The debate about which Houston restaurant serves the most authentic Spanish tapas rages on. Among Houston food lovers, the general consensus is that Rioja is at the top of the list for authentic tapas and great paella. But to a large population of Houston diners, Rioja has one major flaw -- it's located outside the loop.
Inner-loopers have made do with the perfectly serviceable tapas at El Meson, Mi Luna and Oporto Cafe. But starting this week, a new inner loop contender joins the fray -- Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar.
Tintos is the creation of Texas-born Chef Alberto Alfonzo. The son of a Spanish immigrant father and Texan mother, Alfonzo spent much of his childhood in Venezuela with members of the Spanish immigrant population there, eating and cooking with family and friends. After returning to Texas to attend high school, he would eventually graduate from Texas A&M. A foodservice career followed, leading to a position as Executive Corporate Chef for Joe's Crab Shack and then to the position of Director of Operations at Houston's Tasting Room Wine Bars/Max's Wine Dive.
In November 2008, Alfonzo decided to open his own restaurant. He spent a year in Spain researching the traditional Spanish recipes he inherited from his family, as well as the newest trends that make Spain a world culinary leader. Alfonzo made the decision to include ingredients and menu items found not only in Spain, but also in other Spanish-influenced cultures in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Recently, Tintos sponsored a complimentary media tasting event to show off the restaurant's elegant dining room, extensive wine list and, most importantly, menu. Wine pairings were chosen by Tintos' wine director, Lisa Hudson.
No tapas menu would be complete without empanadas. This fried empanada contained a salt cod filling and came with a citrusy/sweet pineapple and mango mojo sauce for dipping. This course was paired with a 2007 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay.
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Aside from tapas, any Spanish restaurant worth its salt better make an authentic paella. Tintos did not disappoint. This valenciana version included generous portions of seafood, chicken and superb chorizo. The saffron-colored rice was moist and well-seasoned, with a prized layer of crunchy rice bits along the bottom of the paella pan. This course was paired with a 2004 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja.
Another dish upon which any Spanish restaurant is judged is its flan dessert course. Tintos' flan is billed as "silken," although this version had a slightly chunkier and eggier texture. The flavors of the flan itself and the expertly created caramel sauce were excellent. This course was paired with a Boston Bual Madeira.
Additional courses included ensalada de casa (organic grown arugula salad with figs, roasted almonds, Cabrales bleu cheese and honey balsamic vinaigrette), vieiras al albariño (seared sea scallops with a creamy white wine and romesco sauce), patatas bravas (potatoes tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with goat cheese brulé), champiñones al ajillo (crimini and button mushrooms in a spicy garlic and wine sauce), pinchos de filete (beef tenderloin skewers over saffron rice) and churros con chocolate.
Of course, this was a media tasting dinner and so an inordinate amount of attention was lavished upon the dishes. This dishes were expertly prepared, the wine pairings were inspired, and the service above-average (especially for a restaurant that had not yet officially opened). If Chef Alfonzo can continue at this level, Tintos has a good chance of claiming the title of Inner Loop Tapas Champion.