Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar offers small bites and great wines.
By Marene Gustin
Step inside Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar, tucked into the backside of River Oaks Shopping Center in the old Backdoor Sushi locale, and you’ll find a soothing dark-wood décor with modernist bullhead art and minimalist lighting sconces. It’s at once chic and comforting.
But wait. There’s also blood-stirring strains of recorded flamenco music—if not live gypsy guitarists, singers, and dancers—and spicy dishes to tantalize the taste buds. Tintos (Spanish for a wine) is an elegant blend of tradition and contemporary, both in flavors and atmosphere. And its customers reflect that spirit: from the Hindu regulars who come for the vegetarian tapas to the young girls-night-out crowd that comes for the Wednesday night ladies half-price bubbly.
Tintos, which opened in June, joins the roughly 10,000 other eateries in Houston. But Tintos is already making a mark, wowing River Oaks neighbors and those searching for good wines and fun food. Tapas, Spanish appetizers or small plates traditionally served with wine and port in Spanish cafes and bars, are a dining option whose timing may be perfect for the current climate.
“Tapas are a good option,” says owner Alberto Alfonzo. “You eat less and it’s cheaper, too,” although you can certainly fill up if you’re trying to eat your way through the 52 different tapas Tintos offers on a daily basis. But for most folks one or two are the way to go, and the dishes are better if you’re sharing several with a table of friends. The seafood paellas are the priciest, though still under $20, but most are around half that price. And lunch is a great time to sample the menu here, when 15 items are offered for $9 or less.
The 42-year-old Alfonzo, who spent the last 18 years as a corporate “restaurant fixer” for Landry’s Restaurant, Inc., and The Tasting Room, also serves up a super Sunday brunch with bottomless pitchers of sangria, paella, Spanish omelets, and even blueberry pancakes. “You know, they eat pancakes in Spain. Spaniards eat corn flakes, too,” laughs Alfonzo, although most of the dishes he’s created skew toward the traditional tapas, but with a hint of his South American upbringing.
“I grew up in Venezuela,” he says. “It’s like a little Madrid—every Sunday you go and eat paella and listen to the music.” Which is exactly what he’s recreated at Tintos, where Sunday brunch includes live flamenco with that side of paella (or pancakes). But there are some other not-to-be-missed menu items here.
The empanadas de bacalao are truly tasty, two little pastries filled with salt cod and pimento aioli. The rabbit tenderloin with roasted peppers, conejo al cazador, is a rare treat, but there’s also quail and baby lamb skewers. There are plenty more seafood dishes, vegetarian tapas, meats and cheese plates, as well as soups like the hearty seafood stew, salads, and some wonderful sandwiches served with a side salad and truffle fries. The Pepito of sliced sirloin with aged Mahón cheese is very popular. You can even get desserts from flan to chocolate shooters. And, of course, beer and wine.
“The wine list is about 40 percent Spanish,” Alfonzo says, “with a lot of cavas. I like the bubbly. But we also have some good Napa wines.” Tintos is also a retail wine outlet, which means if you don’t finish your bottle, you can cork it and take it home. And if you really like it, you can buy a bottle or a case to go. One whole wall of the dining room is a wine rack, made by Alfonzo, who did a lot of the remodeling work himself. He designed the outdoor patio, which is one of the most lovely in town, with its lush foliage and three rock ponds with gurgling fountains. Alfonzo plans to offer outdoor cooking classes there soon.
He also plans on expanding the Tintos concept to five other cities and creating a new restaurant before he retires. Sort of.
Ultimately he, wife Ideania, and their 13-pound Yorkie, Bruno, want to end up in Costa Rica. “But I’ll still cook,” he says. “I want a little place where you bring your fish in and I’ll cook it for you!”
In the meantime, Alfonzo spends most of his waking hours at Tintos. Going from restaurant employee to restaurant owner has been a big change.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear, but I’m doing what I love. I can’t wait to wake up every day and come here and create a new dish!”
Visit Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar at 2015 W. Gray St., 713/522-1330, http://www.tintosrestaurant.com/. Tintos is open for lunch and dinner daily and Sunday brunch. A private dining room is available for parties.