Restaurant Reviews

Fill 'er up

Many things have been crafted from old gas stations: coffee bars, topiary shops, car bra boutiques, bootleg 8-track dealers, galleries with fuzzy black light paintings. But a tapas bar has to be among the most original. Yet this is exactly what Ildefonso Jimenez--a key player in the founding of Café Madrid and the driving force behind Ketama in Deep Ellum--has done with ¡Hola! Parked in a circa-1903 building purported to be the first gas station in Dallas, ¡ Hola! is a tiny, rustic 30-seat tapas bar with a drive-through port. You almost expect the waiters to offer to scrape the bugs off your windshield after delivering the stuffed peppers.

The atmosphere is energetic in its quirky urbanity. It comes off like a chic oil-change depot with small dark wood tables and benches, cement floors, and a brisk atmosphere. The walls are drenched in browns and golds. Servers wear black and red T-shirts, and they shovel the food out from ¡ Hola!'s brief menu faster than gas can be pumped, creating a congestion of plates on the tiny tables.

Yet even with its tight focus, the food often is blurred. Salpicon de mariscos ($5.75), chilled seafood salad with sherry vinaigrette, was a mishmash of tired onion chunks, bell pepper strips, and colorless, tasteless tomato scraps suffering from exhaustion. Sections of shrimp were hard and dry, while pieces of hard octopus dueled with pieces of flavorless fish.

Despite its robust appearance--full, supple, rich in appetizing green-yellow hues--the classic Spanish omelet with scallion sauce and clams ($4.75) was equally lifeless. The clams were soggy and a little fishy, while the omelet sown with potato shavings was rather like chewing on an old sponge. Crujientes de morcilla y manzana ($5.25), crisp but greasy fried egg roll-like creations filled with blood sausage, were tasty, though the core was almost liquid, kind of like sucking a blood sausage shake through a straw made of pastry. Curled strips of fried pastry dough furled over the top of the plate gave the whole thing a bit of flair.

The big surprise was the codfish and corn croquettes, ($4.75)--smooth, crisp and freshly plump hushpuppy-like balls filled with a rich, creamy fish and corn core.

A plate carpeted with a bright rose of rippled strips of serrano (Spanish ham) was supple, fresh, and tasty. But at $8.50, this plate of Spanish ham worked out to more than a buck a strip.

But the real treat at ¡ Hola! was one of the specials: a tuna and red pepper salad ($6.25). Strips of silvery anchovy were arranged vertically and folded over the top of this salad, which looked like a puffy crown. It held a core of tuna, garlic, and chopped roasted pepper. This curious little production surged with fresh flavors and supple, delicate textures.

Once ¡ Hola! gets the nod from Texas regulators, it will offer a special selection of Spanish wines and sherries, which will make it even more fun to loiter--even if you leave with the same array of splattered bugs on your windshield.