Ten years ago, it looked like Spanish tapas were about to really catch on in Houston. They didn’t. Although we have some good tapas restaurants (i.e. Mi Luna, Catalan), many good ones have closed (i.e., Beso, Solero, Barcino). Plus, the tapas dishes we can get are often very different than real tapas from the point of origin -- Andalucia in Southern Spain.
But, if you are willing to drive some, you can find the most authentic tapas at Rioja Restaurant. Every time I travel to this restaurant outside the Beltway on Westheimer, I am blown away by their Spanish food and wine.
Last Saturday night, I drove my wife, my 73 year-old mother, and my 8 year-old-daughter to Rioja. I felt ok to bring my daughter because in Spain it is customary to bring kids to the tapas bar, even on a Saturday night.
Rioja was packed. The tables were so crowded together that waiters frequently bumped and jostled our chairs. The crowd was half-drunk and noisy and the live Latin music made it even noisier. Yet we loved the atmosphere. It felt like we had traveled from the Houston suburbs to Sevilla.
First, I should say something about the service and my attempts to get the right wine. Rioja has a great list of Spanish wines, but not the one I ordered – a 2003 Genium. Initially, the waitress mistakenly brought a wine called Gaudium. Then, she brought a wine called Genium Costers, priced more than twice as much as the regular Genium. Finally, a manager admitted they were out of the wine I wanted. I was a little frustrated, but mostly amused. Then he did something extraordinary. He said he would bring me his favorite wine, a wine was not on the list and that probably was far more expensive than the Genium, but he offered to charge me the same price. The wine he brought – a modern-style blend from the Alicante region of Spain – was one of the most complex, concentrated Spanish wines that I have had in a long time. As it breathed during the course of an hour, it became even more harmonious and fascinating. It reminded me of Vega Sicilia – Spain’s most famous wine. But I paid far, far less. More importantly, I felt like the restaurant really cared about making us happy.
Likce the service and wine, the tapas dishes were excellent:
-Gambas Al Ajillo – sauteed shrimp in garlic and olive oil with hot peppers – tasted like the same dish I have had in Spain. We could not stop dipping bread in the oil.
-Mussels in Salsa Verde were possibly the best mussels I have had anywhere. They were steamed in sherry and garlic. But what really put the dish over the top, and made it a great match with the red wine, was the addition of carmelized onions. Again, we spent a long time dipping bread in the sauce.
-We loved two different kinds of empanadas – one with ground beef filling and a chimichurri-like sauce and the other with crab filling and romesco sauce.
-Pincho de Solomillo – grilled fillet mignon marinated in Rioja wine and paprika – had an unusual flavor that reminded me of sherry. I like my beef with a bit more salt, but this dish was very good.
-Mushrooms in garlic, sherry, and olive oil were one of my favorite dishes, despite their simplicity. And everyone liked the spinach sauteed with pine nuts, garlic and raisins and topped with Manchego cheese.
-Finally, the flourless chocolate cake was one of the better versions I have had of this popular dessert. It was appropriately dense and rich, walking a fine line between cake and fudge. Not so Spanish perhaps, but a perfect end to a wonderfully hedonistic evening.
Full of great food and wine, our ears ringing with sound of the crowd and Latin music, the four of us wandered out the door, into the night, half-expecting to see the ancient walls of an Andalucian city.
But instead we found a suburban strip mall, the sounds of Houston traffic on a Friday night, and a long, long drive back inside the Loop.