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Spaghetti Western Hits the Spot

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I'm not always up for the finest dining Houston has to offer, nor do I always want simply to cram my face with high-fat, high-sodium gut bombs. Most of the time, in fact, I just want a good, solid meal. Nothing fancy; just totally dependable, satisfying food in a comfortable setting. That's where places like Spaghetti Western come in.

Sure, this is not classic Italian food, made with impeccable ingredients and precise technique. Then again, it's not intended to be. Just look at the name. This is Americanized Italian food, with the occasional Texas twist, done well. Pasta with red sauce, lasagna, meatballs, and (insert meat here) parmigiana is the order of the day at Spaghetti Western, and each is done well.

My old standby is the Spaghetti with Meatballs, smothered in Spaghetti Western's meat sauce. For starters, the portions are epic. It's not at all rare for me to take half home for lunch the next day. I wouldn't go so far as to say I choose restaurants by their doggy-bag-ability, but it is sometimes nice to know you'll be able to make two meals out of a visit. Of course, if the food isn't any good, it doesn't matter how much they give you.

Fortunately, the folks at Spaghetti Western know their way around a meatball. Theirs are soft and fluffy, an indication that they contain some portion of filler, likely breadcrumbs. Contrary to some opinions, more meat does not a better meatball make. Traditionally, meatballs (and loaves) were a way to stretch meat; fillers were common.

A meatball with no fillers is likely to be one-dimensional in flavor, and dense and heavy in texture. These were neither. In addition to the nice, savory but mild flavor of the meat itself, there were notes of herbs and cheese in the meatballs, along with a slight kick, perhaps from crushed red pepper, adding complexity and depth. Also a nice touch, the meatballs were browned well on all sides.

The balls were not finished in the sauce after browning, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. On the one hand, cooking them in the sauce allows both to flavor each-other, lending additional complexity to both. On the other hand, it also changes the texture. When finished in the sauce, the meatballs lose that lovely exterior crustiness achieved via the browning process. For my money, I'd rather have the textural contrast, overall.

The sauce itself is pretty basic, and was actually a bit disappointing this visit. It tasted a little thin, and the consistency bore the same blemish. It seemed as if this batch had not been allowed to simmer and reduce for as long, resulting in less concentrated flavor, and a somewhat looser consistency than usual. It is usually simple, but satisfying, bearing the mark of meat, tomatoes, and herbs that have cooked slowly into one-another over the course of a few hours.

I also noticed that the size of the meatballs, themselves, seemed to have dwindled. While I remember meatballs the size of small oranges, these measured in at right around golf-ball size. That's not really a complaint, as the portion size was still considerable.

Coupled with the extremely generic, yet somehow addictive, garlic bread that was brought, fresh-baked, to each table, this was a simple and satisfying meal -- exactly what I needed, and exactly what I expect from places like Spaghetti Western.

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