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Andalucia Tapas & Taverna

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We felt pretty smart nabbing a spot near the kitchen for the standing-room-only grand opening of Andalucia Tapas & Taverna last week. The waiters had to get through us to reach the rest of the crowd (the poor suckers by the door surely went hungry).

The cavernous restaurant, in the Downtown Pavilions at 1201 San Jacinto St., Suite 161, is part of Morocco native Youssef Nafaa's Bella Restaurants chain, which includes Cava Bistro, Mia Bella Trattoria, CoCo Crepes, Saffron and Cielo Mexican Bistro.

Whether it was Houstonians' love of Spanish food, a cultural interest in live flamenco dancing or downtown dwellers' joy at the Pavilions finally filling up (sort of), the place was packed. We hadn't used our ass that much in a crowd since ninth-grade basketball.

We also felt smart for picking our table because it put us next to David, a gregarious guy in a camel-hair blazer who was scouting the place out for his mother, a native of Madrid, Spain.

To draw the tapas to our table, David massaged the waiters on the shoulders and hollered, "Bring the good stuff!" Failing that, he walked up to the counter and intercepted several plates himself.

By the time we left, two hours into the madness, we'd tried eight dishes, several of them impressive.

Arguably the favorite at our table was the croquetas de patatas y queso. These were, in a sense, effeminate hush puppies on steroids. Pill-shaped and slightly larger than mozzarella sticks, the croquetas were fried but somehow light, sweet and citrusy. We had at least six. Or was it eight? When Chef Matt Keller made the rounds, he said the little cigar-shaped morsels were filled with potato mixed with a bit of goat cheese, leeks, black currants (or raisins), and, sometimes, apricots ("if we're feeling sassy").

The other headliner, the gambos al ajillo, (shrimp with garlic), was red-pepper-flaked, smoky and smooth. At the request of one tablemate who had visited Spain, Nafaa (who also swung by to chat with patrons) brought the night's lone cold plate, serrano y manchego (ham and cheese). Serrano ham is, according to "the Internets," cured in sea salt longer than its closest relative, Italian prosciutto, and not coated in lard like the latter. This apparently gives it a thicker texture and richer flavor. Sampling some from our friend's plate, that made sense. The color was a much deeper red than prosciutto's, and the texture was thicker without being tough, richer without being salty. The manchego cheese was superb. You'd do well to follow our friend's advice and take a sip of wine while chewing a bit of the cheese and ham together. Apparently this is custom. We can't vouch for that, but it worked, so why not?

"Food should be fun," Nafaa told us, explaining the concept behind the restaurant. You shouldn't be locked into one plate, and tapas allow that freedom.

We certainly had a good time piecing together our complimentary dinner with David and company. Had we bought each item we sampled, the bill would have totaled $58.

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