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Posts from the ‘Spanish’ Category

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Feeding Out of Towners

seamore's spread

Seamore’s The sustainable seafood restaurant may have won “Instagram Bait of the Year,” but I’ll concede this is a pretty shoddy pic. (There’s a reason no one is paying me $350 to promote their food.) The poke, so LA, and chosen by the visitor from that raw fish-crazed city, was easily the best thing eaten and it was all because of the peanuts in addition to the tuna, avocado, and ponzu. The bluefish in its pure state was fine, and kind of bizarre with miso brown butter that tasted like caramel corn (perhaps better for sweeter shrimp or scallops) The steamed vegetable and grainy sides of the same sort you get at The Meatball Shop (not that I ever eat there, but what I’ve heard from a friend who regularly gets vegetarian meatball takeout and was also was at this dinner, is how inconsistent and frequently half-cooked everything is) were less exciting even though it didn’t matter since the well-fried dogfish tacos took up all my free stomach space.

la perrada de chalo hot dogs

La Perrada de Chalo There are a lot of ways to go when wooing a West Coaster and trying to convince them Queens is a great place to stay even though they’d prefer Manhattan. Don’t attempt Mexican, just don’t, even though we know the Mexican-food-in-NYC-sucks trope is tired. Colombian hot dogs are more than capable of doing the trick, however. Make the crushed potato chips, bacon, pineapple, blackberry sauce, and creamy squiggles of mayonnaise and ketchup blending into one, seem like foreign delicacy. Plus, open 24 hours on weekends, which is a tough call between the nearby White Castle.

dominique ansel kitchen savories

Dominique Ansel Kitchen I chose the chicken chicken paprikash and cheddar chive biscuit when I should’ve just shared the massive croque monsieur. And I’m still stinging from not realizing the edamame avocado toast is actually a bread bowl when I’ve dedicated my life to embracing the edible vessel.

brooklyn diner kugel sundae

Brooklyn Diner I wouldn’t tell anyone to go to Brooklyn Diner (how it happened to me is still vague) but noodle kugel in a sundae was a surprise. And a welcome one along the same rich, custardy lines as leche flan hiding out in a pile of icy halo halo.

cata egg toasts

Cata Kind of underrated. Do we ever hear about this tapas bar I picked primarily because it’s a non-abusive Friday night choice on the Lower East Side? The big gin and tonics (smoked coconut, kaffir lime) are fun, the food doesn’t suck, though even after sharing maybe five things and two desserts (among three, then four for sweets) you still might end up getting tacos on the way home and find out your Oakland friend stopped for cereal milk soft serve in Carroll Gardens. The quail eggs benedict with chorizo were the sleeper hit.

jackson heights white castle

White Castle Yeah, so I was recently at one in Detroit but I’d never been to the location I’ve lived a ten-minute walk from for the past year. And no better time than 4:30am on a Saturday. Semi-related: I’m still waiting for the damn Northern Boulevard Denny’s I was promised.

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Three Continents, Three Boroughs

onomea kalua pig

Onomea Despite New York Times attention and practically being across the street from my apt, I have always been resistant to Onomea. Maybe it’s all the starch. Maybe it’s the small menu. There are really only five entrees and drinks-wise, three beers and two rums that you can mix with fruit juices like strawberry-guava. The mom-and-pop vibe works, though. Being NYC, the portions are reasonable and there’s a salad taking up one quadrant of the dish, a green anomaly you wouldn’t see sullying a plate lunch in Hawaii. The kalua pig, pulled roast pork shoulder that’s not wildly dissimilar to North Carolina bbq, feels like mixed-up picnic fare when taken with bites of rice and macaroni salad. The appetizers will have to wait–my dining companion doesn’t eat pork or raw fish, squelching any shared poke or spam musubi.

