Restaurants often change their menu. Some change their menu with the new season. Others change to gradually to bring in new dishes. But rarely do you see a restaurant menu drop the cuisine of one country and start offering the cuisine of another. That is what has happened at El Meson in the Rice Village.
I started going to El Meson when I was in college in the 1980s for their Mexican food. Although the restaurant offered Cuban and Mexican food, my Rice friends and I went there because it was the closest place to get Mexican food. The cheapest Tex-Mex items were on a page of the menu called, "Hospitality Dishes." In other words, the restaurant was embarrassed to serve Tex-Mex, but they did it just to be hospitable.
El Meson's Tex-Mex dishes were ok. I discovered that their more expensive Cuban dishes were better. My favorite has long been Pollo al Ajillo -- chicken with a sauce of olive oil and a heck of a lot of garlic. Their ropa vieja is not the best in town, but it is good.
Just as the restaurant had a split personality between its Cuban menu and its Tex-Mex menu, there has been an even greater split between its food and wine. El Meson has long had one of Houston's best wine lists. In particular, it is easily Houston's best list for Spanish wines. No other Houston restaurant offers two whole pages of wines from the glorious region of Prioriat, plus pages of wines from more obscure regions of Spain. The list ranges from inexpensive to ultra-expensive, and most wines have a very reasonable price markup. I love this Spanish list because, right now, Spain makes some of the best quality wines for the price.
The problem was that El Meson's wine did not match its food. A Ribero Del Duero simply does not work with cheese enchilladas and chips and hot sauce. Sure, the menu had some Cuban dishes that paired decently with some Spanish wines. For instance, a highly extracted red Spanish wine would work ok with their overcooked rib eye. But most of the food just did not work with the wine, and was not of the same high quality.
Earlier this year, El Meson finally dropped most of its Tex-Mex menu, replacing it with the food of an entirely new country -- Spain. The menu now includes 16 tapas items, 8 different styles of paella, plus a few Spanish style entrees.
I have tried about half of the tapas and can report that they are very good. These are a few examples:
-Piquillos de la Tierra are piquillo peppers stuffed with ground lamb and raisins in a pimenton sauce. They are nice mix of meaty, fruity, green, and spicy flavors.
-Gambas al Romesco are shrimp in an almond-heavy romesco sauce. The flavor is unlike any romesco I have had -- less red pepper and more nut. It pairs surprisingly well with red wine.
-Albondigas al Jerez are ground lamb meatballs in a brandy de Jerez sauce. My wife thought they reminded her too much of canned meatball in sweet tomato sauce, but I liked the unusual flavor of lamb with brandy.
-Pinchas de Solomillo de Vaca are tips of beef tenderloin with mushrooms in a roasted red pepper and port reduction sauce. This is my favorite new menu item. The mushrooms are full of flavor and the reduction sauce compliments the tender beef. It pairs very well with the extracted red wines of Prioriat.
In addition, El Meson serves a killer Sopa de Ajo -- a garlic soup mixed with egg and a lot of soggy crutons.
With this menu change, El Meson is no longer a cheap Tex Mex option in West U. It still is not one of Houston's best Cuban restaurants -- I like Cafe Piquet and Cafe Latina better. Nor has it become Houston's best tapas restaurant -- Rioja is the best, and even Mi Luna down the street from El Meson has a much larger tapas menu. But El Meson has a fantastic wine list that easily beats all other Latino and Spanish restaurants in town. And now it has some good Spanish food to go with its great Spanish wines.