January 31st, 2012

The Lemon Tree: The Wonders of Peru in Houston’s Backyard

In 5 Words: Peruvian, Pescado, Incan, Clamare, Saltado

If you look in the mirror, chances are you’ll find a more adventurous eater than I. Slap a burger in front of me. Tacos are good too. A pizza? I’m in heaven. Occasionally, I find myself on the outside of the box due in part to being related to a closeted foodie. So this weekend, my sister and her husband had me on a trek to Machu Pichu outside the beltway to a Peruvian restaurant, their current obsession, The Lemon Tree.

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Finding the restaurant is half the battle (exit and south on Dairy Ashford from I-10; Left on Whittington; Look for it on the right). The other half for someone like me is preparing yourself for an unrecognizable list of dishes. A menu of which you point to one option and pray it’s the right choice.

Reservations must be made on Friday and Saturday nights at this quaint little spot. The moment you walk in you’ll see each and every table supporting a small “reserved” placard. The Lemon Tree has its diehard fans, and they’re not ready for you to take it away from them.

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We found ourselves sitting at a small table for four with tortilla chips and a delicious green sauce ready for us. At the back of the restaurant, a man serenaded us from behind a keyboard and sound system with Spanish-language classics. Unlike most other fine dining establishments, The Lemon Tree is brightly lit. You might be guessing at the menu, but there will be no mystery as to what’s on your plate.

We start off with a drink order (three waters and an “Incan Kola” soda) and a request for “ceviche de pescado.” Around the other tables, other patrons had two liter bottles of the neon yellow Peruvian soda, but they also serve cans. It’s quite tasty. Citrusy. Its resemblance to Mountain Dew once poured in the glass is uncanny. But the gold standard was set when the ceviche came to our table served with corn and sweet potatoes.

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Light and delicious, in my mind there would be no upstaging of this first dish of the night. My brother in law scooped up some of the clear lemon juice and drizzled it over the lumps of white fish in the middle of the plate. Sharing it between four people was a sin. Without second thought, I would have fended off the rest of our table with a glinting knife and fork to get the most servings.

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Most of us stuck with the fish theme for our main courses (except my sister who order the above “lomo saltado”). I let our waitress do the choosing for my dish, giving her two options neither of which I knew. My Spanish is hazy at best and my cooking acumen does nothing to clear things up through context clues. The final place my finger landed was on the “pescado o lo macho” which was described as “fried fish covered in spectacular seafood sauce served with white rice.”

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The fish was lightly battered and fried, drenched in — the dare I say — “spectacular seafood sauce.” It was salty and almost tart. Calamare sprinkled on the fish and complemented by two pieces of crab and a mussel, the plate was completed with a mound of white rice. Honestly, the entire course was delicious. The calamare (to use the spelling on the menu) was cooked to perfection and the fish fell apart in my mouth. The only qualm that I had was the fact that the crab was imitation and that was the last thing I expected. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of mussels, so the best critique that I can give on that portion of the course was that it was “musselly.”

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All in all, as my first experience of Peruvian in Houston (and only in my lifetime), visiting The Lemon Tree brought me to two distinct revelations. First, the next time someone suggests the South American cuisine, I’ll be both excited and prepared for the experience. Second, I don’t eat enough fish, neither out at restaurants or at home. Perhaps the Peruvians spoiled me on the second point with their delicate and perfect handling of the protein.

By the time they offered us a dessert menu, we had already pushed ourselves back from the table to give more room to our expanding waistlines. The salt was beginning to take its affect, but there wasn’t a displeased face in the building. The man behind the mike crooned on in his exotic tongue as we exited into a chilly night. Yes, I did brag about my experience to fellow, timid eaters. As far as adventures go, this one was worth a tale or two. But next time I might suggest the location closer to my home in Midtown (207 Gray St., Houston, TX 77002).

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Where #112591 Whittington Dr., Houston, TX 77077
Where #2 207 Gray St., Houston, TX 77002
What – Peruvian, Fish, Pescado, Inca Kola, Delight
Wear – Business Casual; Show Some Respect
How much – Prices in the Low Teens
When – Thursday through Saturday: 11AM to 3PM and 6PM to 9PM; Sunday: 12PM to 4PM
WebWebsite; Call for Reservations (281) 556-0690

http://www.thelemontreeonline.com/Location1/Menu.aspx

— Paul

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