donostia quad

Donostia With Huertas just a few avenues over, the East Village is turning into a pintxos destination. I’ve yet to see anyone capture the San Sebastian spirit fully, but at least we’re getting closer. Txakoli is on tap and montaditos are the showpiece, displayed on the counter yet prepared to order. Grilled halloumi and mackerel breaks the cheese with fish rule deliciously while thick aioli topped with curling octopus legs, and razor clams anchored by a white bean puree both present seafood on bread in a more traditional manner. Of course, you can also just have Spanish charcuterie and cheese.

uma plov

Uma’s I’ve never been down with the whole still burgeoning Rockaways scene, but sometimes you acquiesce. Uzbeki food seemed like an odd choice for the neighborhood, odd enough to try. The service and food were a little wonky, which wasn’t unexpected considering the lackadaisical energy heavy in the air. The beef in the plov was tender, not too lean and almost lamb-like (the meat I really wanted) in flavor. The rice, though, was just shy of fully cooked, creating a chew that nearly reminded me of the grit that kept turning up in my mouth after sitting on the windy beach near a crumbling dune. That said, I would still go back. It’s a popular place and nearly nothing on the menu is over $10.

El Born

twoshovelBrooklyn has never been strong for tapas, and North Brooklyn has never done much to help matters. Mercat Negre was kind of odd, so was Cadaques to a degree and now it’s shifted French,  and Bar Celona had that hard-to-get-past name and died a slow death. El Born, joining the new Greenpoint restaurant brigade,  has potential.  At least it’s trying something new.

Keeping with the original tapas spirit, the narrow room is taken up mostly by a long bar with a few small tables and stools against the opposite buff brick wall (there are a few larger tables in the back). Good for a drink or two and a few small plates of food. With that said, it’s still one of those mysterious math places where a majority of menu items are under $15 and yet you still end up spending $100 when all is said and done.

el born gin & tonics

The restaurant also taps into the Spanish fondness for gin and tonics, a.k.a. gintonic, with four variations including #2 (Bulldog gin, Fever Tree tonic, lemon peel, licorice) and #4 (Hendricks gin, Schweppes tonic, cucumber, black pepper, lime) pictured here.  And yes, there’s a kalimotxo.

el born pa amb tomaquet

Many of the ingredients are Spanish, but the preparations aren’t totally classic. Pa amb tomaquet, which was brought out like an amuse, was one exception.

el born croquettes

Croquettes are a tapas staple, but  less common are ones filled with mint, goat cheese and pine nuts propped on a base of apple sauce (not applesauce).

el born fried rabbit and citrus aioli

I was going to say that Greenpoint is having a rabbit moment, but the fate of Glasserie’s much lauded shareable hare is undetermined and I don’t see the  conill amb allioli on El Born’s current online menu. The bony chunks are coated in chestnut flour, fried, presented in a paper bag (I could’ve sworn there was rosemary in there too) and served with a citrusy aioli. Definitely order this chicken nugget alternative if it’s available.

el born steak toast & pig foot broth

Picaña’ amb brou  is the Catalan answer to roast beef au jus. Slices of rare steak on toast with a rosemary-perfumed pig foot broth is high on presentation, though not necessarily the easiest to share or decipher. Sipping makes more sense.

The only dud was the cauliflower gratin, which apparently wasn’t  impressive enough to merit a iPhone shot (this was not intentional). Instead of a browned casserole thick with manchego and bechamel, the reality was a dish of steamy florets sitting in a pool of  thin white sauce. Who needs a gratin anyway? Eat a salad if you’re feeling vegetable deprived.

