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Course Set for Success

Busboy to businessman, stowaway to sommelier, Thomas Perez is rising like a Phoenix.

Good things come out of hard times. No one knows that better than Thomas Perez, co-founder and Culinary Director of Plane and Level in Old Town Spring. Having escaped the brutality of the civil war in his native country of El Salvador and traveling alone at age 13 to fight for a new life in Monterrey, California, he has experienced many hard times. When the CoVid-19 pandemic shut down restaurants – the very heart of his profession – the now highly respected sommelier and degreed Oenologist was unfazed. He simply went back to his roots and back to the kitchen. 

 As the pandemic increased uncertainty, he told his two young sons they’d eat out of their garden. When the barbecue broke, he dug a hole in the ground and continued to cook. With more than 30 herbs outside his window, he decided to make a chimichurri. It mattered not that he’d never made it before because he’d tasted it in Argentina and knew he could recreate it from memory. And it was perfect! Or nearly so. What it needed was the perfect empanada!

Just to have something to do during the lockdown, Perez offered six of his homemade empanadas and a bottle of wine delivered for $20 on his neighborhood Facebook page. It quickly went viral throughout Houston, and, in no time, he was starting his prep work before 4am to make 400 empanadas a day!

His business partner, Brian Culwell, was shocked. “He knew me as a winemaker. We had plans to make wine. He didn’t know I could cook,” Perez recalls. “He came to my house and tried them. He said, ‘What? These are delicious! Let’s open a restaurant!’ Two days later, we found this place in Old Town Spring. It took me two minutes to say yes!”

Plane and Level took flight with four tables inside and special seating at “the wing,” an airplane wing that stands in for the bar. A menu of Spanish tapas capturing the flavors of the Basque region and thoughtfully paired with unique wines that can be found nowhere else create an experience that makes the sometimes-weeklong wait to get in well worth it. 

“I want wines that fit our food, so I work with tiny wineries,” said Perez, who will buy the entire production. “I find an importer to bring it straight here. The bottles may have variations, each one an identity. There’s so much that goes into it.”

His goal is always service. Having worked and eaten in the world’s finest restaurants, his expectations and standards are high. “We love good service. If we can’t serve you correctly, we’ll ask you to come back another time. There can be no bad experience,” he said adamantly. 

Having already added an intimate event space next door and begun construction on an upstairs private dining room, Perez is considering opportunities to land in The Woodlands and Houston and beyond. For now, he is most often found on the deck giving his popular monthly paella cooking classes, visiting with diners who have become his friends, or behind the wing sharing his endless knowledge of what he loves: wines and food. 

“The wing is fun. It’s cozy. It has an energy that grabs you. You’ll feel it,” says Plane and Level’s co-founder and Culinary Director Thomas Perez of his restaurant’s unique focal point. 

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