You could be forgiven for thinking that Américas in River Oaks wouldn't necessarily be the best spot for happy hour drinks and dishes.
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The imposing restaurant in the endcap of the newly rebuilt River Oaks Shopping Center towers over everything around it from its second story aerie, with a private elevator waiting to whisk patrons up and into its elaborately decorated dining room. Inside, the outsized Tim-Burton-puts-on-a-Broadway-production-of-The-Lion-King aesthetic—while a notch removed from the previous Dr. Seuss-on-acid theme of Américas's previous Galleria location—assures drama in both the food and the price tag. And you wouldn't be wrong.
But the new happy hour—or classier-sounding "social hour," as the Cordúa family is calling it—is a surprisingly inexpensive and low-key way to enjoy the upscale South American cuisine for which Américas has been rightly celebrated for the last two decades.
Behind the bar yesterday afternoon, Cordúa Group beverage director James Watkins was perfecting a new Pisco Sour recipe that worked some of Américas's signature dramatic flair into the classic South American cocktail. In lieu of simply garnishing the cocktail with a few dashes of Angostura bitters, Watkins had created a bitters suspension inside an olive oil mister, which he used as a blowtorch to bellow out foot-long explosions of flaming bitters.
"Isn't it great?" Watkins marveled as he finished napalming the foamy tops of the two Pisco Sours in front of him. "It aromatizes the bitters, and you get that scent and flavor in every sip." He dropped two gently curving slices of orange peel into the cocktails and pushed them in our direction.
"Watch the glasses," he laughed. "They're a little hot." Soon, however, the glasses had cooled enough to drink, and thanks to the protective layer of egg white-stiffened foam on top, the cocktail was still gently cool and creamy underneath.
There's an extensive menu of $5 bar bites at Américas's happy hour to go along with the $5 glasses of South American wine and $6 cocktails (as well as a short-but-sweet list of $2.50 beers that includes Saint Arnold Santo and a Nicaraguan beer, Toña, from owner Michael Cordúa's homeland), and those small plates bring the drama too.
The restaurant's famous lobster corn dogs come jutting out of a wooden block, with a generous amount of lemon aioli on the side. Lamb "lollichops" are a nice medium-rare, plated two apiece with crunchy yuca fries below (fries which are even better when dipped in that aioli, just saying).
The restaurant's empanadas and taquitos are also well-represented, with three of each kind on the social hour menu, and you can even get a petite version of Américas's famous churrasco-style steak with tangy chimichurri. Most of the plates are ideal for either sharing among friends, but you could also make a meal out of two or three for yourself.
Social hour runs from 4 to 7 p.m. in the well-appointed bar and sunny patio, and in another generous twist extends from Monday through Saturday. Sunday, of course, is reserved for Américas's massive buffet, which also features an array of Cordúa favorites from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. But while you'll need reservations for the Sunday brunch buffet, you can drop into social hour as you please—which is exactly how a happy hour should be.