No one ever went broke overestimating Texas’s love affair with itself. We all feel a surge of pride at the sight of somebody wearing pointy-toed boots—even if they’re walking down a city street—or sporting a pair of running shorts with the Lone Star flag emblazoned on the backside. And who are the most nostalgic Texans of all? Expats, of course.
Enter Ford Fry, an Atlanta chef but a Houston boy born and bred. If you’ve visited Georgia, you might have eaten at one of his ten restaurants (he also has one in Charlotte, North Carolina), or maybe his name is familiar to you because he is a five-time James Beard semifinalist. But despite the fame he has achieved in his adopted hometown, Fry has never severed his Texas ties. On the contrary, his essential Texanness is key not only to his business plan but to his happiness. He opened Tex-Mex destinations the El Felix and Superica, he jokes, “because most Mexican food in Atlanta is so lousy.”
In 2015 Fry came home, not to live but to open State of Grace, a comforting yet modern take on Southern and Gulf Coast cuisine, in Houston’s tony River Oaks neighborhood. His mom and her gal pals like to hang out there. And now, three years later, he’s back again, eager to solidify his Texas roots. In a spacious new building in the trendy Heights area, he has opened two dining venues side by side. The smaller place, La Lucha, was inspired by childhood visits to the San Jacinto Inn, a storied seafood house that ruled the Texas coast for seven decades. The larger one, Superica, is the fourth location of his most successful restaurant to date, and Fry’s on the verge of seeing whether the Mexican food that’s been such a hit in Georgia and North Carolina will pass muster with real Texans.
The legendary San Jacinto Inn, which closed in 1987, was in a big white frame building located near the San Jacinto Battleground (thus the name: La Lucha means “the Fight” in Spanish). In its lifetime, the restaurant must have served a trillion all-you-can-eat platters to customers who drove miles for the privilege of devouring boiled shrimp, fried seafood and chicken, biscuits, and much, much more. To replicate its menu and funky coastal cachet would have been tricky, and La Lucha isn’t trying to. Instead, the menu is a blend of old and new, and the look has gone upscale, with Oriental-style rugs and Bauhaus-y cane-back chairs under a rustic timber ceiling.
The fundamentals from days of yore are solid: abundant peel-and-eat shrimp, decent fried chicken (moist, tender meat cradled by a crisp, thick, and slightly too salty crust), adorable little biscuits swiped with honey butter. They more than get the job done. As for the new menu items, created by Fry and executive chef Bobby Matos, there are some notable highs and a few lows. Over the two visits I made, with assorted friends in tow, the dishes ranged from terrific (Chowder Fries, skinny slivers of potato accompanied by a sumptuous oyster chowder for dipping and slurping) to tragic (grease-soaked tacos dorados filled with chopped shrimp) to exultantly trashy (homemade Lipton-style onion dip topped with bowfin caviar and sided by a petite can of Pringles). But what made the most lasting impression are the fabulous oysters on the half shell sourced from bays around the Gulf of Mexico—creamy West Points, briny Murder Points, and many more. Show up at happy hour, and they’re a buck apiece.
While La Lucha is a blast from the past, Superica is a blast, period. Inside, it’s a carnival of colors and tchotchkes, with blue, white, and pink accents; a ghostly white pheasant is mounted on one wall and a Longhorn head with lopsided horns on another. Over the inviting bar is a bright red sign honoring the late, lamented Houston Mexican restaurant Felix (the place that helped inspire Fry’s El Felix). The basic scheme in play here is a hop, skip, and jump through Tex-Mex and Mexican food of the past 75 to 100 years. Old-school Tex-Mex gets some love with the El Lopez, a classic fifties-style combination platter with unapologetically greasy yellow-cheese-filled enchiladas wallowing in chile gravy and chopped raw onion. The clock then jumps to that eighties specialty: beef fajitas, an exemplary version so tender I thought it was a much better cut of meat than skirt steak (wet-aging makes all the difference). Finally, there are several nods to the less Americanized, more interior dishes that have been expanding Texas’s notion of Mexican food for more than a generation. The best one I tried was the whole red snapper, head and tail defiantly attached, fins at attention. Its pearlescent flesh lifted easily from the bones, and a spritz of lime invigorated a mellow tomatillo-avocado salsa.
But within these large categories, it’s impossible not to notice another theme at work in the kitchen, headed up by chef Kevin Maxey: a meat program that’s a lot better than it has to be. My first clue was the aforementioned fajitas. Then there was the short rib, a smoked and grilled hunk of bone-in beef that fell into succulent shreds under a blackened chipotle-molasses crust (I thought of it as barbecue with a Mexican spin). Finally, here were the carnitas, a word that should be in quotes because they were unlike any carnitas I’ve ever eaten: two slabs of braised and baked pork belly covered in tomatillo salsa. They were astonishing, even if I did have to cut them up myself.
Unfortunately, there is another theme that needs immediate attention: substandard tortillas. Every corn tortilla item I tried, both here (aside from the good tortilla chips) and at La Lucha, was almost sodden with grease. I suspect that the cooking temperature might be involved. Superica’s flour tortillas, which are made in-house, started out fine when they were hot but turned stiff and clunky and tasted of raw flour as soon as they got cold. In this city, you’ve got to get the tortillas right.
That aside, there is one dish I can’t stop thinking about, one that would absolutely bring me back: the chile relleno. Enrobed in a light, lacy batter that had been perfectly fried, it was fat with potatoes, fresh sweet corn, and white button mushrooms held together by a judicious sprinkling of queso Chihuahua and topped with ranchero sauce. Not only that, the thing was enormous. As we manhandled the leftovers into a to-go box and headed out the door, I had a revelation: top-notch chiles rellenos aren’t that easy to do. Half the time, they are dull, with a soggy batter and flavors that don’t quite meld. It takes some serious chops to make one that’s truly exceptional. If the kitchen crew of a Texpat living in Georgia has turned a vegetarian chile relleno into a signature dish, I think there’s a better-than-even chance they’ll be able to make a go of it in Houston.
1801 N. Shepherd Dr, Houston
D 7 days.
D 7 days.
B Sat & Sun.
Opened September 17, 2018
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Atlanta’s Ford Fry Doubles Down on Texas.” Subscribe today.