Tip Tapas!

Rhythm House's SpanishTreats Satisfy

Rhythm House

624 W. 34th St., 458-4411
Mon, 11am-2pm; Tue-Fri, 11am-2pm, 4pm-midnight;
Sat, 4pm-1am; Sun, 11am-2pm, 4pm-midnight.

Rhythm House

photograph by John Anderson

Tapas make for my kind of meal - one in which diners are expected to share and discuss an endless parade of plates whose contents promise a dizzying variety of tastes and textures. In their Spanish homeland, these miniature preparations of meat, seafood, or vegetables - each a meal in its own right, are the reason behind the tapeo, a traditional afternoon bar-hop of sorts that focuses more on food than libation. Tapeo participants travel from one tavern to the next ordering such diminutive delights as creamy croquetas or hearty albondigas, comparing them to dishes swallowed only moments before. Unlike its excessively large American cousin the appetizer, the tapa is modest enough in portion size to make it the perfect plat de degustation, or tasting serving. In other words, tapas whet the appetite rather than sate it, although if you order a selection of the little treats, you're sure to eat your fill. The word "tapa" translates literally as "lid" in Spanish, although food historians believe its current usage stems from the former practice of tavern owners covering communal jugs of wine with food scraps. After customers downed the jugs' contents, they eagerly devoured the lid before moving on to the next stop for more. Traditionally, the tapeo was the domain of men who, following Sunday's midday Mass, retired to a favorite local inn for a few drinks, some leisurely conversation, and a little something to tide them over until their womenfolk called them to lunch. Today, however, tapas are appreciated by men and women alike, and the tapeo is as likely to occur at midday as it is at "happy hour" or even in the wee hours of the night.

Louie's 106 first familiarized Austinites with tapas, but a relatively new arrival, the Rhythm House, has made these tiny Spanish dishes its specialty. The restaurant, which fills the former Sr. O'Brien's space on West 34th Street, is owned and operated by three women, two of whom spent several months scouring Spain for the country's best tapas recipes and training in more than a dozen kitchens. Visitors to the Rhythm House will likely note that several of the tapas selections are described rather succinctly as "Conchita's family recipe." Conchita, a native of Seville in Spain's southern Andalusian region where tapas originated, oversees the kitchen staff and secures authentic seasonings for the restaurant courtesy of a sister still living in Spain. But the Rhythm House's menu is not restricted to the southernmost reaches of the Iberian peninsula. The menu showcases the sausage- and meat-based recipes from the landlocked heart of the country, vegetable preparations from Levante, the seafood specialties most prominent in the north, and several humble offerings - among them the tortilla Espanola - that have become classics in all parts of the country. All three major tapas categories - cosas de picar (finger foods), pinchos (items that are easier to eat with a toothpick or similar utensil), and cazuelas (miniature entrees that dictate silverware) - are represented on the Rhythm House menu, and all tapas come to the table complemented by warm, pliant white rolls paired with shallow plates of garlicky olive oil.

There are only a couple of tapas on the restaurant's menu that I've neglected to try, and counted among the standouts are the unctuous Gambas a la Plancha ($7.95), sizable shrimp the shells of which are cloaked in a tantalizing salt and spice combination, and the Champinones al Ajillo ($4.95), bite-sized button mushrooms that have generously absorbed their garlicky pan juices. The Tortilla Espinaca, a deep green, somewhat flaky spinach pie laced with garlic and served with a lighter, more lemony take on a traditional Hollandaise sauce, also ranks among my favorites, as do the Albondigas, golf-ball sized spheres of beef plopped atop a Sherry-spiked red bell pepper, onion, and tomato sauté that takes the dish beyond your average meatballs. Although I'm not a big fan of egg dishes, the classic Tortilla Espanola, Spain's omnipresent quiche studded with potato and onion, tasted as authentic as any I downed on-the-run during a visit there long ago; the only thing missing was the grease-spotted waxed paper that typically held it back then.

On several occasions, the Rhythm House kitchen treated me to a number of pleasant surprises. Chicken wings don't exactly thrill me, but Conchita's family recipe ($3.95) makes for moist morsels of poultry lightly infused with just a hint of fire and garlic. The folks in Buffalo may not be converted, but matched with the aforementioned Hollandaise sauce adaptation, the wings were a hit.

If I have a complaint to make about the Rhythm House, it's that the sauces served with the tapas tend to get a little repetitive, especially if you're ordering a wide selection. The Hollandaise-type sauce and a zesty, cold tomato cream appeared at my table more than once, but a new spring menu due out this week promising15 new tapas should offer an infusion of originality.

Back to the pleasant surprises: Potatoes made it to Spain at the time of the country's New World explorations, and Spaniards have been fans of the tubers ever since. The Patatas ($2.95) turns out to be one of the best deals on Rhythm House's menu. An individual casserole dish exits the kitchen piled high with plump potato cubes, their skins still visible, fried until pale amber and dusted with seasoned salt. Inside, the cubes are so downy white and soft that there's no way to stop at just one. Along the same lines, the Croquetas del Dia ($3.95) arrive fried until barely golden, their mousse-like insides of whipped egg, cheese, and ham straightforward, but no less tasty.

