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On the Menu: Mexican-style seafood a hit with Houston Anglos
Coco's opened in a Hispanic neighborhood, but the menu has broad-based appeal
Joan M. Lang
September 01, 2005
When Steve Ponce opened Coco’s Seafood Bar and Grill in Houston this spring, he expected that most of his customers would be Hispanics from the neighborhood, drawn by the family-style portions of Mexican-style seafood.
After all, approximately 85 percent of his customer base is Hispanic at Las Llardes, his first restaurant — known for such authentic Mexican specialties as cochinita pibil (shredded, marinated roast pork), menudo (tripe and hominy stew), barbacoa (Mexican style barbecue, often made with beef brains and tortas (Mexican-style sandwiches).
“I was stunned with the response from the Anglo crowd at Coco’s. It’s the exact reverse of Las Llardes,” says Ponce, whose childhood nickname was Coco.
And while Ponce didn’t necessarily set out to attract a mainstream crowd — the restaurant is located in the thick of one of Houston’s Hispanic neighborhoods, after all — he has hit upon a formula for a casual, Mexican-accented seafood restaurant with broad-based appeal.
First off, there’s the décor, more of a casual dinner house, a la locally popular Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, than the cantina ambience of Las Llardes. The menu is in English. The name and logo are not overtly Mexican, although the word mariscos (seafood) appears in a banner across the top.
The menu is also more about seafood than about Mexican food, but it’s still ethnic enough to stand out in a town where there’s no shortage of restaurants specializing in fish and shellfish, including not only Pappadeaux but also Good Co. Texas Seafood and Landry’s Seafood House. Ceviche, shrimp rice and fried gar (a Gulf fish with a meaty flavor like swordfish) share space with stuffed red snapper, shrimp scampi and fried oysters.
The average check is about $10 at dinner, and the most expensive single entrée on the menu is the $13.50 Coco Jumbo Combo, a hefty platter of fried shrimp, fish, oysters, stuffed crab and stuffed shrimp.
Ponce has been able to pack a tremendous number of options into a menu that’s relatively small and easy for the kitchen to execute. One of the most popular features is a “by the pound” section that touts three sizes of shrimp, calamari, octopus, oysters, lobster, gar and market-fresh fish like snapper or tilapia by the half or full pound, available fried, scampi-style, grilled, steamed with garlic, broiled or with a piquant tomato-based ranchero sauce.
Intended for families, this option has proved remarkably popular with grazing Anglos who want to share and sample. It also allows Ponce to carry relatively few varieties of fresh, highly perishable product and still offer dozens of different selections to suit all comers.
“I wanted the menu to be small and simple, but I still wanted to be able to offer a bit of variety and stick with low prices,” explains Ponce. Indeed, large groups will order anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds of seafood, plus some side orders, or will share several of the restaurant’s signature Coco’s Parrillada, an elaborate mixed grill of two kinds of fajitas, grilled shrimp and grilled fish with all the trimmings, priced at $59.95 and sized to feed four.
The restaurateur always wanted to own a seafood restaurant—“It’s been an addiction of mine for a long time.” But in the way of many entrepreneurs, Ponce started in business 10 years ago with a partner who was more comfortable with a traditional Mexican restaurant. Fast forward a couple of years, and Ponce was successful enough to buy out his partner’s share of Las Llardes and begin experimenting with seafood dishes there.
That menu, in fact, features no fewer than eight different shrimp specialties, including Camarones a Las Llardes (stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and jalapeños, then wrapped in bacon and broiled) and Hualulco Shrimp (marinated in garlic sauce and cilantro, then sautéed with white wine). These options were enough to test customer response and left Ponce hungry to experiment with more fish and shellfish varieties. When a location became available right in the same neighborhood, he launched his dream seafood restaurant.
A Las Llardes chef who specializes in seafood was brought in to develop the Coco’s menu, set up the kitchen and train the other cooks in the somewhat tricky techniques of cooking fish and shellfish.
“You do need special skills to cook seafood, but fortunately I already had someone onboard who could take over the new kitchen,” says Ponce.
In fact, the kitchen crew spent six full weeks in training, culminating with several days of pre-opening tastings for front-of-the-house employees so the waitstaff would be thoroughly familiar with what they would be selling.
Some of Coco’s most popular specialties are also its most elaborate, including whole fried tilapia and stuffed red snapper, served in a spicy ranchero sauce. The restaurant is also known for its shrimp rice, a Mexican invention not unlike Chinese fried rice.
Coco’s shrimp rice is offered as an alternative to fries on many of the entrees,
as part of several combination platters and as a large or small side order — a popular choice for customers who are ordering seafood by the pound. Pork, chicken and special rice (a combination of all three proteins) are also available.
Based on Coco’s success with Norteno diners, Ponce is planning to add a number of new items high on the Anglo request list, including crawfish (a Houston obsession) and more lobster specialties.
His increased volume of seafood purchasing, thanks to two restaurants, has given him an “in” with several local purveyors who can source additional types of seafood for him.
“Having a second restaurant and being able to buy in bulk definitely makes it easier to purchase different kinds of seafood,” says Ponce, “which means that I can experiment even more.”