The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Tapas Restaurants

Pull up a seat at our No. 2 pick, 1252 Tapas.
Pull up a seat at our No. 2 pick, 1252 Tapas.
Photo by Troy Fields

Although etymologists agree that the word "tapas" comes from the Spanish word tapar, which means "to cover," that's where agreement on the origin of the Spanish snack-stravaganza ends.

Seminal cookbook The Joy of Cooking claims that "tapas" originally referred to slices of bread or meat used to cover glasses of sherry served in Andalusian taverns. The covers -- especially the salty meat -- served the dual purpose of keeping flies out of the sherry and encouraging patrons' thirst. My handy Food Lover's Companion backs up this theory. Although it's the most popular theory currently in play, there's more to the history of tapas than just sherry.

Places serving tapas-style dishes predate restaurants, and were once one of the only places people could get food outside of their own homes prior to the 18th century. "France was the birthplace of what we now call the restaurant," write Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari in Food: a Culinary History. "With the exception of inns, which were primarily for travelers, and street kitchens...where in Europe at that time could one purchase a meal outside the home? Essentially in places where alcoholic beverages were sold, places equipped to serve simple, inexpensive dishes either cooked on the premises or ordered from a nearby inn or food shop, along with wine, beer, and spirits, which constituted the bulk of their business."

Taverns such as these, Flandrin and Montanari note, "existed not only in France but also in other countries. In Germany, Austria, and Alsace, Brauereien and Weinstuben served delicatessen, sauerkraut, and cheese, for example; in Spain bodegas served tapas."

In keeping with the tavern tradition, a good tapas restaurant should ideally feature an excellent selection of beverages -- especially wine -- and a cozy, relaxing atmosphere. Tapas restaurants aren't fancy; they're familiar. And these days, tapas dishes should be appropriately sized for sharing with friends. The days of a meal fitting on top of your glass are long over.

10. Vinoteca Poscol / Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

As with a few other entries on this list, neither Vinoteca Poscol nor Giacomo's are traditional tapas restaurants. They do, however, offer excellent Mediterranean food -- Italian, in this case -- in tapas-sized portions. Vinoteca Poscol's portions get even smaller during happy hour, when elegant two- or three-bite sandwiches are served with wine at the bar. Both feature terrific wine lists, and Giacomo's sports a patio that's relaxing by day and romantic by night.

Masitas de puerco at El Meson, the Cuban version of carnitas.
Masitas de puerco at El Meson, the Cuban version of carnitas.
Photo by Daniel Kramer

9. El Meson

The first of two Rice Village tapas restaurants on our list, El Meson offers both traditional Spanish tapas and paellas alongside Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and picadillo a la criolla. With its dark wood and booths lining the walls, the spacious restaurant -- run by Peter Garcia, who inherited the family restaurant after his father passed away in 1992 -- has the feel of a neighborhood taverna. The extensive wine list includes choices from the New World as well as the Old, all of which pair nicely with the equally extensive list of Spanish cheeses.

8. Mi Luna

Eighty selections of hot and cold tapas are served family-style at this Rice Village stronghold; order according to the number in your group. Mi Luna favorites include shrimp in lemon-garlic olive oil, manchego-stuffed chicken breast and pork tenderloin in wild mushroom-thyme-sherry sauce. A few entrées are there for those who never learned to share, but a better alternative to tapas would be to sample from the extensive paella menu.

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