Food for Thought
Texan-sized appetites will always crave big meals — someone must be ordering that 26-ounce Porterhouse at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. But the latest trend sweeping Houston eateries is a whole lot smaller.
"Downsizing" is popping up everywhere in small plate menus, tapas and cicchetti. They’re perfect for those who love to make a meal out of appetizers.
“You eat less and it’s cheaper, too,” says Alberto Alfonzo, owner of Tintos Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar, summing up the appeal of his tapas offerings.
That double whammy of being known as "fat city" and the recession finally hitting Houston has created a "perfect storm" for the small plate trend. And, frankly, Alfonzo was delighted by the one-two punch when he opened his tapas joint and wine shop this summer, where he says he’s already meeting projections.
Whether noshing on Spanish tapas or Italian cicchetti, eating small usually means you pay under $10 for a plate. If dining with friends, you can sample several items, keep your waistline in check and walk out without emptying your wallet— all temptations designed to get eaters back into recession-crunched restaurants.
Several other longtime restaurateurs have joined this small plate party. Marco Wiles expanded from his fine-fine dining Da Marco to a wine and pizza place called Dolce Vita and this year added Poscol, a vinoteca featuring small plates of cured meats, Panini, cheeses, risotto and wonderful fried spaghetti.
And over at Giacomo's Ciba e Vine , chef Lynette Hawkins has taken her mastery of Italian cuisine and shrunk it from the large portions she used to whip up at La Mora into tiny tasty offerings, from pocket-sized pasta to four-bite lamb meatballs.
Even the Four Seasons Hotel Houston’s Quattro restaurant is now embracing downsizing.
“We’re so tired of hotel dining that’s so formal, with white table cloths and tuxedoed waiters and high prices,” sighs the hotel’s Amy Popp. “Now we’re all about the small plates.”
Chef Meredith Manee launched Quattro’s enoteca dinner menu in October featuring Italian nibbles and noshes for $9 and under that seems to be drawing a much more relaxed crowd that appreciates the ease of table sharing and the reduced prices. The menu changes weekly and the restaurant also offers 50 wines in three- and six-ounce pours.
Speaking of wine, the recent uptick of Italian small plates may have begun with Houston’s love affair with wine bars. Seems like you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a new vino bar and all of them are offering small plates.
More recently we got the slider craze, little bitty burgers with a big fan base. Whether as appetizers on steakhouse menus, bowling alley food at Lucky Strike Lanes or even in their very own restaurant Little Bigs, sliders are everywhere.
Despite Texans’ legendary appetites, smaller plates actually date back decades, if you count Luby’s Lu Ann Platter — a half portion entrée and two sides — which debuted in the 70’s and even spawned a King of the Hill character.
But hearty eaters needn’t worry, the other side of Houston dining still loves chicken fried steaks the size of the plate, Kenny & Ziggy’s deli sandwiches piled a mile high with pastrami and Pappas Bros. Seafood House’s "all you can eat lobster" Wednesdays.
So maybe we won’t be losing that "fat city" moniker anytime soon.