El Born * 651 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Gotham West Market: El Colmado & The Cannibal

twoshovelApparently, there are two new bacon boards in Hell’s Kitchen: one at BarBacon (which I only learned of today) and another at The Cannibal inside Gotham West Market. The latter might get lost in all of the charcuterie on offer, but it’s worth a look if you aren’t into delving into pig’s heads, chicken livers or raw lamb.

cannibal bacon board

Left to right, this is house made back bacon a.k.a. lardo, what I heard as “lamb bacon” but another thought was “ham bacon,” though admitted that was redundant, and jowl. The firm and crispy mystery bacon in the middle was the universal hit, despite being the slightest bit gamey. Lardo draped on the hearty wheat bread and drizzled with maple syrup (left condiment) is also a good move.. The bacon fat is only for the hardcore.

cannibal pretzel & cheese

We all know fried brussels sprouts flavored with mint now. These, tossed with generous crumbles of salty country ham are different, meatier take. I got overly excited at the sight of liquid white cheese, thinking of my processed favorites. This blend was oddly flavorless, though, almost like thick opaque water. There was a mild sharp cheddar after taste, but not enough to make an impact.

el colmado oysters & cava

El Colmado has a happy hour deal worth walking three avenues for in the urban arctic. $11 will get you six oysters (Malpeques on this occasion) with mignonette sauce and a glass of cava. To be honest, I just a seat at the nearest counter upon entering because I had some time to kill. The oysters were a nice surprise.

el colmado bocadillo de calamar

The mini bocadillo contained an octopus body (grilled, not crispy as advertised and as I’d envisioned–like the ones in Madrid) paired unexpectedly with a minty sauce.

el colmado patatas bravas

Patatas bravas were not only spicier than any version you’d find in Spain, the plate was also larger than anticipated, which is one of those things that’s hard to gauge with NYC tapas, regardless of using price as a guide ($10 vs. $7 for the bocadillo). Instead of pure potato with a spicy brava sauce on the side, these were coated in a chile powder then swathed in aioli.

Ivan Ramen will have to wait.

El Colmado and The Cannibal at Gotham West Market * 600 Eleventh Ave., New York, NY

Solero Tapas & Bodega

twoshovelIf you wondering if you could find Spanish food in Dubai, the answer would be yes. Why, is a separate question. Honestly, the only reason I paid week-old Solero a visit was because my hotel was “dry,” I wanted a glass of wine (something non-residents can’t purchase in stores without a license) and this new tapas bar in inside the Kempinksi Hotel inside the Mall of the Emirates was technically across the street (the NYC equivalent of being on the other side of a BQE overpass).

salero pa amb tomaquet

Pa amb tomàquet, the simple toasty snack that I never bother attempting because how often do you get a tomato with enough juice and flavor? I have no idea where tomatoes come from in Dubai in December, but this rendition wasn’t an atrocity.

salero pulpo a la gallega

Neither was the cazuela filled with stacks of meaty coins of octopus, doused with smoked paprika and olive oil. Being mildly pork-deprived, the logical choice would’ve been a plate of jamon, but I feared not only the dirham to dollar gouging but the metric to imperial conversion. I always screw up ordering in measures that aren’t ounces or pounds and end up with double instead of half of what I’d intended. Pulpo a la gallega was safer–and satisfying. I decided to stay a little longer and sip a gin and tonic, despite my aversion to dining alone.

The staff, both service and behind the open kitchen with bar seating, was almost wholly imported from Spain (minus the one Chilean cook I spoke to). Even the DJ appeared be playing Spanish pop hits of the ’80s, which only the hard-partying couple next to me, two chefs from another restaurant, seemed to know, based on their shrieks and hollers. The rest of the diners were far more subdued. There were even a few obviously Muslim women present–I mention this only because there’s a security guard outside the door at the mall’s entrance who on a different occasion had steered a group of curious men away by saying, “That’s a bar.” It’s really more of a restaurant, though.

