First Taste of New/Old Pico’s ‘Mex-Mex’

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Whenever a restaurant that’s been popular for years moves closer to its current customer base, it’s big news – especially for that customer base. So it was as people who’d been driving “way out” to Bellaire from River Oaks, the Museum District and West U welcomed their old friend Arnaldo Richards and his Pico’s to a busy corner where one of the innumerable Ninfa’s spinoffs used to be. Happily for all of us, Richards brought lots of hyper-fresh Gulf seafood with him for the “long” journey.

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Richards, who is originally from Mexico despite his British surname, first attracted local attention in Bellaire by emphasizing that his food was not Tex-Mex. Doing so in a state that loves Tex-Mex, and indeed tends to reject any other version of Mexican food, was pretty gutsy. But he started using the phrase Mex-Mex, and it stuck – at the original restaurant in Bellaire as well as at a strip-center offshoot on Katy Freeway. As dishes like the warm mariscada up top and the cold campechana below it make clear, Richards is underlining his Mex-Mex-ness to this day.

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There is a tendency in restaurants that set themselves above some perceived ethnic entry level – Mexican, Chinese, Indian or whatever – to do so by going all “fancy.” This typically means better ingredients as well as more labor-intensive (and cross-cultural) presentations, like this elaborate tower of seafood. Happily, with an abiding love of Mexico’s regional cuisines, Richards focuses more on flavor than appearance. It’s a focus we always support. The tower is quite delicious, complete with a tropical splash of diced mango.

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It’s not, thankfully, that Richards is afraid of his food “tasting Mexican” – virtually every dish on his extremely large menu does taste Mexican, a little or a lot. He’s not even afraid of siding gravy-covered, melty cheese entrees like these red and green sincronizadas with tomato rice and refried beans. It is that he works hard to make us realize that Mex-Mex food is more than what we thought it was. The duck with two different mole sauces is one case in point, as are the steaks that make up a surprisingly generous section of the menu. Virtually all possible proteins seem happy to be here, unlike the beef-beef-beef that’s a signature of the vaquero traditions of the Mexico-Texas frontera.

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If there’s any single sign that Pico’s is here to stay in Houston – or indeed that it deserves its rebaptized name “Arnaldo Richards’ Pico’s,” it’s the desserts that show up at your table. Yes, you can get good flan here, or even the tres leches that long ago replaced sopaipillas as the go-to Tex-Mex finale. But you can also get lush, decadent German chocolate cake and cheesecake that’s taken to the tropics on vacation by a topping of guava jelly.  These are all made, we’re told, by Richards’ sister, with considerable dollops of love. Since on any given night at this new/old Pico’s, you can meet Richards himself, his brother Alex and his daughter Monica, eating too much dessert made by his sister seems like, well, icing on the cake.

 

 

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