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

Paella Paydirt

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.



11920 Westheimer, 281-531-5569.

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

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.

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.

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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