Solero Tapas & Bodega * Kempinsski Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Rd.  * Dubai, UAE

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Mexico, Spain, Brooklyn

Pampano quad

Pampano doesn't get the attention of other newer, cooler Mexican restaurants, but it remains popular, seemingly with early-stage dates, guys who appear businesslike, and older Spanish-speaking women with younger relatives who only speak English. I was there to sample a new summer menu spotlighting ingredients from La Paz in Baja California. (I've also been before of my own volition, so this isn't totally shilly. And yeah, Richard Sandoval rivals Ducasse with his international expansion efforts, but I'm still curious enough to try a tapa or two at Toro Toro when I'm in Dubai this weekend. Ha, that's sounds hilarious, as if I'm always off to glitzy places.) Supposedly, different regions in Mexico will be featured throughout the year. The full menu is here with details, but I can say that the bacon-wrapped shrimp (is there a bad bacon-wrapped shrimp?) with a chipotle sauce, grilled pineapple and melon ball-sized rounds of avocado was the standout with its sweet, creamy and salty components. And it didn't hurt that the presentation was so pretty. An all-seafood meal, there were also smoked clams, a tamarind mahi-mahi and a tuna tamalito. The guava pastry did not contain seafood, thankfully, just fruit and Damiana, an herbal liqueur said to have aphrodisiac properties (they're not boasting that claim on the menu, though maybe it's legit since even WebMD mentions that usage for the herb).

Tapeo29 trio

Tapeo29 I find myself coming back here with increasing frequency. The corner bar using open windows instead of air conditioning is more Madrid than Barcelona (though both cities would let you sweat in the summer) meaning traditional, not avant-garde (I don't know the Spanish for avant-garde–de vanguardia?). Chorizo al sidra, croquetas de bacalao and boquerones aren't surprising, but they are satisfying, and before 8pm on weeknights only $6 each (plus wine and cocktails for the same price). I always leave a little drunker than intended and just full enough.

Lavender lake aperol spritzLavender Lake I didn't try any food and, frankly, it's the kind of place I read about on blogs, or rather The Times Style Magazine, in this case, and decide that there's no need to rush over. Can I live without "Scandinavian  rustic" in Gowanus? (I also refuse to give pseudo-neighborhood, Gowanus, its own category–it's two blocks from the F train.) But I didn't realize it was located on the relaxing, over-the-canal route I occasionally take home when I feel like the F is going to crush my soul so I preemptively take the R all the way to Union Street and walk the mile-and-a-quarter to my apartment. So, I had an Aperol spritz, which is dangerously close to a white wine spritzer (in spirit, not taste) and awkwardly sat by myself on a folding chair too short to reach the bar-like ledge on the back patio. At 7pm there wasn't a free table in the entire yard, which is a common phenomena and I'm certain would've been the same even an hour earlier. I'm convinced no one in Carroll Gardens actually works, despite the crazy real estate prices. Regardless, it's a pretty place, all muted tones and reclaimed wood, like a physical Instagram.

Brooklyn Ice House I have far less to say about this Red Hook bar than Lavender Lake, and yet I like it more. Thai chile sauce wings served Buffalo style (blue cheese, carrots and celery) and a pint of Sixpoint Righteous Ale don't need rehashing. Neither bar has a website, which is distressing.


Francesca

When the news broke (ha, assuming restaurant openings/closings qualify as breaking news in your world) that Frankie’s 17 was turning Spanish and rebranding as Francesca, my only thought was that I wish it had been the original location instead. Yes, 457 has remained wildly popular since day one, but how much Italian food can one neighborhood sustain? Or rather (selfishly) how much Italian food can I continue not to eat?

It happened that the same Friday afternoon I was pining for pintxos on Twitter, Serious Eats posted a slide show of the new menu at Francesca. I knew I wasn’t going to get the San Sebastián experience I was craving—it’s just not going to happen in NYC for a gazillion reasons.  (I’ve already speculated why the true pintxo bar experience would never work here and won’t bore you again–in a nutshell: too expensive, not sufficient concentration of bars.)

Francesca creamed leeks, idiazabal, membrillo, jamon serrano

What looks like smoked salmon from afar is really jamón serrano drizzled with a viscous membrillo. The sweet and salty components sit atop a slice of Idiazabal and a big tuft of creamed leeks, and would be at home on the counter of any respectable pintxo bar.

Casa senra bar

Like this. A more traditional version of a pintxo bar at Casa Senra.

Zeruko pintxos

Or modern like Bar Zeruko.

