Tapas of the Town
I love tapas for the same reason I often prefer movie previews to the full feature. I revel in the freedom to jigsaw an assortment of "little bites" into a meal, without committing to a single entree. I also relish the traditional relationship between tapas and fine drink. Born in the bars of Madrid and specifically engineered to stand up to robust Spanish red wines, tapas are earthy, filling and fun to share with friends: essentially, Spanish soul food.

So naturally, I'm thrilled to see tapas establishing a toehold in Houston. Of course, that's not to say that we've reached the "Tapa Bell" saturation stage yet. You still have to enunciate clearly when suggesting the genre to friends: "Let's go to a tapas bar" is too often misconstrued as an invitation to Rick's.

If you'd rather eat sardines than be one at downtown's Solero, the good news is that Houston's second tapas bar, Mi Luna (2441 University Boulevard, 520-5025), opened this month in the Village space vacated by the pretentious Baci.

Mi Luna's owner, Yusef Naafa, originally discovered tapas on a trip to Chicago, of all places. He fell in love, and resolved to transplant the experience here as authentically as possible. He and partner/manager Wafi Dinari started by calming the orgiastic Baci interior; their efforts yielded a traditional Spanish terra-cotta-and-wrought-iron look with the dowdy dignity of a Spanish duenna.

Next, they engaged executive chef Robert Volino to build an ambitious menu of 50 different tapas -- including dessert numbers -- to be served hot, cold or at room temperature. Dinari insists that Mi Luna's tapas are "more authentic" than the fare offered at the splashier Solero.

Finally, the pair designed a spacious 50-seat, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the interior. Now this looks promising. There's an intriguing wine list, a house-made sangria, plus sundry beers and coffees to go with your tapas, which range in price from $3.95 to $8.95 per platelet. Heftier, one's-a-meal selections scale up to $13.95.

Bear in mind that you can also find a few tapas-like dishes at the counter of Solero's little sibling, the Sabroso Grill (5510 Morningside, 942-9900), which opened in March just around the corner from Mi Luna. Presumably, Solero's mentor, Arturo Boada, is keeping an eye on his new competition; and I'll bet the competitors are both worried about the perennial dearth of Village parking that forced Pasquale's to Montrose, and that had a hand in the death of Baci. Mi Luna deserves a couple of brownie points for offering valet service -- but also a demerit for charging two bucks for the privilege. Does that include the tip, or what?

-- Margaret L. Briggs


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