There are two restaurants in Houston that bear Arturo Boada's name. But Boada himself can only be found at one of them.
Nearly every night of the week, you can see him — black hair slicked back, glasses perched on his nose — through the window of the kitchen at Arturo Boada Cuisine. It's a window that Boada carved out when he moved into the old Bistro Don Camillo space on Del Monte, a side street in the residential Memorial Villages area that's so quiet, I'm always stunned to turn onto it and find a valet-manned lot outside a lively, bustling restaurant.
Boada added other touches when he moved in, too: He painted the walls in tones of amber and russet, with licks of gold flames painted all around an old brick oven that faces the dining room. In this oven, Boada turns out some of the finest pizzas around. A simple margherita pizza with fine shreds of basil and milky mozzarella cheese is elevated by that oven, and by the fine, chewy crust that's baked until it barely blisters.
He makes other things in that oven, too: a flaky apple tart that puffs up like a soufflé and then collapses dramatically under the weight of a melting scoop of vanilla bean-flaked gelato from Marcelo Kreindel, Boada's friend and owner of Trentino Gelato. A dish of homemade spinach gnocchi that's covered with a cloak of sweet marinara and mozzarella that infuses the little potato dumplings while it bakes on the bricks.
At Arturo's Uptown Italiano, the other restaurant in Houston that bears his name, Boada made fairly standard Italian food alongside partner Bill Sadler. Arturo's Uptown was popular with Galleria-area ladies who lunch and older neighborhood couples. When Boada departed to open his own restaurant, he and Sadler became embroiled in a sticky lawsuit over recipes and naming rights. It was so distracting that no one — myself included — expected much of Boada's new concept, which initially seemed as though it would serve more middling Italian food to patrician patrons who were really only there to visit with each other and drink wine.
But you should never count a chef out, especially one who wowed Houstonians for years — albeit in the 1990s. One of Boada's first restaurants, La Mer, gained a spot on Esquire's Best New Restaurants list in 1992. And in 1997, Boada did it again with the opening of Solero, which started the city's love affair with tapas restaurants.
And although it's been years since Boada has been recognized for that level of cooking, the chef has still got it — especially on the tapas side of his menu.
Witness his signature dish at Arturo Boada Cuisine: camarones henesy en hamaca. It's a dish that loosely translates to "I want to be buried in this sauce." The rich, almost velvety sauce is an arresting blend of butter, white wine, soy and ginger — flavors that wouldn't seem to work with the additional components: hearts of palm, capers, tomatoes, sweet plantains and shrimp. It's an idiosyncratic dish that reflects Boada's scattered heritage (both personal and culinary — he's Colombian-born, with Italian and Spanish roots, and worked throughout Europe and Asia early in his career) and works on every level.
These same influences are seen in other favorite dishes: mussels that come sautéed in a tomatillo-jalapeño sauce with thick tangles of cilantro; a carnitas pizza that sees his wonderful pizza dough topped with tangy shreds of pork, asadero cheese, a house-made fire-roasted salsa, chopped white onions and more of that fresh cilantro. A squeeze of lime on top brings it all humming brightly together, and folding up a slice of the thin-crust pizza makes for the most interesting sensation of having a street taco and Italian pizza all in one.
Even in traditional tapas dishes like patatas bravas, that signature Boada twist is there. His "papas bravas" are as spicy as the best I've had in Spain, but the potatoes are accompanied by smoky-sweet rings of chorizo and fat mushrooms that soak up the spicy red sauce.
And that's when I'm the happiest at Arturo Boada Cuisine: When Boada allows all his worldly influences to shine through, and especially when he pulls out show-stopping appetizer specials like a plate of tender, veal-stuffed ravioli topped with a creamy walnut-sage sauce. Specials like these blaze brightly for only one night, though, and they're sadly not an indicator of all of Boada's specials.
I'm also happiest at Arturo Boada Cuisine when the house is packed, and it fills up quickly on weekend nights. Reservations are strongly encouraged. But Boada's girlfriend, Julia, who runs the front of the house with cheerful aplomb, was just barely able to fit us in on a recent Saturday night. Her team — along with Boada's boisterous presence — lends an immediately familiar feel to the place even if it's your first visit, something my dining companions noticed right away.
The usual cadre of waiters — Vietnam-born sisters Tranh and Ha, who function as a comedy duo as much as they do impeccable servers, and Boada's nephew Camillo — were mere blurs as they moved from table to table in the cozy space. Tables sit tightly against one another and patrons crowd the bar as they would a bistro in Europe. Despite the Memorial Villages setting, Arturo Boada Cuisine could easily be mistaken for one of those Continental bistros from the inside — especially on a busy night, when voices ring off the terrazzo floor and the wine flows endlessly.
Camillo is in charge of the two-page wine list, something the young server clearly takes immense pride in. It's not an inexpensive list — most bottles are in the $45 to $60 range, with some selections around $200 — but it's well-edited and offers some unusual selections. Camillo is quick to notice and remember repeat customers, and just as quick to remember their names and previous wine orders. It's astounding, and rarely encountered in younger servers these days. He's also quick to point out new additions he thinks his regulars would like.
"Would you like a bottle of the Primitivo again?" he asked me on only my second visit to the restaurant. The $48 bottle had been smooth and rich, but we were in the mood for something different. He suggested a less expensive bottle of Ninquén Antu Syrah at $44 that I appreciated just as much — until I got home later and saw that it had been marked up by $27. Profit margins; what are you going to do?
And on some nights, that wine — marked up or not — is one of the few bright spots during dinner. On my last visit, during that packed Saturday night, the appetizer special of prosciutto over marinara-topped bread was blander than I'd imagined it would be (my table wanted to order it); grilled sashimi-grade tuna was equally underseasoned despite its topping of lemon truffle oil-laced arugula, giving me still more reason to wish restaurants would discontinue truffle oil's use entirely; and rigatoni with grilled chicken, sweet peas and a creamy pink sauce was inoffensive but unremarkable — which wouldn't otherwise be a sin except for its nearly $22 price tag.
The entire dinner was a lesson to stick to the tapas side of the menu, to the dishes which bear Boada's fiery mark just as his restaurant does. Stick with the littleneck clams that are sautéed in a ginger-garlic broth and topped with tomatoes and basil; stick with the tuna tartare, a typical dish that's livened up with cool cucumber and fennel in a ginger-soy vinaigrette.
And stick with those lovely, floury, thin-crust pizzas that seem to float out of the brick oven. We have too few of those in town, and the ones we do should be celebrated.