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You can taste the flavor of shrimp, chicken, Spanish chorizo, calamari and saffron in each grain of rice in the paella. Rioja, the new Spanish restaurant on Westheimer at Kirkwood, calls itself a tapas restaurant, but the main attraction here is really the authentic Spanish paella. In fact, when you walk in the front door of the restaurant, you're greeted by two giant electric paella pans.
There's a formal dining room to the left of the entryway and a more casual cafelike space to the right. Outside, under the overhang of the shopping center roof, there are another ten tables for alfresco dining. The temperature was a delightful 70 degrees the evening of my first visit, so our party of four opted to sit outside. We had to change tables to avoid the glare of the parking-lot lights, but eventually we found a pleasant spot.
A new batch of paella is ready every 40 minutes at Rioja. So we got a bottle of wine and put in our order for some of the next batch. The tapas calientes we sampled for appetizers included some of the restaurant's housemade chorizo, which was quite spicy. The grilled sardines were imported from Portugal. They're larger than the ones you get in the can, and they have a bold, funky flavor that's recommended for fervent fish-lovers. The rest of the table preferred the juicy garlic shrimp sautéed in olive oil. Each of these tapas courses was a small portion on a saucer-size plate.
Houston, TX 77077
Grilled sardines: $5.25
Serrano y Manchego: $9.95
Deviled eggs: $4.25
Roasted almonds: $2.95
Most of the tapas I've eaten in Spain were consumed while standing in a crowded bar, as they're generally considered a cocktail snack. Tapa means "lid" in Spanish. Legend has it, tapas started out as pieces of bread that were put over the top of your glass to keep the flies out of your wine. After screen doors were invented, they evolved into little snacks given away for free with drinks, like botanas in Mexico, or happy-hour snacks around here.
Eventually, the story goes, tapas became more and more elaborate, and people started choosing their bars based on the tapas. In modern Spain, a favorite form of nightlife is to go out on a tapeo, or "tapas crawl," moving from bar to bar and eating and drinking for hours. Each establishment is famous for one particular plate, so the custom is to sample a sardine here, a calamari there. Some tapas are still free, though these tend to be inexpensive items like olives or potato chips.
Rioja's tapas frías, or cold tapas, are in the simple bar-snack tradition. They include marinated green olives, roasted almonds, deviled eggs with shrimp, and potatoes dappled with aioli. The standout among these is a plate of thin slices of Serrano ham and Manchego cheese that you eat with the crusty rounds of baguettes in the bread basket.
All of the tapas we ate that night on the patio were quite tasty, and they all went wonderfully with the bottle of Ribera del Duero we ordered. There are a number of restaurants in Houston where you can find pretty good tapas. But nobody else has paella like Rioja's.
To tell the truth, I've never been all that crazy about the dish, probably because most of the paella I've eaten tasted like gummy, overcooked long-grain rice with the odd combination of seafood, sausage and chicken. But it turns out that paella is like risotto: The quality of the dish is entirely dependent on the character of the rice.
At Rioja, even though the rice has cooked for more than half an hour in the paella pan, it's still firm and nutty on your plate. That's because they use rare, imported Valencia rice in their authentic Spanish paella, explains Paul Galvani, who is seated to my right.
Spanish Valencia is a unique short-grain rice. Like arborio, the Italian short-grain rice used in risotto, Valencia is higher in starch and plumper than typical long-grain rices. The higher starch content allows each oversize grain to soak up a large amount of liquid -- and flavor. But while arborio gives off its starch during cooking to form a creamy sauce, Valencia stays nutty and firm. The grains do not cling together either, so there is none of the gumminess so characteristic of mediocre paella.
Galvani, a Press contributor, is also the marketing director of Riviana Foods, one of the leading rice suppliers in the United States. Riviana was acquired about five months ago by the Spanish rice company Ebro Puleva SA. In the post-acquisition era, Galvani has had the opportunity to visit the Spanish rice concern's headquarters in Seville. While he was there, he got a chance to eat a lot of first-class paella.
Thanks to his extensive experience, Galvani recently was tapped as a judge for the Houston International Paella Cookoff. The winner was Rioja restaurant, which at the time hadn't even opened. When they finally got under way a couple of months ago, Galvani insisted we visit the restaurant and get some of this incredible paella.
Maybe I never liked the paella in American restaurants before because I never got the right rice. But not only do the folks at Rioja start their paella with real Valencia rice, they make their own chorizo and use gobs of expensive, dark Spanish saffron along with lots of seafood and chicken. Then they top each serving with two giant prawns cooked in their shells. The result is exquisite.