The first news that many people heard of Batanga came before the downtown tapas restaurant even opened its doors.
Late last November, a local resident was infuriated to find that Batanga's owners had moved into the long-vacant space at the corner of Travis and Congress and chopped down some of the cedar trees on the grassy patio outside. Regardless of the tenants that came and went over the years, the restaurant space itself was always unique for its grassy, canopied patio -- an anomaly in concrete-clad downtown Houston -- and people were initially flummoxed by Batanga's decision to denude it.
I do hope those people have found their way back to Batanga since then, as the restaurant has done an admirable job of transforming the patio since opening on April 1. There are still two cedar trees left, too, which provide a pleasant natural fence between the patio and an always-bustling bus stop next to the Old City Hall Clock which overlooks Batanga and the rest of Market Square.
With this prime piece of real estate, Batanga has real potential to be one of the main catalysts in the second wave of Market Square's redevelopment. The first wave came with the renovation of Market Square Park itself, unveiled in August 2010. It included the second location of popular Greek restaurant Niko Niko's, a 9/11 memorial fountain, a dog park and a grassy lawn that now serves as a play area by day and occasional movie screening location by night.
That first wave also included new tenants for the spaces flanking the park: In addition to old standbys like Warren's Inn, Char Bar, La Carafe and Treebeard's, a new crop of businesses attracted a new demographic to the area: Hearsay Gastrolounge, Bitterman's Market Square Bar & Grill and Macondo Latin Bistro, all of which are still successfully operating along Travis.
A few of the other new tenants along Congress didn't quite work out, however, and closed nearly as quickly as they opened. Convey Sushi and ERA, a pizzeria, shut their doors in late 2011/early 2012 and were followed to the grave by Les Givrals earlier this year.
Some took this as a sign that Market Square's redevelopment was flagging. I took it as survival of the fittest, knowing that stronger breeds would flourish in the area if they just took a chance.
Less than a year later, OKRA's Charity Saloon opened and led the second wave of movement into downtown -- this time, spreading from Market Square Park to Main Street, just a block east. Before long, other troops fell in line: Goro & Gun, Bad News Bar, Barnaby's and Batanga. It's still far too early to call any of these five new spots an out-and-out success, but all of them have the staying power and resources necessary to become the attractive food, beverage and entertainment anchors that downtown has desperately needed for years.
Goro & Gun, with its fixation on Japanese ramen, is a destination. The non-profit Charity Saloon, which affords you the opportunity to support local charities with every drink, is a destination. The sumptuous dining room at Line & Lariat across the street and the second-story view of downtown's skyline from Bad News Bar both have the potential to be destinations.
Batanga, too, is a destination.
At least, that's the way I felt lounging in the crisp April sunshine last week, a crimson umbrella flapping gently overhead as one perfectly-constructed tapas dish after another was slipped onto the table. There is no other patio like this in the city, decked out with red umbrellas and casual wooden tables against the backdrop of a century-old brick wall and a bustling city center.
Moreover, Houston has its share of tapas restaurants, but none that have brought a more modern aesthetic to the traditionally Spanish fare.
At Batanga, there's a marriage of dishes such as co-owner Maya Fasthoff's family recipe for empanadas -- which she says, as a perfectionist, is 98 percent of the way there after months of tweaking -- and executive chef Ben McPherson's juicy duck confit in a sweet, dusky-colored sour cherry mole atop pert arepas.
In between are dishes that can please any palate -- plump albondigas in a sunny, crisp tomato sauce or a brisket-and-short-rib burger and fries at lunch -- as well as more fringe items, like the eggplant "fries." Thick battering rams of eggplant are fried like fish and dusted with cumin, mint and a drizzle of honey. They're not for everyone, but I loved them -- and I admired Batanga's devotion to showcasing vegetables, fish and meat with equal billing: There are 17 vegetarian dishes at lunch, and 18 meat or seafood dishes to choose from.
Even more attractive are the prices -- especially at lunch. Vegetable-based dishes range from $4 to $8, while meat and fish dishes range from $5 to $9. There are a few pricier plates, such as a hangar steak for $18, but those are offset by the inexpensive burger-and-fry plates for between $9 and $11...and aren't just limited to burgers, but also feature a couple of tortas too.
I've yet to hit Batanga for dinner, although I'm almost too eager to head back now after that pleasant patio lunch. I want to eat dinner as the sun slips below the skyscrapers and turns the cold streets a warm golden hue for one short hour. I want to brunch at Batanga, too, to enjoy the quiet peacefulness of a Sunday morning downtown over chilaquiles and guava-stuffed French toast.
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The two-story brick wall of Char Bar that serves as one perimeter for the patio is pockmarked where bricks have been dislodged over the years, and where cross-beams once held an adjoining building in place. Pigeons and doves have built tiny nests in the rectangular crevices, next door neighbors in a busy bird highrise. They swoop in and out all day long, fluttering around in their happy homes, running bird errands and working to bring home food for the chicks that are just now hatching.
Downtown may never be as densely populated as these birds' nests, but it is undergoing a slow rebirth of sorts. For now, I'm just happy that places like Batanga are here to see it through.