to crunch into a brisket flauta at any time of day, especially when it’s filled with braised threads of beef seasoned not unlike Cuban ropa vieja. The four flautas are presented in an asterisk-shaped pile dressed with crema, matchsticks of radish, and queso fresco. A trio of salsas includes a powerfully smoky red sauce, tomatillo-based verde, and a smooth, thick avocado sauce that sings with cilantro. Flautas are also served as a side with fried chicken thighs at lunch—in that case, stuffed with mashed potatoes and served over a warm green chile sauce.

Also now available at both lunch and dinner is Couvarrubias’s rich oxtail soup. It’s impossible to leave Edgar’s Hermano in a bad mood after slurping the thick potage rich with the melting meat of beefy oxtail steeped in pasilla and cascabel chiles. Vegetables make few appearances here, so a charred chunk of corn on the cob is especially welcome bobbing in the soup.

Perhaps the most successful fusion on the menu is an uncommonly soft, sweet tamale topped with cubes of short rib coated in Bourbon barbecue sauce. Mango salsa rife with cilantro adds extra zing. But dressed-up hotel basics shouldn’t necessarily be discounted, either. The PBLT, a griddled pork belly BLT, is a comfort-food score—so buttery and crisp, one dining companion was convinced there was cheese inside.

In fact, besides the occasional overpriced entrée (this is a hotel, after all), there are few things I wouldn’t recommend. And from what I’ve seen, the friendly staff at Edgar’s Hermano would very much appreciate your visit.

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La Fisheria's gorgeous new bar

When Houstonia managing editor Katharine Shilcutt reviewed La Fisheria for the Houston Press back in 2012, she declared that there was “absolutely nothing else like it in Houston.” In the four years since, the city’s food scene has grown significantly: The previously unknown genre of upscale Mexican seafood restaurants has gained major players Caracol and Peska Seafood Culture.

In the interim, La Fisheria executive chef/owner Aquiles Chavez moved back to Mexico to run other links in the restaurant chain (Vidal Elias Murillo is now head chef here). And earlier this year, the Houston outpost relocated from its quiet Inker Street location in the Heights to bustling Milam Street downtown.

Many things remain the same. The margaritas, for example, are still excellent, particularly the cucumber-jalapeño version, which simultaneously burns and calms the tongue. The new dining room is a visual feast of blue-on-blue tile, with the plant wall and plate-bedecked bar transplanted from the old location.

But the space is not without issues. During a quiet early lunch service, it was serene. On a Friday evening at peak dinner hour, my party and I tried moving away from the live musicians to avoid shouting both at each other and our comically (but pleasantly) eager waiter, but the back area was equally cacophonous with the voices of fellow diners. Turns out, hell is indeed other people, at least when it’s not an electric violin.

Not having tasted the original incarnation of La Fisheria, I brought Shilcutt with me to try some oldies but goodies. She was especially excited for the chips de pulpo—until we tasted the greatly changed dish with its stale, overseasoned potato chips and chewy slices of cephalopod, that is. Still, we kept inhaling it just for the sharp, creamy lime sauce.

And at that meal, there were no other disappointments. The tostada de atún remains a success that I would have happily ordered in multiple. Its thin slices of fish, presented on a crisp tortilla spread with chipotle mayo, would have been enough to provide ample pleasure, but a haystack of crunchy fried leeks, creamy chunks of avocado and a few well-placed sprigs of cilantro added up to a dense collection of well-matched tastes and textures.

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La Fisheria's tostada de atún with a cucumber-jalapeño margarita

To say that the guacamole belonged in a dictionary would be a disservice; the sweet gush of pineapple pico de gallo and crunch of pork cracklings added unexpected dimensions to the spot-on iteration. And shrimp and grits fans will be bowled over by the tamal de elote con camarones. Picture buttery sweet-corn grits bolstered with sugar, rolled into a tamale. Add toothsome, meaty shrimp, bacon and a mouth-coating garlic cream sauce, and you’ve got slap-your-mama excellent soul food with a Mexican twist.

Then came the deflation of that noisy Friday night. Perhaps the roaring crowd was responsible for an overwhelmed kitchen? Whatever the case, there’s no excuse for watery ceviche at a Mexican fish specialist, and the Verde, made with tomatillo sauce and Seville oranges, looked and tasted like an insipid cold soup with lots of red onions and a bit of fish in it. Mole short ribs were all connective tissue and thick, tasteless sauce coating plain white rice.

I had particularly looked forward to the huachinango pibil, a red snapper filet rubbed with achiote in Yucatecan style. My dining partner proclaimed that the tough fish reminded her of “something I could have cooked badly at home myself.”

The saving grace that night was dessert: As much as I’d enjoyed the almond overload of the jar of tres leches cake at lunch, a bag of hot, fresh churros was even more lovable. A little bit crisp beneath their sandy jackets of cinnamon sugar, the pastries played well with a pair of sauces—the warm cajeta was uncommonly thin, but dark, pudding-like chocolate sauce was so good I would have eaten it on its own. Were those the textures the chef was going for? Probably not, but it didn’t matter as I reached for another fried baton.

And ultimately, that is the question that counts. We spend too much time dining out not to dip into guacamole or chocolate sauce with gusto. If we enjoy ourselves, perhaps that’s really all that matters.

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