Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tipico Cafe: reconnecting with my Latin roots in a strip mall

As we pull into the parking lot, passing the Amish furniture store and pet groomer of which our dining destination is a neighbor, my wife and I wonder what we've gotten ourselves into. Having just moved to the north side of town, one of our first orders of business was to find local food. Tipico Cafe on FM1960 in Humble, which bills itself as Latin fusion (this F word makes me cringe), had been celebrated on local social media platforms so we thought we'd give it a try. The menu is small and eclectic and "fusion" is used as an excuse to throw some random things on the menu, but it was clear after the first visit that this place has a sense of tradition.

Looking at the menu as our server uncorked the wine we brought to this off-the-beaten-path BYOB family run restaurant, I was instantly attracted to the arroz con gandules, rice with roast pork. While I am half Puerto Rican, I did not grow up in a very ethnic food culture. My mother did all of the cooking, and she was not the Puerto Rican half. I did have an aunt that introduced me to the culinary traditions of Puerto Rico, and eating this dish immediately recalled those memories for me. Arroz con gandules is in fact the national dish of Puerto Rico. Flavorful rice accented with the earthy pigeon peas, and oh that pork. Beautifully roasted with melting fat and balancing just on the edge of too salty, this was not the work of an amateur. A couple of plaintains also adorned the plate, but try as I might I cannot make myself enjoy them. That being said, they were served properly crispy.

A Cuban sandwich, something that is far too hard to find around town these days, was well executed with chunks of that wonderful pork making another appearance in the sandwich. This was served with a great helping of rice and black beans that had been given just enough time in the pot to absorb flavor but retain their texture. Other visits have provided more pleasant surprises. A recent black bean, beef and poblano chili special was vibrant, arriving at the table with a touch of sour cream and an unapologetic sheen of grease floating at the surface. Similarly impressive were the chuletas empanizadas, breaded and pan fried thin pork chops. The breading was nicely seasoned and had a great crunch, and the pork itself remained juicy despite the unforgiving paillard style preparation. There are some major players in the Houston dining scene that could learn valuable lessons about cooking with soul from labor of love places like Tipico Cafe.

This is not to say that the small menu at Tipico is without its missteps. Appetizers have underwhelmed, and the recently revealed Tipico Valentine's Day menu that includes palak paneer and chicken kashmiri is confounding for a restaurant billed as Latin inspired, though chef/owner Manish Vadhar's part Indian heritage explains these menu choices. The desserts have yet to hit the mark for me as well, though I have not yet tried the rotating flavors of bread pudding Tipico diners have raved about. I was delighted to see that they serve a strong shot of Cuban coffee. There needs to be more of that on Houston menus.
poblano and black bean chili | strong, robust Cuban coffee
What makes Tipico such a fun experience is this whole disjointed package. I'm willing to overlook the occasional menu oddities because they're just that: quirks. It's not a case of a restaurant trying to be too many things or show off; it is simply a family making the food they love and want you to eat. With entree prices topping out at twelve dollars, these are risks I'm willing to take as a diner. Weekend evenings can get busy, so be sure to call in a reservation as the place only seats about forty.

Friendly, personal service combined with the kitchen's flair for Spanish cultures that are far too seldom seen on menus in this area makes this restaurant one of my favorite finds in the Humble area. Might they run out of a menu item early in the night? Yes. Might your plate have a small chip in it? It's possible. I wouldn't want it any other way at a place like this. The charm of Tipico Cafe may not be for everyone, but it is certainly for me.

1 comment:

Scott Sandlin said...

Nice place, nice people. One of our favorites.