By JOHN DeMERS
YELAPA PLAYA MEXICANA, 2303 Richmond Ave., Houston, (281) 501-0487
Pacific coastal cuisine of the mostly Mexican variety is alive and well at Yelapa, which opened its doors going on three months ago. And if executive chef L.J. Wiley has his way with history, the Mexican beaches were visited over the centuries by ceviche-crazed Peruvians as well as by a few seriously disoriented spice traders from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and India.
I’ve always believed in a tropical zone encircling the globe. And whether it’s nature or nurture, that zone includes a tropical culture and, allowing for differences of ethnicity, language and religion, a tropical cuisine as well. Arguably, all tropical dishes could appear on the same menu – and make more sense together than, say, dishes from northern and southern Italy. Climate and soil give a region its agriculture, and what people grow gives them both stuff to cook and a general approach to cooking it. By putting the word playa (beach) in its name, Yelapa sets out to give us precisely that: a warm-hearted, color-bursting, music-lilting escape from all the mundane details of daily life. What’s most impressive is how well Wiley has taken this Jimmy Buffett attitude and created a paradise without any cheeseburgers to spoil it.
Suffice it to say that the three main bulk-ups of our beloved Tex-Mex are missing in action here: Spanish or Mexican rice, pools of refried beans, and molten lava flows of yellow cheese. There’s no queso on this menu, and even that Lone Star standby, mostly pureed guacamole, is so transformed that it flirts with being a disappointment to some. The taste of Yelapa’s guacamole is incredibly light, with avocado chunks tending toward the huge, fresh from a brief encounter with lime and cilantro, sweetened by mango and given crunch by vegetables. It’s harder to pick up on a chip, sadly, but well worth the effort. Other surefire hits to get things started are the collection of ceviches, which follow the same quick-and-fresh philosophy as the guacamole. Some ceviches offer a choice of Peruvian-style (5 minutes in lime juice) or “Texas-style” (in until they’re “cooked”), but our No. 1 comes only Peruvian. Tender, mildly sweet bay scallops show up with pickled mango and a texture fiesta of sliced jicama and radishes.
Now here’s a menu that has both sopas and sopes, and it’s a big help to know the difference. The sopas are led off by a bright cucumber gazpacho with smoked mussels, while the sopes (a kind of thicker chalupa) are constructed with local “halal” lamb, avocado and something Wiley calls Mexican “kimchee.” Tastewise, we don’t get the reference to the nearly rotten Korean cabbage so often slammed by MASH on TV. But the kitchen does ferment its own (much more briefly than the weeks spent buried in jars underground in rural Korea). While you’re in the menu section cleverly dubbed The Taco Truck, do not miss the Baja-style batter-fried fish tacos with chili mayo. It’s a safe bet that, thanks to Berryhill, it’s such fish tacos from Ensenada that introduced Texas to the Mexican Pacific coast in the first place.
Yelapa currently offers 11 entrée choices, and it’s the only part of the menu that’s not seafood-heavy. Still, the Yucatan roasted grouper is probably the most culturally interesting as well as the most satisfying main course. The hunk o’ fish is slathered with the achiote-red spice paste traditionally used in cochinita pibil; but then, instead of steaming in banana leaves (boring!), this fish gets roasted till pumped up with moisture and lightly caramelized. You could steam fish for a millennium and never achieve this delicious result. And if you were Yucatecan, you’d probably never imagine taking that Mexican “kimchee” and turning it into an herbal, also-red spin on fried rice. Yes, the whole affair comes on a slice of bright green banana leaf.
Other appealing entrees include the smoked carnitas with green papaya salad, the “Better Than Berkshire” pork tamal with apple-pequin mustard, and the smoky braised beef short ribs. These last are plated with an earthy swish of cilantro pesto and Yukon potatoes that have been mashed and THEN fried. Eat your heart out “Shaken not stirred.”
Dessert can be as simple as the perfect flan. But just a step up the food chain waits the chocohaute del Diablo (a chocolate-peanut butter cake with what taste like marshmallows toasted over the campfires of our childhood), or even the cinco (no, not a mere tres!) leches. We didn’t think to ask what the five milks in this thing actually are, but it sure is wonderful beneath its toasted carrot meringue.
The folks in the real fishing village called Yelapa near Puerto Vallarta like to boast that “A palapa in Yelapa is better than a condo in Redondo.” Now, thanks to the three guys behind Yelapa Playa Mexicana, Houston is giving that notion a run for its money. And here at least, you don’t need sunscreen or a passport.
Photos: (above) the lamb sopes, (below) a dining area at Yelapa Playa Mexicana.