This Week's Cafe Review: Great Things in Small(ish) Packages at Batanga
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear: These are not Spanish tapas.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg These giant (not just by tapas standards) eggplant fries are a little slice of not-quite-Spanish heaven.
These are Houston tapas, baby, and here in Texas we go big or go home. Big ideas, big flavors, big plates -- which does kind of go against the notion of tapas, but for this crowd, it works.
You won't find much on the tapas menu at Batanga, the subject of this week's cafe review, that you'd also find in a classic bar or restaurant in Barcelona, aside from items like pan catalan and marinated olives. What you will find are too-big-to-be-legit-tapas with inventive, Latin-inspired flavor profiles that mostly work but sometimes seem overworked.
Tapas, in their original incarnation, could be as simple as a slice of bread or meat. There are a number of theories as to when, where and how tapas came to be, but one of the most prevalent tales is that the concept was initially developed way back in the 13th century, and it involved Spain's King Alfonso the 10th.
According to legend, the king became ill, and while he was sick he was able to consume small amounts of alcohol only with the help of a bit of food. Once he recovered, he decreed that all drinks were to be served with food to prevent illness. Other stories claim that tapas (remember, initially they were just slices of bread or meat) were used to cover the tops of drink glasses to keep out flies and other vermin.
Whatever the case, tapas have evolved to be much more elaborate productions, and at few places is this more the case than at Batanga. A serving of ceviche would not make a very good drink cover, but folks drinking at Batanga aren't just consuming wine anymore, either. The menu is filled with interesting combinations of food and drink, such as calamari with pico de gallo or Crown Royal Maple with pineapple. Most of the combinations prove to be interesting and exciting. Some of them are a bit too much.
All of them are, of course, too much to be considered traditional Spanish tapas, but I don't think that was ever Batanga's goal. In fitting with the local culture, the plates are bigger, the flavor combinations are crazier and the cocktails are much, much stronger. Yes, the tapas offerings still pack a lot of flavor into a relatively small package, but even from the gorgeous outdoor patio, with the sounds of Spanish guitar floating through the night air, there's just no pretending that you're in Spain. And that's okay. I hear they have crazy kings there, anyway.