Friday, January 16, 2009

Seco's Latin Cuisine - a Mexican food road not taken

Seco's Latin Cuisine is a Mexican/European fusion restaurant in Rice Village. The cozy house used to be Cafe Europa. And Chef Seco Moran used to be at Jalapeno's on Kirby.

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.


Dr. Ricky said...

I don't see how you can be gloomy about Seco's prospects. Daniel Wong's is still around (despite the changes in trends), and that's longevity many restaurants would be jealous of. Then again, it is in the pricier part of town, and rent may be a problem.

anonymouseater said...

I'm not gloomy about Seco's prospects as an ongoing business. He has a following, the location is very charming, and surely the rent is not that high. I think Seco may do quite well.

It is just that, at one point, Seco's cooking at Jalapeno's was seen as some of the city's best Mexican food. He was ranked #1 in some polls and by some critics. I don't see that happening with Seco's. It is not because the food is any less good than Jalapeno's. It is just that the Zeitgeist has moved on in another direction.

Daniel Wong's is just as outstanding as it was in the late 80s. But on most nights, about 6 tables are full at a time. And it has been a long time since Daniel Wong's has topped any Chinese food polls.

If you like Seco's and Daniel Wong's, like I do, maybe that is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I think you've stumbled across one of the problems with the restaurant scene in Houston - there's too much follow-the-leader. And in my opinion, it's a path to mediocrity. Why not leave that for the Dardens and Brinkers of the world?

I'd much rather see more chefs follow Daniel's and Seco's examples, producing great food without worrying about what's trendy. And it's up to foodies to educate their friends at how varied the interpretations of a particular cuisine can be.

HoustonWok said...

wow, i am facinated by the number of food bloggers and followers out there. Sorry I have been living under a rock for quite some with regards to the net. However I like mexican food that has a twang, if that makes any sense. Looking forward to trying this out, thanks for the review. Feel free to come by and check out my dining experiences, although i just started blogging.

Dr. Ricky said...

That's a tough balancing act - to move to something novel and interesting, but familiarity sells better. That's the genius behind Rocky Aoki's Benihana concept - sure, it is barely Japanese in aesthetics, but it brings the skittish American clientele. And if you can't make money, you don't have the elbow room to get adventurous.

neverfull said...

i hear seco's does a great sunday brunch and i've been meaning to check it out.

Clementina said...

"Elegant" and "Mexican Food" are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some dishes from Mexico City are European-influenced, particularly by the dishes of France. I have seen a few Mexican cookbooks that remind me of Sr. Seco's.
Sometimes it is all in la presentacion.

viagra online without prescription said...

Seco is great! The combination of these two kind of prepare food is nice! But the combination the luxury and Mexican food, don't like me much. Mexico is traditional and is essential the simple decoration! But I like Seco!