I want that buffet-like feeling of walking into a crowded venue and seeing an entire bar covered in delightfully unrecognizable things layered on bread, stuck with toothpicks, maybe even gelatinized or radiating smoke,  like you've entered a canapé-filled party where anyone’s invited if you have $10 to spend—and foie gras or gold leaf might even schmooze its way into that equation. And that’s the other thing, the couple of dollars for a dish and a couple bucks more for a glass of wine—or more commonly a zurito, a small glass of beer—adds to the democratic appeal.

Francesca mushroom, morcilla, setti anni brotxeta

The brotxeta of morcilla, mushrooms, and peppers (setti anni–also served at Frankie's) exemplifies the quick and creative ethos, as well.

Francesca lomo

A fried egg covered slices of lomo, just fatty enough to remind you why grocery store pork loins are so wretched, and a pile of oil-slicked peppers and onions, piperrada, that had been cooked-down soft.

Francesca cheese

Instead of raciones, of which there were as many as the pintxos (five) we tried a selection of cheeses (Valdeón, Torta del Casar, and Idiazabal) all good, and a plate of jamón Serrano. The thinly shaved, cured meat could’ve been prosciutto. I guess if I wanted that luscious, substantial ham that could never be confused for lunch meat, we should’ve sprung the extra four dollars for Iberico.

Francesca sherry cocktails

The sherry cocktails were fun, and you don’t really see spirits being manipulated to creative ends in the Basque regions like you do with the food. Txakoli is txakoli. And kalimotxo? You might not want it. #3 (East india sherry, dry vermouth, orange bitters, seltzer) and #1 (Fino sherry, sweet vermouth, cinnamon syrup, whiskey barrel aged bitters). I also tried a glass of Benaza Mencia, a lighter red that I'm still getting a feel for.

If I happened to be in the area between 5pm-7pm, which I probably won't, I would stop by the bar for a happy hour snack and discounted cocktail

I'm not an eavesdropper (well, I try, but my hearing isn't always sharp enough) but it was hard not to take interest in the older couple sitting nearby who lived on the Upper East Side,  were somehow drawn to dining on Clinton Street,  yet had never heard of Frankie’s and hadn’t been to Carroll Gardens. As much as I hate the dated food media “make the trek to Brooklyn” trope, it’s refreshing to be reminded of that the celebrated Brooklyn artisan only has so much reach in reality.

Afterwards, we weren't terribly hungry, but in the spirit of a tapas crawl (Tapeo 29 and 1492 Food are both a block away) we went traditional at Tapeo 29 (more Madrid than San Sebastián, and too dark for photos) and had cazuelas of sweet cider-braised chorizo and garlicky shrimp with lots of bread and glasses of cava and Garnacha. My pronunciation of the red wine was corrected (I feel silly saying any non-English word as if I’m affecting an accent that’s not mine) and in a way the unasked for authoritativeness was endearing in a way that Francesca wasn't. I'll let the transformed pintxos bar get its footing before making any rash judgments, though.

Francesa * 17 Clinton St., New York, NY

Bar Basque & Txikito

Ever since experiencing Basque food in its own element, I have become insufferable. Ok, not really, but I have wondered why there aren’t real pintxo bars in New York City when we have so many other niche culinary ventures. I’m envisioning a counter teeming with trays of small, high quality, totally creative, reasonably priced ($3 short pours of txakoli, not $12 like I experienced this weekend and $5 plates, not double digits) gems to be consumed while standing or on stools at a bar. It’s so crying out for a Brooklyn treatment. Could you street-food-ize it or make it pop-up?

If I were the opposite of me, I would make this happen despite my complete lack of business sense, industry experience and capitol. Like this is the part of the T Magazine or New York profile where the subject says, “I liked kombucha…so I started a kombucha company” or “I loved s’mores as a kid…so I’m now producing artisanal graham crackers. It’s a full time job.”  Uh huh. Myself, I’ve wanted to start a category (tumblrs just don’t do it for me) A to C, documenting these inexplicable journeys from idea to execution.

