Vida Tex-Mex: Sexy or Not, It's Just Plain Bad

Categories: Local Spotlight

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Photos by Troy Fields
The interior at Vida Tex-Mex could be cute and kitschy with the right attitude, but first things first: The food needs to greatly improve.
"As much as I loved Felix for its historical significance, it was hard to explain the food," wrote former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh back in 2008. "I once compared eating there to 'listening to scratchy recordings of the Delta blues' to understand our roots."

In that cover story, "Temples of Tex-Mex," Walsh recounted the tale of how Tex-Mex has become arguably the state's most important cuisine -- not only for its longevity, but also for the many ways in which the food has become a cultural touchstone in and of itself. It's a sentiment I agree with, and one of the many reasons that the new Galleria-area restaurant Vida Tex-Mex has left me so aghast time and again.

You do not trifle with Tex-Mex in Houston. Serving bad Tex-Mex here is like pissing on the Alamo in San Antonio; not only is it offensive, it's just not done. Our city may certainly have its fair share of average or mediocre Tex-Mex, but to open a restaurant with a big splash and deep pockets, then insult your guests by offering them food not fit to serve a dog?

Well, there's a reason that this week's cafe review of Vida Tex-Mex is called "Get a Rope."

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One thing I will say for Vida is that its bar turns out a mean margarita.
Sometimes, and those times have been many, the food at a restaurant is either so terrible or so inept that to write a bad review would be poor sportsmanship, the critical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But when it comes to Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston, I am an admittedly hard-line ideologue who does not accept excuses. I didn't go easy on the sorrowful Tex-Mex at Mucho Mexico last year, nor did I reserve any pity for Vida this week.

My hackles were raised even further when I read an interview with Vida's owners, Yvonne Melcher and Magic Schwarz, in the River Oaks Examiner that saw Melcher defending her choice not to hire a chef for the kitchen after the initial deal with Austin-based chef Paul Petersen (and the initial plan to call the restaurant Vivo) fell through.

"We thought 'how hard can it be?'" Melcher told the paper. "We thought we'd just open it up and it would run itself. But there's so much to bring together."

How hard can it be to open a restaurant? Ask guys like Justin Yu and Justin Vann, who are struggling to get Oxheart up and running. How well does a restaurant run itself? About as well as a toddler supervises itself. A restaurant is a living, breathing thing that needs guidance and passion to run -- not just deep pockets and a vague idea of what goes into your core dishes (sample hint: enchiladas require more than just cheese and tortillas).

It was infuriating to read someone being so dismissive about opening a restaurant, when dozens of incredibly talented chefs around Houston would throw themselves into a pit of vipers in order to secure the funding necessary to open restaurants of their own.

But Melcher seems to be content with Vida's direction for now, and bafflingly mollified by the food her kitchen is creating: "Our food is less greasy, better tasting and of a higher quality, but it isn't weird," she told the Examiner.

I'd argue that the food at Vida is in fact just as greasy than at most Tex-Mex places, especially apparent the day that I received a side of refried black beans ringed by a large, viscous pool of oil.

But that's not the most perplexing issue here: When Melcher says that Vida's food is "better tasting," to what other foods is she referring? Better tasting than a freezer-burned gas station burrito? Better tasting than a Taco Bell Crunchwrap? Better tasting than the dregs of the buffet at Pancho's? Those are just about the only things I can think of that Vida's food tastes better than, and that says all you need to know.

Get a rope, indeed. This is not the sort of Tex-Mex that Houston will stand for.



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36 comments
RJS
RJS

I actually eat here from time to time since it opened and I quite enjoy it. The food is good the drinks are good. It is one thing to not like the food but may I just say that just because you don't like it doesn't mean that it is bad. I cook competitively and I think I am pretty good at it, but I don't always win. The point is to each his own, what one person thinks is good another may disagree so if you don't like it ok but this seems more like an attack then a critique....

Ed T.
Ed T.

