“I was definitely a restaurant brat,” said David Cordúa. The Houston chef laughed at the memory of his long-ago childhood routine. “After school every day, my two sisters and I would go to my father’s restaurant,” he said, “and the cooks would make us something to eat. We loved the grilled chicken with sherry cream sauce. After that we’d sit at the bar and do our homework.”
The time was the late nineties, and the place was the tremendously popular Churrascos, which had been opened by his dad, Nicaraguan-born chef Michael Cordúa, in 1988. It was a classy early example of the Nuevo Latino concept that took hold in the U.S. in the mid-nineties, and Michael would go on to add two more restaurants to his burgeoning empire, Américas and Artista, both of which would have enormous followings in Houston for more than a decade. By his late teens, David was helping in the kitchen of Américas, and after earning a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he became executive chef of the family’s restaurant group.
Now, at forty years old, he has opened his own restaurant, the Lymbar. The menu delves into the many cuisines he’s dabbled in over the years, and his father is on hand for support in both the front and back of the house. With the Cordúas, it’s always a family affair.
A chatty happy-hour crowd was still milling about when I arrived on a weeknight in late January for the first of two visits. I was about to commandeer a comfy-looking red sofa in the front of the space, but then I decided to poke around the building where the restaurant is located, the much-written-about Ion, a business and technology innovation center that opened in Midtown in 2021. Funded by the City of Houston and Rice University, it contains offices, coworking spaces, classrooms, a small amphitheater for presentations, and several restaurants and a bar (obviously intended to keep the techies from going elsewhere to eat and drink). In its previous life, the six-level structure housed a Sears store, one occasionally patronized by the Cordúa family. “My baby bed was bought there,” David told me.
Back at the Lymbar, I settled in on the red sofa and spent some time admiring the eclectic decor—a striking black-and-white floor, a grand piano, fantastical art featuring a sea turtle, an octopus, and provocative-looking mushrooms. When my friends arrived, we took a minute to study the starters and, as if rehearsed, all zeroed in on the appetizer for which Cordúa had won first prize in the prestigious Houston Truffle Masters competition nearly a decade earlier: Truffle Twinkies. True to their name, they turned out to be delicately fried brioche batons that had been hollowed out and filled with a heady truffle-scented egg-yolk custard. (In case you’re wondering: yes, they did look like Twinkies.)
Still feeling snackish, we sampled another shareable starter: the Rosespud. (“It has no connection to Citizen Kane,” Cordúa said the minute he delivered it, obviously having had to answer that question a lot.) To create this tour de force, his cooks cut the russets into long, paper-thin planks, fry them, and arrange them upright in a bowl like flowers. “It’s a potato bouquet!” said Cordúa. Alongside are two dipping sauces, a garlicky cilantro aioli and a smooth, mild red sauce. “The second one reminded me of cream of tomato soup,” I told Cordúa when we talked later. “Exactly,” he agreed. He explained that the base is a mix of heavy cream and chicken stock infused with corn husk–smoked tomatoes. My friends wanted something green next, so we finished with a pretty Vietnamese-accented kale, cabbage, cilantro, and mint salad brightened with shreds of carrot and a punchy peanut oil vinaigrette.
Tempting as it was to keep on nibbling, we were getting hungry, so we turned to the entrées. Of the two we chose, the table favorite was grilled lamb chops. Like the tomatoes, the guajillo-glazed morsels were smoked over smoldering corn husks and came with a side of unusual tabbouleh made with pearl-like Israeli couscous. (“I like it because it almost has a cooling effect on the glaze,” Cordúa said.) Our other entrée was a pan-seared snapper with achiote shrimp. The whole dish was sadly overcooked; a spunky chorizo emulsion helped moisten it only a little.
To finish the evening, we selected two desserts, one of the everyday variety and one that sounded outrageous. The people’s choice was Cordúa’s feather-light take on alfajores, the sandwich-style shortbread cookies with a filling of dulce de leche that are the Oreos of Central and South America. The over-the-top choice was a quartet of doughnut holes on foie gras mousse accented with fig jam and a sprinkle of black pepper. When I asked Cordúa how he came up with such a crazy idea, he admitted with a laugh that it was intended to be a starter but was so excessive that he converted it into a savory dessert.
When I came back with different friends the next night, the sofas were full, so we ended up in the back section of the larger-than-it-seems space, next to a bar with enormous hanging baskets of plants overhead. In keeping with Cordúa’s eclectic taste, a wall of built-in shelves held a charming collection of favorite objects: an amethyst geode, a toy dinosaur, a pearly seashell, a red clock radio, and books ranging from Madame Bovary to Chez Panisse Cooking. As a final touch, there were small framed photographs of staff members’ grandmothers. In Cordúa’s world, family is paramount. In fact, Lymbar is the name of the street where he grew up, in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood.
But memories, no matter how beguiling, will not fill you up. For that you need empanadas. Luckily, there were three selections on offer, all beautifully crimped and precisely fried. The first was stuffed with spinach and melted feta and Halloumi cheeses. The second held kofta—Middle Eastern–style ground meat (in this case beef)—perked up with chopped pine nuts (it came on a bed of hummus dabbed with a bright red Calabrian chile relish). The third was a take on a Monte Cristo sandwich—ham, turkey, and Gruyère—accompanied by a tart-sweet raspberry-sesame vinaigrette for dipping.
Although many of the dishes on the Lymbar’s menu have a tangible link to Cordúa’s boyhood, one of my favorites comes from his classic French training: chicken ballotine. Normally involving a whole bird that has been deboned, stuffed, and roasted, here it is scaled down for a single serving: a tidy outer layer of white meat wrapped around a white wine–splashed filling of minced shallots and dark meat. Tucked into chicken skin and fried, it’s delicious. “The filling reminds me of sausage,” said Cordúa. “It’s my favorite part.”
Anyone who goes to the Lymbar with even the vaguest memory of the original Churrascos will look to see if that restaurant’s signature dish is on the menu here. Happily, it is: a hunk of seductively seared, center-cut butterflied tenderloin sided by a punchy chimichurri sauce that’s heavy on the garlic and curly-leaf parsley. On the side are fat, golden brown, skin-on fries and bright pink pickled onions. Even though Cordúa and his father are no longer involved with Churrascos—these days the four locations are run by distant relatives—he remembers its heyday. “On any given night,” he recalled, “half the dining room ordered a churrasco.”
Of course, after this meaty indulgence, sensible diners would go easy on dessert, but two choices that I hadn’t tried on my previous visit now demanded attention. The first was one of David’s creations, sweet corn flan, with the usual vanilla custard amped up with a corn puree and bolstered with cream cheese (for fun, it’s also topped with Cracker Jacks). The second was a Cordúa family signature: a soufflé-like tres leches cake made from his aunt Ana Ruzo’s recipe, later perfected by Michael. It’s soaked in the traditional vanilla-scented three milks (evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole) and slathered in glistening Italian meringue.
Thirty-five years ago, Michael Cordúa entered the Houston dining scene, launching what was to grow into a small steakhouse empire that boasted some of the most exciting restaurants in the city. His son David was his right-hand man. Today the restaurant brat who did his homework at the Churrascos bar has stepped into the center ring. With his dad providing moral and culinary support, he has launched his own place and is forging a distinctive style in which respect for tradition is combined with an irrepressible sense of fun. The torch, literally and figuratively, has been passed to a new generation.
4201 Main, Houston
L Mon–Fri. D Mon–Sat.
Opened December 12, 2022
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How to Stoke a Fire.” Subscribe today.