There are factors holding back pintxos bars in NYC: price, as I already mentioned, and the bar thing. Americans like to sit down and stay in one place when eating a meal and you couldn’t have a crawl anyway without a concentration of options in the same area. One destination pintxos place wouldn’t cut it.

This week I tried two extremes: Bar Basque (comped, I must point out) and Txikito (on my own dime—the difference between the two meals was almost exactly $100 on the nose, though mostly because I tried far fewer things at the latter not because the quainter restaurant is bargain-priced) to see the state of Basque cooking in the city.

Bar basque hall Bar Basque is just as bombastic as one may expect from a Chodorow production. The relentlessly red panels, ticker tape blue digital squiggles racing along the surface, and wall of windows open to a giant outdoor movie screen is like a lounge in an Asian capital that has a tough door policy for locals while letting in all Westerners even if they’re clad in Old Navy. When people said, the décor is like Blade Runner, I thought they meant that metaphorically, but Syd Mead, Bar Basque’s designer really did have a hand in that movie’s sets. It was jarring to see Annie Hall, a film only five years older than the sci-fi classic, playing on the screen visible from most tables. 1977 Manhattan contrasted with 2011’s interpretation of cinematic 2019.

All the show might give the impression that eating was secondary, yet the food is quite good. Spanish ingredients abound—you will get your Idiazábal, jamón and olive oil—while a whole series of seafood crudos and escabaches seem more like the product of chef Yuhi Fujinaga’s imagination. There is not a lot of raw fish traditionally eaten in Spain.

 

Bar basque gin & tonics

While light and effervescent txakoli is the wine most associated with the Basque region, gin and tonics are also a Spanish favorite. (I drank them by the tumbler-full at Madrid’s deco Museo Chicote) The list of modernized variations, each paired with a unique brand of spirit, including the rosemary and chile with No. 209 Gin above, was clever. Cocktails and a few shared plates of food might be the best way to enjoy the restaurant, which doesn’t feel like the right venue for a drawn out multi-course meal.

Bar basque starters

Idiazábal croquetas and yellowfish tuna tartare “push pops” with red wine caviar.

Bar basque crudo

Of the lightly marinated items playfully presented in cans—Spain is the king of preservas; entire grocery aisles are devoted to canned mariscos—the mussels with pimento de la vera, onion, garlic and fennel were my favorite. The meaty blobs, hit with smoked paprika seemed right on and the crimson oil and caramelized aromatics left behind made the best bread dip. 

There was also Spanish mackerel with shallots, chiles and coriander seeds, octopus, black olives and tomato confit, and Yellowfin tuna with ajo blanco and chimichurri. The only dish that felt a little clunky were the sea scallops with Mediterranean flavors. On paper black olives and preserved lemon seemed fine, but the olive puree smudged on the plate (which I genuinely thought was refried beans) overwhelmed the raw seafood.

Bar basque mains

The smoked trout with jamon butter trumped the pudding-like pork belly with baby clams, if only because the fish had its crispy skin showcased.

The heirloom tomatoes with Pedro Jimenez sherry vinegar, were simple, greenmarket and somehow very American. I’ve been researching where to eat in San Francisco next week and this falls squarely under the hyphenated style they like to call Cal-Spanish. Everything gets the Cal prefix by using local produce and serving it simply.

Bar basque desserts

Leche frita with chocolate and passion fruit sauces and piña colada flan with caramelized pineapple.

Is it ok to admit that the real reason I wanted to go to Txikito was to see the adorable food wallpaper in the bathroom? I’m a sucker for design. Fewer than ten blocks from Bar Basque, the Chelsea restaurant is cute, rustic, woody, the dead opposite of the theatrics occurring adjacent to the Eventi Hotel. Then again, on my way out my exit was blocked by a white-haired gentleman demanding enthusiastically, “Give me the best seat in the house!” I thought that only happened in movies. Also, that’s not someone who would appreciate pintxo-hopping.