If you're headed to the Rhythm House for some live music and a glass or two of the restaurant's Spanish and Latin American wines or a pitcher of the house Sangria, you may prefer dressed-down tapas such as the Aceitunas ($2.95), Bocadillos ($3.95), Calamare ala Romana ($4.95), or the Plato de Quesos Espanoles ($4.50). Aceitunas are, quite simply, marinated olives. I spied Spain's mammoth Manzanillas nestled next to French Picholines and Greek Kalamatas. The Bocadillos plate is kind of like a mini sandwich spread. There are bits of salty, earthy ham, squares of cheese, toast points, and the Hollandaise sauce, all yours for the constructing. Similarly, the cheese plate (Quesos Espanoles) features a Spanish blue, a ripe Manchego, and two milder, slightly crumbly white cheeses with a token selection of olives.

Finally, the tapa that tops the menu list at Rhythm House is Paella ($13.95), the saffron-scented rice dish touted as Spain's culinary treasure. In Spain, paella is duplicated unceasingly to the pleasure of tourists and frustration of resident gourmets, the latter of whom claim that these days it is virtually impossible to find the real thing. In the dish's home region of Valencia, much to-do is made about the water used to prepare paella and purists claim the preparation ought only to be cooked over a wood fire and served out of a communal pan at midday. Further, they caution against "imposter paellas" given their telltale yellow color by the addition of yellow dye #2, as opposed to precious (and expensive) saffron.

Obviously, for purists, a number of elements needed for an authentic paella are missing at the Rhythm House, but the dish Conchita and her colleagues have created was enough to please this untrained paella critic. The Rhythm House does employ a particular Spanish rice in its preparation, as I was told "regular rice would make the dish sticky." As for the water, it comes from the tap, but the secret seasonings and prized saffron are straight out of Spain. The Rhythm House's paella combines poached chicken breast, peeled shrimp, ovals of squid, and a thick-skinned chorizo with rice, green peas, fresh tomato, and green pepper. Two large green-lipped mussels rose triumphantly from the epic creation, which left me certainly well-fed and satisfied, if not entirely overwhelmed.

The convivial tapas bar isn't named the Rhythm House for nothing. In the way of atmosphere, diners should expect to nosh to the tunes of the restaurant's nightly live music gig. There is a covered patio lined with picnic tables and a few tables under the stars. Inside, the converted home has faux-finished walls and small tables with a working fireplace. The crowd tends mostly toward the thirtysomething set, with the "alternative lifestyle" crowd well represented, although small families, students, and the silver-of-hair were also spotted during my meals there.

I would give the same advice to someone headed to the Rhythm House as I would a friend leaving for Spain: Sample as much as you can in the way of Spain's national cuisine. Expect at times to be wowed and at other times to be simply satisfied, but leave the place expecting to return, for you're sure to be tempted by more than you can possibly get around to in a single visit.

New York Deli

712 Round Rock Ave., 246-1108
Mon-Thu, 7am-9pm; Fri, 7am-midnight; Sat, 8am-midnight; Sun, 11am-5pm

It was heavenly, the potato latke that weighed down my plate. I cradled its girth between my hands like a hamburger, occasionally dipping its crispy armor in sour cream and applesauce. No need for a fork; this dense latke was one to grip. I thought I'd come home.

Surrounding the eight or so tables in this tiny deli were assorted New York paraphernalia to confirm this fact: a blown-up city skyline covering one entire wall and postcards, subway maps, and Broadway listings decorating table tops. A real-size traffic light cast an easy green glow on the checkered cloth that warmed the room. The comfort and coziness of this space offset passing highway traffic, making me forget I was next door to a gas station along a Round Rock highway.

One Sunday afternoon, I watched a feisty kitchen crew serve up "the usual" to customers wanting Breakfast Tacos ($.99) and Veggie Subs ($3.95). However, it was obvious where their passions lay, as their faces brightened with occasional orders of kippered salmon, kosher hot dogs, pepperoni sticks, homemade sausage, and cheesecake.

So when I ordered the Joan Rivers ($5.95) - a sandwich of salty tongue and pastrami meat, with a thin slice of Swiss, some coleslaw and Russian dressing, between slices of perfectly grilled rye - I got their attention and plenty of feedback. With their guidance and an extensive menu, I tasted some smooth and lovingly simple chopped liver along with a creamy, half-sandwich-size potato knish. The staff caught a knowing glint in my eye. I was smitten by The Real Deal.

I fell prey to more temptations: foamy vanilla egg cream soda ($1.75) that blanketed my tongue like a silk sheet and nuggets of chocolate walnut fudge - rich, dense, and sticky - that thwarted my attempts at graceful eating.

I complimented my hosts the best I could. I came back to eat, though after all I'd eaten, I couldn't imagine eating ever again.

Still, I had to try the matzoh ball soup ($2.95) - so much for unfettered love. The matzoh balls were a perfect density, soft but substantial. Yet they floated in a broth that made even my salt-addicted tongue recoil. Frankly, it tasted canned. A whitefish salad, dressed up like tuna with red onion and celery, disappointed as deli fare. And the Woody Allen ($3.95), a sandwich of liverwurst, mustard, and red onion, was too skimpy to judge. I ordered another latke as consolation and some choice sandwiches from the menu's Italian half.

I recommend the plump, no-frills Meatball Sandwich ($4.45); it only wants for a bit more spice. The sausage on the Sausage and Pepper Sub ($5.25) wore tough casing, which made it hopeless to eat. The Godfather ($6.95), a bold sandwich of prosciutto, sopressata, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and olives, an enticing concept, sadly confuses the palate with each meat's strong perfume.

I would have kept eating, but the way the New York Deli overfilled already generous portions of food, switching out a small orange juice for a large and packing up two cream sodas "`cause of the extra fizz" for one, I would have had to surrender my day. Besides, the hand-roll rugulahs, kosher hot dogs, tuna melts, and root beer floats gave me only more reasons to return. -Ronna N. Welsh

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