Alison Cook tries Flora Mexican Kitchen’s epic lunch in Houston

Down a glazed concrete walkway, past horizontal wood slats and distressed concrete columns, the view of Lost Lake and the greenery of Buffalo Bayou Park floats like a watery mirage. Allen Parkway highrises and downtown skyscrapers tell you the city is right there, but suddenly, it’s not.

Through a door, into a glass-walled box, past the signature flock of mismatched crystal chandeliers, you reach a covered patio that is one of my new favorite places to dine.

Part of my pleasure is that intensely green view, popping me out of my urban bubble. Part is Flora’s caring staff. But the sine qua non is serious, crave-worthy Mexican cuisine from the kitchen team of Epifanio Rosas, the head chef, along with Daniel Gonzalez and Reynaldo Quezada.

Virtually everything I tasted at a recent epic lunch was memorable. I’m still thinking about the little round masa boats called sopesitos, layered with refried beans and snowcaps of queso fresco and crema, to eat with a rousing green table salsa. There were three of these babies per $12 order, I am sorry to say, because I could have consumed a big plateful all by myself.

The patio at Flora Mexican Kitchen in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Alison Cook / Staff

Yes, there is sticker shock in play here, heightened by the current inflation of food prices. The house frozen margarita is a distinguished version, and it costs 15 bucks. Gulp. A beef short rib swathed in a deep, stirring red mole rings in at $48, joined on its plate by a black bean tamal.

Both items were extraordinary: the short rib perfectly cooked so that it fell away in yielding shreds; the tamal made of feather-light masa and lifted by a haunting current of hoja santa, the heart-shaped leaf with a faint licorice scent of root beer. Still, 50 bucks is a big splurge for an entree — or at least it was, not too long ago.

And $26 for my new favorite green enchiladas in the city is a sobering price tag. Stuffed with velvety hunks of poached chicken and swathed in a lively salsa verde, these enchiladas were perfectly accessorized. Just enough tart, cool crema, just enough molten cheese, just enough strips of pickled onion on top.

The refried beans and Spanish-style rice on the side soared above filler status, too.

I admired the house-made corn tortillas I ordered to go along with the short rib. Pliable and fragrant, they were well worth the 3-buck price. Flour tortillas for the same price were just OK. The only item I found seriously wanting was a tuna tostada put together like a stained glass window, with a translucent slice of cured yellowfin tuna at its heart. Unfortunately, the cure had enough salt to overwhelm the other flavors, from the tortilla itself to the trimmings of avocado, leek and chipotle aioli.

Flora gives a lot of attention to light seafood preparations, salads and soups — a necessity on a menu from a restaurant group that caters to an upscale crowd long on ladies who lunch — and the men who love them.

Principal partner Grant Cooper, who recently split up the business empire he built with chef Charles Clark, now also runs Gratify, a Frenchified bistro and raw bar in Rice Village; and the next-door Coppa Osteria Italian restaurant. They attract some of the same social butterflies who flock to Brasserie 19, the River Oaks bistro that Cooper turned over to Clark as part of the split.

Cooper says he always wanted to open a Mexican restaurant, and his love of the genre shines through at Flora. The menu mix of regional Mexican, Tex-Mex and Baja-style seafood feels just right for Houston, and it yields some surprises along with familiar ideas.

Cucumber and chayote salad at Flora Mexican Kitchen

Cucumber and chayote salad at Flora Mexican Kitchen

Alison Cook / Staff

I loved a cool, crisp salad of sliced raw chayote and cucumber dotted with mint and a bits of chile, even though the puddle of yogurt underneath had no hint of the advertised hoja santa. Chayote squash worked so well as a thin sliver, I swore to make my own version of the dish at home, where my hoja santa supply is endless.

A little pot de creme based on cajeta instead of chocolate proved to be staggeringly rich and dreamy stuff, with a strong pull of caramel and smooth layers that descended from mahogany to chestnut.

What a brilliant idea, I thought as I lounged on the terrace with a few mid-afternoon lunchers. And how civilized to serve lunch straight through, the better to enjoy the cocktails, food and setting.

Dulce de leche Pot de Crème at Flora Mexican Kitchen

Dulce de leche Pot de Crème at Flora Mexican Kitchen

Alison Cook / Staff

A word to the wise about getting to Flora. Driving west on Allen Parkway, the easiest way to enter, start looking for a right turn after you pass Waugh Drive. You’ll take a long drive down to the circle in front of Flora’s building, which once housed the park’s Lost Lake Visitor Center. (It’s in renovations to serve as Flora’s cocktail arm and holding pen.)

Valets will take your car and park it. You will thank them.

Flora Mexican Kitchen

3422 Allen Parkway at Dunlavy in Buffalo Bayou Park, 713-360-6477

[email protected]

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