Txikito morcilla

Like most Spanish restaurants in the city, the offerings tend to be more like raciones than tapas. The morcilla, stuffed into wonton skins like spring rolls, is mild in its fried shell and on the tapas end of the scale. Little rich bites.

Txikito melted cheese

I was sitting at an odd angle from the blackboard, so I did not catch which mild, oozy cheese this was. Perked up by two anchovies and a bed of softened grilled red pepper strips, the fondue-style dish serve with bread was a little like Spanish queso, no Velveeta needed.

Txikito salad

Arugula hides the poached egg, the most important part of any such dish. The tiny, battered, fried fish covering the whole tufted affair added great texture and a hit of salt like barely fishy canned onions. Who would like to make a green bean casserole with these instead?

Txikito squid ribbons

Txipirones, a.k.a. squid, cut into ribbons and served with…what was described as pine nuts and sweet onions. I had been picturing a sweet-savory thing with raisins even though nothing really led me to believe there would be any chunky dried fruit. This was more creamy,  rich with concentrated natural sweetness from the onions, and the kind of topsy-turvy dish that wouldn't be wildly out of place in San Sebastián.

Salinas, Basque chef Luis Bollo's new restaurant, is also on my radar. Though when I see a restaurant running specials like Salinas did this morning with Gilt City, I now get suspicious thanks to The Bad Deal.

Bar Basque * 839 Sixth Ave., New York, NY
Txikito * 249 Ninth Ave., New York, NY

El Corte Inglés Menú del Día

El Corte Inglés is the Macy’s of Spain, and no great shakes, I know. But beyond the obvious culinary attractions of San Sebastián, I needed more bait to get James to take a vacation (if it were up to me, I'd stay out of NYC half the year). Having a mall and a subway (TV and internet access goes without saying) are the two unspoken requirements for cities we may visit.

In the 11-and-half-years we’ve been dating (ha) Bangkok, Toronto, Montreal, Barcelona, Madrid, Shanghai, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Singapore and London have had both; the only exceptions being Macau, which was a Hong Kong addendum and Penang, which only had a bus system but made up for it with amazing food and a hotel abutting a shiny, air conditioned mall. Oaxaca had neither, and tellingly, I traveled there alone (though took a cab out to Plaza del Valle, where fast food and a strip mall lurked).

That San Sebastián supposedly had a Corte Inglés, helped matters. Except that it didn’t. The address listed online was nonexistent. I was totally up for finding one, though. Bilbao had one (and a metro and a lightrail, both of which we rode on a day trip. I don’t talk art, but Paul Pfeiffer’s The Saints was the best thing at the Guggenheim) but we’d already been to that more modern city, which brought up the question, “Why didn’t we stay here?” Pintxos, that's why.

Pamplona, the next biggest city, was only an hour by bus in a different direction. El corte inglés billboard

El Corte Inglés' familar font on a  billboard. The sure sign that we were getting closer to civilization.

El corte inglés pamplona

And then we waited in line for lunch, the only pile-up during the week.  Everyone loves a menú del día, the affordable workhorse midday prix fixe served in nearly all restaurants. They’re rarely exciting—so much so that I won’t document another from Bilbao’s Café Iruña—but usually good value. While waiting in the entryway between the cafeteria and El Corte Inglés' branded travel agency, I had plenty of time to plan my three courses.

I was totally going to get a hamburger because I hadn’t encountered one in Spain yet, plus it came with an egg, which seemed oddly Australian. I also spent an inordinate amount of time parsing that a rollito de primavera wasn’t some rolled arrangement of spring vegetables but a spring roll. Duh.

El corte inglés crema de calabacín

Soup is usually dreary to me, but I ordered it anyway hoping it would counteract the fries I would have next. Once again, I exposed my shoddy Spanish. Crema de calabacín, was not a squash like the orange pumpkiny calabaza I see at stores in NYC, but zucchini, which I guess is squash too.

El corte ingles salad fixings

If you order the ensalada mixta, which I did not, you get to make your own pepper-free dressing.

