It is 6:30 p.m. The freeway is an inferno. You're hungry and out of sorts. Driving home to cook doesn't sound too good right now; neither does tackling a full-scale restaurant meal. Solution: the gratifying tapas served in Americas' wonderfully stagy bar.
These small, savory plates of food are chef Michael Cordua's Western Hemispheric take on the little dishes served in Spanish wine bars of an evening, while Spaniards kill time before their infernally late dinners. But in the middle of a Houston summer, tapas la Cordua are dinner A light, varied and spunky enough to revive the most jaded appetite. And at a very modest $2.25 per plate, they are what the industry would term a loss-leader: priced at cost, or lower, on the assumption that they will tempt you to sample freely from Glenn Cordua's thoughtful wine list, which is less charitably priced. Exercise moderation, however, and you'll be rewarded with great food and atmospherics at a great price.
Where to start on the 11-item tapas menu? The taquito de borrega, a miracle of crisped cracklings that are the essence of lamb, buoyed by romaine cut as fine as excelsior, a summery mint-spiked pico de gallo and a dab of ancho chile. Next, the rich, delicate crabmeat and asparagus crepe in a graceful aged-vinegar sauce with an irresistible oniony undertow. Or the most elegant pupusa in town: a diminutive, intensely corn-flavored masa disk layered with a fluffy mixture of cheeses, plus a bracing magenta backdrop of the chilefied pickled cabbage known as curtido.
The caramanolas that have wooed diners at Americas' sister restaurant, Churrascos, make a guest appearance as tapas: turnovers made of an exotic yucca crust with a pleasantly sticky, potato-like texture, they hide spicy black beans and sharp cotija cheese. A small ceviche taco, its crisp shell colored russet, refreshes with its tartness, its romaine, its cool avocado mousse. And the marinated mushrooms, in an intoxicating bath sharpened with jalapeno and garlic, moved my friend, the Czech Cynic, to ask, "Do you think there's some way I could turn this stuff into a poultice?" He wanted nothing less than full body contact with this spectacular broth. He settled for more of the sweetish, grilled potato rolls to sop up every last drop.
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Those same appealing rolls undergird the tapas analog to that sacred cow of Texas cocktail parties A the ol' beef-n-bun. Tenderloin on a bun in polite circles like these, with a Cordua twist of garlicky roasted-pepper mayonnaise. Very comforting indeed. So what's not to like? Nothing, really, although there are things to like less than others. The strangely tasteless (except for the iodine) potato-crusted shrimp over an enticing cream of chimichurri sauce, for one; and the snail-stuffed mushrooms on a sodden garlic crouton that floats on oily sage butter.
But mostly the tapas are an unalloyed pleasure. So are the surroundings: the cartoony, curvaceously upholstered booths; the deliciously organic sci-fi light fixtures; the handsome mesquite freeform tables and bar. There's a floor show, too, as a slick slice of Houston totters up those vertiginous flagstone stairs, bound for the upstairs dining room A there to bask in the reflected glow of Houston's latest celebrity chef. Poor things. Little do they know how well you're faring down in tapas land. Why, you've saved so much money that you can order Michael Cordua's stupendous coconut ice cream for dessert. After all, it's hot outside.
-- Alison Cook
Americas, 1800 Post Oak Blvd. (The Pavilion), 961-1492.