Tapas with Substance
See more photos from 1252 Tapas in this week's cafe slideshow.
The main breezeway in Uptown Park has soaring, three-story-tall arches flanked near the tops of the gently curving ceilings by windows with an almost Moorish latticework design. Giant lanterns swing softly in the wind, suspended from the arches by thick iron chains that stretch from wall to wall. One end of the breezeway bends into a brick-covered alley with a collection of small shops and stores, while the other end affords a view of a trickling, triple-cupped fountain surrounded by wrought-iron chairs and tables with umbrellas.
Were it not for the stream of traffic along Loop 610 in the distance, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere else entirely while snacking on tapas under those arches at 1252 Tapas, the little Spanish restaurant in Uptown Park with half its tables outside and the other half in a warmly inviting dining room that's almost forcing me to create a phrase like "modern rustic" or "farmhouse chic" to describe it.
Luckily, I don't need to stretch to describe the food at 1252 Tapas: It's one of the few restaurants these days to accurately employ the word "tapas" on its menu. Here you will find refreshingly straightforward Spanish standards such as paella, tortilla española, patatas bravas, gazpacho and empanadas. The "small plate" menu is all the rage these days in restaurants — for better or for worse — but the Spanish have been employing this format successfully for years in the form of tapas. Small plates can be gimmicky and overpriced at other restaurants, but not at 1252. Instead, when you order a dish off the tapas menu, it's something that can easily be shared by two people, and very often by three or four, exactly as tapas should be.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, I found this out when a friend and I significantly over-ordered, conditioned by months of ordering "small plates" only to find a few measly bites on each one. What we got at 1252 Tapas was a veritable feast: bright green stalks of asparagus with a peppy lemon aioli and a boiled egg with its golden center still slightly yolky; creamy goat cheese tucked under bright layers of cool, roasted vegetables slick with olive oil; dark pink ribbons of jamón serrano between triangles of juicy cantaloupe; crusty slices of toasted bread called pa'amb tomàquet heaped high with a tumble of diced tomatoes in luscious garlic-laced olive oil; and a final thick, ponderous slice of tortilla española. And that's to say nothing of my own lunch.
I love that 1252 Tapas offers a clever "box lunch" combo during the weekdays, which is — wink, wink — $12.52 and comes with four items in a bento-style arrangement: a salad you dress yourself with olive oil and vinegar from the table, a cup of the daily soup (usually a tomato bisque, I've noticed), and your choice of main and side dishes. That day I'd chosen the little coins of fat-studded chorizo coated with more olive oil (seriously, if you're olive oil-deficient, 1252 Tapas will take care of that for you) and braised gently in cider to give them a sharp, tangy lift, and some mashed potatoes with a hint of Dijon that weren't at all Spanish but were too nice and soft for me to care.
In fact, the only dud of the day was that dreary slab of tortilla española, which held none of the charm of the fat, fluffy slices I gorged on while in Spain several years ago. Then again, I've yet to find a Spanish restaurant in Houston whose tortilla española equals any found in its home country — so it's tough to hold that against 1252 Tapas, either. Such a simple dish is better cooked in your own kitchen anyway, I've found.
In fact, over the course of three visits I've been hard-pressed to come up with much to dislike about this charmer near the Galleria. What makes this more curious — for me, at least — is that 1252 Tapas is a rare example of a restaurant with its roots in the suburbs that has succeeded in the city, moving into Houston proper from its first location in The Woodlands a few months back in August. Even curiouser is that I strongly recall disliking my first visit more than two years ago to that initial incarnation in The Woodlands' Market Street development, finding the octopus tough and underseasoned, the gazpacho salsa-like and the patatas bravas far too garlicky.
So I was certainly surprised to find myself enjoying the food as much as I did at the Houston location. What I think contributes to this flush of goodwill is how simple 1252 Tapas is at its very heart. With what seems like every new restaurant seeking its own way to reinvent the wheel these days, there's a lot to be said for a restaurant that simply makes good, solid food and doesn't take itself too seriously.
For example, 1252 Tapas doesn't try to deconstruct its empanadas de res, leaving the finely flaky pockets to stand on their own with a little run through some furiously green chimichurri to perk them up. 1252 doesn't add foams or emulsions to its plump croquetas de jamón serrano, stuffed with an exceptionally well-made béchamel sauce. 1252 doesn't tart up its morcilla — that dusky, warmly spiced black sausage with a crinkly, crunchy casing that shatters into the clove-tinged blood and pork below — with silly, unnecessary accoutrements, but allows the sausage to shine by itself. There's a bit of applesauce and some Dijon mustard on the side if you wish to experiment with the ways in which sweet and spicy gently alter the flavor of the sausage, but the morcilla is equally good enjoyed solo.
That's not to say that every single dish is a winner, of course. A terrific bowl of tender pulpitos (baby octopus) in an ink sauce so nimble and light that I wanted to sop it all up with everything in the bread basket on one visit was offset by a stodgy dish of chorizo and fingerling potatoes that was sorely lacking in salt. And on that same visit, a bowl of good — if uninspired — paella was only really "good" in comparison to the gambas a la diabla, which was full of beautiful, plump fresh shrimp (which is a lovely trend here) but packed none of the spicy or smoky wallop promised by its "bacon and spicy tomato sauce."
But 1252 Tapas does get creative where it counts. Although the Spanish wine list and sangrias are more than adequate for the restaurant, I was surprised to find my favorite adult beverage was a tres leches cocktail at the end of my last of three meals there. I'll even admit that I ordered it as a joke — trying to decide between it and a "campfire" cocktail with marshmallow liqueur and red hots — and expected to take one or two sips before polishing off the churros I'd ordered for "real" dessert.
The joke was on me, however. Because that tres leches cocktail — delicate and well-balanced, with a brandy base that reminded me more of a classic Brandy Milk Punch than the overly sweet sugar-bomb I expected — was one of the best drinks I've had all year. It even tasted exactly like a slice of terrifically moist tres leches, sans the cake. And although I still tore through the soft, doughy churros that arrived a few minutes later, licking the cinnamon sugar from my fingers as I went, I spent the rest of the afternoon marveling over that tres leches cocktail and what a great surprise it was. 1252 Tapas is nothing if not wonderfully full of those.
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