"Next month, on RESTAURANT: IMPOSSIBLE"...

Vida Houston
Vida Houston

Katharine - We realize not every review can be a good one.  As a partner in family-owned Vida, we’re glad you liked our ambiance, service, salsa and margaritas, but we obviously wish other elements of the menu had been more agreeable to you.  As with many new business owners, this has been a learning process for us, and we have and will continue to take feedback to heart in order to enhance the guest experience.  We have been steadily growing a repeat clientele, who might disagree with you on your assessment of our food.  From input we have received, they are not benchmarking it against more classic Tex Mex fare.  I guess the hardest pill for me to swallow is the quote you pulled somewhat out of context from the Examiner article - and that your readers might be misinterpreting this quote too based on posts I've seen.  That story painted a broader business picture with some very honest remarks from our end about the highs and lows of starting a restaurant.  My mother grew up in the market business with UtoteM stores, so our deciding to pursue a restaurant venture with established operators didn’t seem as ominous at the time.  It might have been interesting for readers if you had explored what happened with Vivo that landed us in the operator position.  I am sure you can understand that it’s not very easy to walk out on a major investment in time and money that it took to bring the space to fruition.  We also had staff jobs to protect with employees, ranging from cooks to dishwashers, already on payroll.  As was evident in your article from your positive comments about my father Magic’s role in your meals, we don’t take this endeavor flippantly.  We have made a lot of sacrifices and are on site day in and day out with the goal of making this a success.  Our attitude has never been "Gee, let's open a Tex Mex restaurant - any idiot can do that" as somewhat implied.  We hope you will give us another taste in the future, as we continue to refine our concept.

Respectfully,Trey Melcher

Jason
Jason

Fascinating that Shilcutt rips this place a new ass, but her and the Press jump through hoops of fire to defend and praise the nasty garbage they serve up at El Real.

Eric S
Eric S

Katharine, you've clearly suffered, and I think you deserve some therapy. Get thee to Larry's in Richmond for a proper time-warp Tex Mex fix. The memories of Vida will fade, and you'll feel right as rain. 

Gentiandefluer
Gentiandefluer

River Oaks Examiner, Paper City, CultureMap ..... could they have been wrong about this place? Or isn't real criticism an arrow in their quiver when it comes to food? (Not to say they don't recycle press releases and logroll exceptionally well!).

Blaze Hauser
Blaze Hauser

The only food I like comes from a truck served by someone`s grandma, or my beloved. Especially tex/mex/mex/tex whatever.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I happen to like Pancho's.  It's crap, but it's good crap.  Of course, I know to only get the flautas, chile rellenos, crispy tacos and tostadas.

eatingout
eatingout

I was intrigued after reading the Examiner article - especially their no kids policy hook - and decided to try it out.  I've been back again since and enjoyed both trips.  It's not El Real, but also very evident it's not trying to be.  Think of this as a Tex Mex equivalent of something like the Stables' old River Oaks location...a low lit hangout with a pleasant staff that remembers your face, solid margaritas and consistent food.  Not sure if it's fair to compare refried beans in this case.  What I did like were the options available in terms of higher quality salads and grilled items that made this a nice diversion from typical enchilada and fajita fare.  

Ted Samsel
Ted Samsel

Magic Schwarz? TexMex? Seguro que hell no!

Mtexas1969
Mtexas1969

These people were soooooo close to having something wonderful with Vivo and Paul Petersen but wouldn't let someone who knew how to run a great restaurant do it. Houston lost out thanks to these yahoos. Pity.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

If XX didnt survive, how can this place?

Fuegodelgraton
Fuegodelgraton

Ouch!

I remember Robb reviewing Tony Vallone's version of Tex Mex or Mex Mex or whatever is was supposed to be, back when he opened Los Tonyos, where Triniti now stands. Walsh concluded that the SanFillipy set was so mesmerized with Tony that they would eat dog food if Vallone served it.

Does the same apply here? Do they fill seats? Or is it empty?

