Paella Paydirt

A Spanish tapas restaurant with nice rice

On my second visit to Rioja, three of us got tapas and paella. If this seems like unimaginative ordering, consider the menu. Besides paella, there is really only one other entrée, grilled baby lamb chops with potatoes, and it's served only on Thursdays.

We were seated in the fancy dining room this time. The room features wooden floors and large comfortable dining chairs. The mustard-colored walls are decorated with vintage travel posters advertising such events as the 1930 fiesta de primavera in Jerez. There's additional seating at a massive circular wooden wine bar. One end of the room was converted to a little stage, where a pair of guitarists were performing. They were playing a flamenco version of "Hotel California" when our first bottle of wine arrived.

Rioja calls itself a tapas restaurant, but the paella is 
the main attraction.
Troy Fields
Rioja calls itself a tapas restaurant, but the paella is the main attraction.

Location Info



11920 Westheimer Rd., J
Houston, TX 77077

Category: Restaurant > Spanish

Region: Memorial


Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Grilled sardines: $5.25
Chorizo: $5.95
Serrano y Manchego: $9.95
Deviled eggs: $4.25
Roasted almonds: $2.95
Paella: $16.95

11920 Westheimer, 281-531-5569.

Bodega Tarsus 1999 is a luscious, fruit-forward red wine made with Tempranillo grapes from the Ribera del Duero region, which is right next to Rioja. Ribera del Duero wines were once a cheaper alternative to Rioja, but they have become so trendy that now there's little difference in price.

The wine went very well with a tapas plate we had ordered called Manchego frito, which consists of little cubes of fried Manchego cheese and a tomato sauce for dipping. We also tried a tapas offering called bacalao con tomate, a chunk of fresh cod stewed with roasted pepper and garlic that was passable but didn't go very well with the red wine. Mussels cooked in sherry and parsley sauce weren't really a red wine dish either, but the mussels were so good, nobody cared.

It was a Saturday night, my companions were thirsty, and the first bottle of wine disappeared before the appetizers were finished. Although the Tarsus had a pleasant fruitiness, it lacked structure and depth. So for a second bottle of wine, we perused Rioja's list of namesakes.

Interestingly, the wine list separates the reds of the famous Rioja region of Spain into two categories: modern fruity wines that are made in the California style and consumed young (like the Ribera del Duero), and oakier old-fashioned wines that must be aged. All are made from Tempranillo grapes, of course, as are the reds of Ribera del Duero. For the sake of comparison, we went with the old style, a Marques de Arienzo, 1995.

Both of my dining companions are wine enthusiasts, but interestingly, opinions on the two wines were split. One preferred the fruity and approachable Tarsus Ribera del Duero, while the other guy liked the woody aromas and concentrated flavors of the Marques de Arienzo Rioja. Personally, I had to side with the Rioja-lover. The oak-aged ten-year-old Rioja was not only a more complex bottle of wine, it was also cheaper than the newly popular Ribera del Duero.

The two wine drinkers were in complete agreement about the paella. Both of them polished off every single grain of rice. And, I must admit, I was a member of the clean-plate club myself.

With the foods and wines of Spain on the rise in the culinary world, it would seem that Rioja has come along at the right time. If interesting tapas, world-class paella and the latest in Spanish red wines sound good to you, put this place on your restaurant "to do" list.

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