El corte inglés hamberguesa

Ugh, una hamburgeusa wasn’t a hamburger either. I was most definitely wasn't expecting a naked, well-done patty. At least I had the fries and egg to make up for the lack of a bun. And the pleasure of eating a regular person’s lunch instead of something Michelin-starred or smothered in foie gras. Actually, they did have foie gras and fries on the regular menu.

El corte inglés natillas I had far more trouble at this department store restaurant than any complicated pintxo bar. I saw a bunch of people eating chocolate cake at the end of their meals, but all I saw as dessert options were yogurt, sorbets, rice pudding and natillas. I thought natillas was something custardy, but ordered it anyway because it was the only thing I wasn’t 100% sure on so it could possibly be the chocolate cake. No, it was a cinnamony custard. Where did everyone get the chocolate cake?

El Corte Inglés * Calle Estella, 9, Pamplona, Spain

La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo and Zeruko were the only pintxo bars I visited twice. The variety of food demanded it and both left me with the feeling that I didn’t get an adequate initial experience due to the bodies-to-open-space ratio. During the first La Cuchara excursion on a Sunday afternoon, we had to squeeze and hover until a ledge opened up and then instantly felt the pressure to free up our space (this is what it normally looks like inside). It’s a popular place.

La cuchara de san telmo facade

On a Tuesday night, though, the narrow room was practically empty. We weren’t even hungry, but had to seize the opportunity luxuriate in the relatively open space. It was just us and a motley crew of European men speaking to each other in heavily accented English about how horrible American food is because one of them was taken to a Southern restaurant where he was served fried alligator that was flavorless with batter thicker than the meat. But did it taste like chicken? More than once I overheard Europeans speaking in English about Americans customs. Of course our food isn’t all fried, but yeah, at most non-upscale restaurants the check will be brought before you ask for it.

La cuchara de san telmo foie con jalea de manzana

Foie con compota de manzana. Simple, seared foie gras with apple jelly and plenty of coarse sea salt. For 3,6 Euros? This dish sums up San Sebastián’s affordable luxury.

La cuchara de san telmo vieira toro envuelta en tocineta de bellota

Vieira “toro” envuelta en tocineta de bellota. I goofily pride myself on my Spanish food vocabulary (not my conversational skills, definitely not those). I know the words for mussels, clams, razor clams, langoustine, lobster, shrimp, soft-shell crab, crab, many fish, and spider crab and cod cheeks in Basque…ok, I’ll stop, but I had never heard the word for scallops. I just chose vieira because I liked the toro in quotes and figured it would be something playful. Um, and I could parse that there would some sort of ibérico bacon involved. Yes.

La cuchara de san telmo oreja de cerdo caramelizada

Oreja de cerdo ibérico salteada y crujiente. I will always order a pig’s ear anything if available. Spanish and Filipino preparations always get the gooey/crisp thing right, though I had never encountered an entire ear served whole like a steak. Usually, I see this cut sliced into chunks or ribbons. Maybe it’s just to disguise its original origin?

La cuchara de san telmo pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada

Pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada. Ok, I learned another word: berza. I hadn’t expected any cabbage on my pintxos. Charring the octopus and sautéing the greens turned both kind of sweet.

La cuchara de san telmo canelón casero de carnes de cocidos

Canelón casero de carnes de cocidos. Boiled meats doesn’t make this filled pasta tube sound so attractive, but you know it’s not going to taste like gray shoe leather. I chose it because I only wanted something small (this was on the already-full-of-foie-moriclla-and-suckling pig second spontaneous visit). One useful thing that I noted after being able to get an unobstructed view of the menu, was that you can order any pintxo as a ración, which would be entrée-sized in the US (we’re the only weirdos who call the main dish an entrée—it seems like everyone else in the world uses that for appetizers) or half that. Maybe you’d like a whole plate of canelónes?

La Cuchara de San Telmo * Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, San Sebastián, Spain