Txvet
Txvet

Love your reviews, Katharine!

Monty
Monty

We were there Saturday night and thought it was great!  Food and service were  good and No Kids is a great concept!   We ill be back !

Ed T.
Ed T.

I happen to love the nasty garbage they serve up at El Real!

(But then, I also wax nostalgic for Felix Queso.)

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I guess one man's nasty garbage is another man's lard-and-cheese-filled treasure!

Wuwu
Wuwu

My office is located just steps from this place, I can tell you at best I see 3-4 cars there at any given time including dinner...wont last long and for lease sign shall be posted very soon!

eatingout
eatingout

As far as I know, River Oaks Examiner doesn't do restaurant reviews.  The Vida article was a profile about a neighborhood business.  I have read mixed reviews about Vida, Culture Map being one of the negative soon after it opened.  Thankfully we live in a city with a variety of media outlets that have different perspectives and opinions - just like their readers. Some publications choose more of a positive tone, while others mix the good and the bad.  In the case of the Press, sometimes critical and often humorous writing gives it a definite personality.  Let's face it, it wouldn't be as as fun of a read if Katharine only wrote about restaurants she liked.  I enjoy Katharine's reviews as well as Alison Cook's.  Seeing how their reviews sometimes vary shows how subjective dining tastes can be.

Kendralamonde
Kendralamonde

Fried chicken from Haven might supercede your crap cravings. Jus' sayin.

Cheflambo
Cheflambo

KHOU just gave them 3 minutes of attention by telling us that a "no kids" restaurant is something of a novelty. 

Longtime Houstonian
Longtime Houstonian

Actually, to set the record straight Vivo couldn't get their act together and decided Austin was all they could handle for the time being. I love the Melcher family, and they have done so much for the city of Houston and our great University here. It's a shame your blind hatred for the restaurant never gave it a chance, Katharine.

Clemantha
Clemantha

problem with XX is that it was one short

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

 Lard-and-Cheese-Filled Treasure... that was my nickname in high school.

Ed T.
Ed T.

NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

Oldpete
Oldpete

 Alison Cook is still reviewing restaurants in Houston? Where?

Last time I read her, she was at Houston Press. She was good.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

 You do realize it takes literally just as long to write Just as Jus', right?  Were you being cute?

And I enjoy a great steak as well as the fried chicken from both the BBQ inn and Rainbow Lodge's Sunday special.  But I also enjoy good stuff when it is good.  Are you saying you only go to expensive establishments to eat?  What does that say about you?

Consuelo Riascos
Consuelo Riascos

 I believe the idea was to bring food fun and ambiance for adults to enjoy . Adult atmosphere, a little food, and a lot of drink. Make it an adult hang out without the strippers. A few rsvp private rooms for couples or groups. The club will make plenty of money... Paris in Houston, kinda... Again, without the sex sells of strippers.

Tanner
Tanner

Blind hatred? It's not blind if you actually EAT THE FOOD, which in the case the reviewer braved the food and ate it. You, Longtime Houstonian, are blind to the facts and to reading comprehension.

Megan
Megan

Just because the Melchers have done "so much" for the city and UH, doesn't mean that they know how to run a restaurant.  They can put up the money, but they need to hire a chef that can execute their vision.  This sounds like a lack of quality control more than anything. 

McMurphy11
McMurphy11

Seems like she wanted to like it...as she says. Guess the dumb naming persuaded a lot of peeps that it was a frivolous venture from the beginning, and then it devolved from there.

I might try that marg tho....

Jennihead
Jennihead

She used to write for Houston Press.Back when was writing better.

Ed T.
Ed T.

Not in this reality. Alison Cook is the reviewer/food critic for the Houston Chronicle (though her writings appear on their site 29-95.com). THIS is the Houston Press, and Ms. Shilcutt is the food critic/restaurant reviewer here.

Ajaxvondemme
Ajaxvondemme

what does this reply say about you?are you trying to sound reasonable, well rounded and uncute?

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