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Chef Luis Roger

Image: Mai Pham

I've been a fan of BCN Taste & Tradition since before it opened in the fall of 2014. In fact, even before I tasted a single bite of the restaurant's food, there were so many things that I liked about it—on paper anyway—that I had to temper my enthusiasm before I tried it. Would it be everything that it promised to be?

At the time, I knew this: There hadn’t been a Spanish restaurant worth its mettle since I’d moved to Houston in 1997—not one that could make the Spanish food that I fell in love with on my many trips to the Old Country, anyway.

But then here was this Barcelona native, Luis Roger, a chef who’d worked all over the world and earned his chops in Spain, who’d been executive chef at one of the most enduring traditional restaurants I’d dined at in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter—Cafe De L’Academia—and who’d spent the last decade of his life working in Costa Brava. A chef who had left his dream job and moved his entire family lock, stock and barrel to Houston to pursue the dream of owning his own restaurant. Oh, the potential.

When you step through the doors of BCN, you’re traveling to Spain by way of Houston. From the contemporary, clean lines and colors of the space to the priceless works by Picasso and Miró that adorn the walls to the custom Spanish flatware and stemware used to serve the food—even down to the fact that they hired Paco Calza, a native of Galicia, Spain as general manager—the experience is about as Spanish as it gets.

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Suspiro limeno, a new cocktail on the menu.

Image: Mai Pham

It’s there in the perfectly crafted gin-and-tonics, served in large, round balloon glasses just like in Barcelona and accompanied by a small bowl of olives if you’re sitting at the bar. It’s there when you order a plate of jamon iberico de bellota, the highest grade of Spanish ham, made from acorn-fed pigs, and it comes to you with a side of pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato) so delectable that it makes you fall in love with bread in a way you didn’t think possible. Certainly, it’s there when you try the boquerones en vinagre, impeccably prepared, fresh pickled anchovies unrivaled by any other establishment in Houston.

From the beginning, the kitchen has always executed at a very high level. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever had a bad meal there. Yet it wasn’t until my most recent visit, when I was invited to sample some new spring menu items, that the restaurant lived up to everything that I’d ever hoped it would be.

I arrived for an 8 p.m. reservation on a chilly Wednesday evening to find the restaurant packed as if it were a Friday night. The bar was full, the restaurant was bustling and I’d received a missed call from the general manager asking if I was still coming, because if not, there were people waiting who wanted my table.

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Patatas bravas

Image: Mai Pham

We were immediately seated in the small anterior dining room, our table adorned sparingly with a painted ceramic vase holding a single flower. As if by magic, a small bowl of olives and a plate of cheese appeared for us to nibble on before a suitably tasty amuse bouche of pan con tomate (tomato-rubbed bread) topped with spicy Iberico sausage arrived—definitely an auspicious start.

Then, the patatas bravas happened. Its simple starter of spicy potatoes that I’ve had more times than I can count is all around Spain, but this version hit me like “Whoa.” The small bite of potato was smooth. It kind of gushed, and it was packed with a nuanced flavor that I’d only previously experienced in Catalunya. I think it topped the best versions I’d tasted in the old country.

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Pasta-less ravioli

Image: Mai Pham

From there, the evening progressed like a carefully orchestrated symphony with a masterful conductor at its helm. Round discs of pasta-less ravioli were stuffed with mushroom duxelles, then drizzled with a shrimp reduction that amplified the sweet, briny essence of the crustacean in a way that was roll-your-eyes-to-the back-of-your-head sublime.

A salad of butter lettuce and grapefruit with Spanish cheeses looked quite ordinary until you tasted the ingredients altogether. Much in the way that a wine pairing can elevate a dish to greater heights, the pungent, Brie-like cheese turned the unassuming jumble of butter lettuce and pink citrus into something mind-bogglingly remarkable. Seriously, that salad was the bomb.

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The flavors in this salad are larger than they appear.

Image: Mai Pham

And the hits kept on coming. There was a French onion soup cooked with droplets of gooey, cheese-filled pasta inside the broth in lieu of croutons. Rolls of cannelone pasta that looked like Vietnamese egg rolls arrived sitting in a bath of rich, decadent Béchamel—divine.

Bacalao ajoarrier, chunks of firm salt cod adorned with crispy potato strings and served on a bed of roasted bell pepper sauce with cherry tomato, had a wonderfully sweet-and-sour thing going that alternated on the palate with each bite. Loved it.

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Bacalao ajoarrier

Image: Mai Pham

The chef’s piece de resistance came in the form of suckling pig, which had been confited for 12 hours in olive oil at 70 degrees, left to rest at room temperature, deboned and then griddled skin-down until crispy. The texture of the meat was so tender and moist it was almost silken, while the skin was paper-thin, delightfully crispy and utterly, utterly amazing.

I love Spain because it is a gastronomic paradise. In Barcelona alone, there are currently 22 restaurants with either one or two Michelin stars. Have I eaten at some of them? Yes. Was my meal at BCN Taste & Tradition on par with any those Michelin-starred meals I’ve experienced? Definitely, yes.

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Crisp-skinned suckling pig

Image: Mai Pham

When I expressed these sentiments to the chef, he couldn’t have been more humble. He said that when he first opened, he couldn’t have done the things he’s doing now because at the time, his kitchen team hadn’t yet found its groove.

Now that his staff is moving in rhythm, he says he’s able to create more, experiment a little, do things that are more technically difficult. And his customers are loving it. I’m told that weekend tables require a two-week advance booking, and if you’re planning on walking in without a reservation—even on a school night—you’ll need to come early or resign yourself to eating at the bar.

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