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On the Menu: Pico's Mex-Mex gives diners an education

Houstinites learn about seafood and authentic Mexican flavor in dishes that showcase freshness.

Pico's prides itself on being the first Mexican restaurant in Houston to menu red snapper, served here al mojo de ajo.  - Photo by Kim Coffman, courtesy of TheEpicureanPublicist.com
By Joan M. Lang
July 01, 2005

Some people are surprised that we serve so much seafood, but they shouldnt be," says Arnaldo Richards, who just celebrated his 21st anniversary as chef-owner of Pico's Mex-Mex, a traditional Mexican restaurant with two locations in Houston. "Just look at a map and you'll see: Mexico is completely surrounded by water!

"For centuries," he adds, "seafood in Mexico was the best you could eat. Cows, chickens and pigs didn't even exist in Mexico prior to [the arrival of the Spaniards in] the 1500s."

Seafood accounts for 40 to 45 percent of total sales at Pico's, which specializes in regional Mexican cuisine, including the food of the Yucatan Peninsula. The concept has made a name for itself with such specialties as camarones adobados (bacon wrapped jumbo Gulf shrimp basted with adobo sauce), huachinango a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-style red snapper) and seasonal favorites like softshell crab al mojo de ajo (marinated and sauted in garlic oil and served topped with sauted garlic chips).

The second Pico's opened a year and a half ago on Houston's highly traveled Katy Freeway. While the menu is the same as the original Pico's, the addition of another unit changed the way Richards does business, especially when it comes to purchasing.

"I have more buying power in every way, from credit-card processing to buying seafood," says Richards. "Having more than one location really changes the perception purveyors have of you."

A case in point is softshell crab, which Richards menus fresh only in season. With two units serving up to 75,000 crabs a week at the height of the three-month season, Pico's can lock in an advantageous price for the entire run, because the supplier is guaranteed steady sales.

This helps Pico's supplier  a source so closely guarded Richards will not reveal the name, except to say that hes a local man who buys his softies straight from the producer  manage a somewhat fickle inventory.

"At the beginning of the season, in late March, softshell crabs are just trickling in, but by June, if you're lucky, they are all over the place," says Richards. We enter into an agreement where we set a price and I'll take his whole inventory, no matter how large or small.

Softshell crabs, in fact, are probably Richards' trickiest purchase.

"The growers need to take their time," he explains. "It's a meticulous process. You never know when they'll molt, but when they do  even if its at 2 o'clock in the morning  you have to get them out of the water and into a refrigerator so the shells don't harden."

Pico's customers are grateful for such attention to detail. The restaurants enjoy a huge fan base of repeat customers who wait all spring for the crabs to come in. Three crabs are priced at $24.95, a bit of a bargain in Houston for the popular delicacy.

Not surprisingly, the run makes a huge impact on sales at the restaurants, with the whole staff gearing up to promote softshell crabs.

"I believe that a lot of new people try them here for the first time because theyre such a big deal," says Richards, "and it's always great to introduce people to something new."

To that end, servers are rigorously trained in the hows, whys and wherefores of softshell-crab production, so they can answer any questions and make recommendations.

Richards acknowledges that he could sell softshell crabs year-round, but he won't sacrifice the quality of fresh, in-season product: "It's just not the same."

That attitude extends to other seafood purchases as well. Pico's uses four major suppliers  including Sysco and local companies Airline Seafood and Southwest Seafood  as well as wholesaler Marine Food for shrimp. His brother, Alex, who handles the actual purchasing, takes quotes on Monday morning before placing the orders. In an area like Houston, where seafood is abundant, Arnaldo Richards says they've learned how to find the very best.

Over the years, Pico's has introduced Houston diners to the great seafood signatures of Mexico.

"Twenty years ago, when we first opened, no other Mexican restaurants in the city were serving things like shrimp and snapper," says Richards. "Now, everyone is, but we were there first, and we've got a tremendously loyal customer base."

In fact, he says, approximately 60 to 65 percent of his clientele is repeat.

Shrimp are served in a variety of ways, including al chipotle (in a smoky-spicy chipotle chile sauce), al mojo de ajo (with garlic sauce) and as the signature Camarones Adabados (jumbo Gulf shrimp stuffed with poblano pepper, wrapped in bacon, then charcoal broiled and basted with flavorful adobo sauce).

When Richards can get jumbo, head-on, shell-on shrimp for a decent price, he'll menu a special of butterflied shrimp stuffed with Manchego cheese, wrapped completely in bacon and grilled.

"We sell them with the shell still on, because that's the way they'd be eaten in Mexico," says Richards. "They taste better, and the shell helps protect the shrimp from drying out. The waitstaff are trained to explain that to customers."

Red snapper is another Pico's favorite, served in a traditional Veracruz-style sauce with peppers, tomatoes, orange juice and olives; al mojo de ajo; and as Huachinango Tikin Xik, a whole snapper seasoned with citrusy achiote and wrapped in banana leaves, then charcoal-broiled and served with pickled red onions.

Richards obviously relishes his role in helping familiarize Houstonians with the glories of Mexican-style seafood. "It's taken time, but people are much more educated now, both about seafood and about Mexican food," he says.

He's looking into such exotica as octopus and fresh conch, perhaps in a ceviche format, which Richards believes has potential for a possible third restaurant.

"Fresh conch is very hard to source fresh, but with three restaurants, I could justify flying it in from Mexico or Florida," he notes. 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine 

July 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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