ta-pas - noun | plural
small amounts of Spanish food that are served, especially with alcoholic drinks, in Spanish bars and restaurants — Cambridge Dictionary
Before tapas restaurants started popping up around the country, Jim took me to a little restaurant in Chicago called Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. This was in the 1980’s and I had never been to a tapas restaurant before. In fact, I didn’t know what a tapas restaurant was. I loved everything about it. I loved the food. I loved the wine. I loved the atmosphere. But most of all, I loved the concept: ‘Little plates to share’. Order a couple that sound good… then a bit later a couple more, and then later on, some more. Not only do you get to try a variety of interesting dishes, but you get to spread it out over what can be a couple of hours or more. I walked away thinking “now that’s the way to eat out!”
And now we have a tapas restaurant right here in Lavaca! In May of this year, Chef Rene (of Azuca fame) opened Lavaca’s first tapas bar and restaurant, Hola!
Located at 603 S Alamo, it’s right at the entrance to the neighborhood.
The menu is varied with something for everyone. If seafood’s your thing, there’s charred octopus, shrimp, bay scallops, calamari, oysters, ceviche, and more. There are plenty of dips, cheeses and veggies on the menu, and an assortment of meat dishes including lamb, beef, chorizo, pork, and chicken. And of course, some sweets to end the feast. All with Chef Rene’s touch that make his offerings unique and delicious. My personal favorites are the Patatas a la Plancha, the Moorish Lamb, the Bay Scallops Gratin, and the Chocolate Truffles.
To accompany the food, there’s an extensive drink menu featuring beers and wines from around the world, with several local options.
Born and raised in Mexico, Chef Rene honed his skills in top restaurants across the Americas, including restaurants in Houston, Brazil, Aruba, Cancun, Acapulco, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico. He spent 17 years working for Hyatt Hotels, most of his time there as Executive Chef. He moved to San Antonio wiith Hyatt, to run its restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa and he and his wife bought a home in that area.
Since opening Azuca in 2002, however, Chef Rene has become enamored with Lavaca. This is where he wants to be. He further cemented his attachment to the neighborhood by opening Hola!, separated from Azuca by a parking lot. And he recently purchased a home in Lavaca and is working now on renovating it, with plans to move in soon.
I asked him how renovations on the house were going. He told me “They are going well, except my wife and I are disagreeing on the layout of the kitchen.” I pointed out to him that I was with his wife all the way on this one… “come on, Chef Rene... once you move in, you'll have two beautiful kitchens right down the street that you'll get to play in every day.” He laughed and conceded that perhaps I was right.
Chef Rene tells us that he’s had his eye on the location for years… ever since he opened Azuca in 2002. “It’s the first place visitors to the neighborhood see when they come from downtown. It’s got a spectacular view of Hemisfair and the Tower. And, it’s located in a great neighborhood.” He knew it was the perfect spot for a restaurant, and after 20 years, his wait paid off. He was delighted when the previous occupants — DreamWeaver Florist — approached him with the news that the building would be available. He jumped on the opportunity, but that meant the hard work was just beginning.
The first order of business was a zoning change. A key piece of Chef Rene’s vision was a large patio area with a view of Hemisfair and The Tower of the Americas. That property, however, was not zoned for that, so he worked with the city to make that happen. Then there were extensive renovations required to turn the structure into a restaurant with a kitchen, rest rooms, and dining areas. And those renovations also involved incorporating Chef Rene’s artistic preferences into the facility’s design… touches like the tile-fronted bar, the artistic stained concrete floors, the copper pounded bar top, and the patio floor with the huge stained octopus image. Chef Rene’s imprint is evident every where you look, and he did much of the work himself.
The result? An artistic, comfortable establishment with three unique dining areas. I’ve made it a point to experience all three.
First, there’s the large patio. Hola! opened shortly before the onslaught of 100+ degree days, and I was fortunate to have eaten on the patio before that oppressive heat descended upon us. It was a hot day, but the patio is on the north side of the restaurant, so the evening shade came early, and it also caught a nice breeze. I look forward to the end of this heat wave and eating outdoors there again soon.
The building itself has two dining areas — the bar / open kitchen, and a dining room. The bar is unique and interesting. When you sit at the bar, you’re not looking at a bartender and shelves of libations. You’re looking into the functioning kitchen and watching the chefs do their magic.
The dining room houses a collection of mis-matched furniture, adding to its charm. And everywhere you look, there’s art. Currently, most of the pieces on display are by local artist Gilbert Duran.
Jane Gennarelli is co-editor of LNF Weekly. She also edits the Lavaca & Friends weekly arts and entertainment newsletter.
Three dining areas at Hola!
Food and drinks at Hola!