I like the freshness of Seco's ingredients. I like the idiosyncrasy of Seco's cooking style. But Seco's is most interesting because it represents a road not followed.
Seco was one of the pioneers of a unique style of Houston Mexican food in the late 1980s. Then, it looked as though other restaurants would follow a similar path. They did not. Now Seco stands alone, continuing to cook in a style that others have abandoned
Healthy Mexican-Euro fusion - 80s style
A meal at Seco's starts with the obligatory basket of chips, and Seco's distinctive vinegary salsa -- identical to Jalapeno's. But after the chips, it can be easy to forget you are in a Mexican restaurant.
Seco's Calamari al ajillo doesn't taste like other restaurants' al ajillo dishes. At most restaurants, al ajillo is a thick sauce of olive oil, garlic, and peppers. Seco's version is much lighter and ethereal. The juice seems to be a blend of cooking liquid and a flavored oil other than olive. I pick up a hint of Chinese flavors -- perhaps sesame oil?
There are a few "Mexican" aspects of this dish -- red onions, cilantro, and peppers. And it is spicy. Yet it hardly tastes Mexican.
Another interesting dish is Snapper Seco. This type of preparation was popular 20 years ago -- a fillet of fish topped with a mound of veggies -- here, red onions, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, capers. On the side are al dente green beans. Again, apart from the jalapeno, there is little to peg this dish as Mexican rather than European -- more specifically, Italian.
Seco continues to serve many of his classic dishes from Jalapenos. His spinach enchiladas covered in a light cream sauce may be the best in Houston.
His menu includes a variety of grilled chicken breast dishes. The most famous, Pollo Moran, is topped with a sautee of mushrooms, onions, and poblanos in a light cream sauce. Interestingly, when Alison Cook reviewed Seco's, she was most intrigued by the healthy, light cream sauces.
A cuilinary dead end?
Seco's food is very fresh and flavorful. And he has some die-hard fans, mostly from Jalepeno's days.
Yet this style of Mexican food didn't stick for long in Houston. We moved on to authentic interior Mexican food (Pico's, Hugo's, Otilla's). We moved on to grilled foods from Northern Mexico (El Tiempo, Guadalajara, Lupe Tortilla, Teotihuacan). And we stuck to our basic Tex-Mex (Tony's, Spanish Flowers).
Seco's reminds me of Daniel Wong's , a Chinese restaurant on Bissonet. In the 80's, Wong's cooking -- a unique, healthy fusion of Chinese and American ingredients and techniques -- was hailed by many as the best Chinese food in Houston. Yet today, in the age of the Asian bistro, Wong's fusion food is as outdated as it is delicious. It missed the Zeitgeist. It is a direction Chinese food in Houston could have taken, but did not.
Why didn't Seco's healthy European fusion style stick? I suspect Houstonians want Mexican food that is more festive, and not elegant (i.e. European). I suspect Mexican restaurants are most crowded on Friday nights because folks want to drink and forget about calories.
So we did not find much of a crowd at Seco's on a Thursday night. But we enjoyed our food a great deal.
And after dinner, we felt good.