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Posts from the ‘Madrid’ Category

La Vaguada

Ok, this is it, no mas. I'm finally finished the with sporadic Madrid recapping. But I would feel empty inside if I didn't briefly mention my mall excursion. I always visit a mall when on vacation. Obviously, I only travel to big cities, but even Penang had one, which only surprised me a little since Asians have quite an affinity for mall culture. Only Mexico City posed problems with its Santa Fe mall hidden way on the outskirts, inaccessible by public transportation. (Not really surprising at all considering their seeming lack of a middle class. Maybe that's why NYC can't sustain a proper mall either, too-rich and too-poor all smooshed together.)

La vaguada

Madrid had more than one centro comercial to choose from; we picked La Vaguada because you can get there smoothly on the subway. I figured it would be a rinky-dink Manhattan Mall atrocity, but it was the real deal with an enormous supermarket, or rather a hipermercado, Alcampo, that was way larger than Fairway, and that was just the bottom floor. Upstairs, they sold washing machines, plus-size smocks, saws, and more relevant to my needs, a cheap corkscrew. I should know the answer to this since I cover retail topics at work (I’ll look into it tomorrow) but why do we not have grocery stores inside US malls? Here, I'd appreciate the convenience. In other countries, for the fun of experiencing packaged foreign food.

I feel self-conscious taking photos inside grocery stores, but do regret not capturing the entire towering aisle heaving with hoof-on whole jamon. Canned seafood is also allotted an unusually large proportion of shelf space.

The heart (or I guess if you were corny like me, you could say stomach) of any mall is its food court. I didn't know what to expect from a Spanish food court. And it wasn't really fast foody (no Cinnabon but a homegrown chain Canel Rolls with savory versions like cheese and bacon) but a level ringed by sit down restaurants and tapas bars (and a hair salon, movie theater and video store), almost exclusively Spanish in culinary style.

Vaguada food court

Bocatin is a taberna specializing in sandwiches, a.k.a. bocadillos. Way in the background is Gran Sol Marisqueria  and Cervecería. I like that beer is prominently mentioned everywhere. Drinking in an American mall just seems weird.

Cantina mariachi

The non-Iberian offerings included The Wok, Istanbul, L'Alsace and Cantina Mariachi. It was also hard to ignore the plywood covered a giant coming soon ad for Taco Bell, fittingly with a larger than life packet of mild salsa. The first public (naval bases don't count) Taco Bell in the country opened not so long ago in December. The chain has never been a success in Europe (or Mexico, duh) so I wonder how the Spanish will take to Crunchwraps.

Gambrinus cerveceria exterior

We chose a random casual eatery, Cervecería Gambrinus, that I later saw all over the place. Their logo is a portly pageboy’d Falstaffian guy called Gambrinus. From what I could deduce the lore is German not Spanish. Maybe it’s like our use of Friar Tuck in association with drinking establishments.

Gambrinus cerveceria gambas al ajillo

I love gambas al ajillo, maybe even more so for the saucy remnants. I could just pour the shrimp, chile and garlic infused olive oil into and dish and eat it alone with crusty bread.

Gambrinus cerveceria chicken wings

Ok, so we ordered chicken wings, a.k.a. alitas. You get what you deserve doing such a thing but we were curious. Pallid tomato sauce inevitably accompanies fried chicken parts in other places (marinara in Hua Hin). I realize putting blue cheese or ranch dressing on poultry is an American abomination.


Because I'm childish this café gave me pause. I thought a bit, and duh, it's a cute abbreviation of Vaguada Mall.

Vaguada market

One of the cool things was that despite housing a clean modern supermarket (and a weirdo smallish storefront that only sold packaged frozen food—can you imagine an entire store devoted to Tombstone Pizza, Banquet Chicken and Hungry Man Dinners?), the shopping center also had a series of rows emulating traditional market stalls: seafood, produce, dried legumes and nuts, butchers, cheese and the like.

Just across the way, on the same floor, was a tattoo parlor. Not so traditional, I would say.

La Vaguada * Monforte de Lemos 36, Madrid, Spain

Kulto al Plato

Kulto al Plato appears to have next to nothing written about it in English. I only knew that it had won best tapas bar of 2008 from Metrópoli magazine, which could mean anything. No one ever agrees with best ofs and I'm not sure what kind of weight that publication holds among food-lovers in Madrid.

From what I had read, it seemed like it would be a nice in-between restaurant, not formal like Sergi Arola Gastro but more creative than a typical tapas bar, being Basque and all (I have no idea why their cuisine is so tradition-breaking). The casual environment with serious food almost feels more Manhattan than Madrileño.

The food is very playful and employs plenty of twists on classics, which obviously weren’t classics for me. That’s the tough thing, it’s not just the language. If you’re a foreigner you’re lacking the appropriate taste memories. I know enough from reading about Spanish cuisine to recognize some of what they were tweaking but have no original dish to compare it with. I’m sure I missed things that locals wouldn’t have.

Kulto al plato menu We chose the eight-dish tasting for 25 euros. If you sit in the restaurant I think you have to do a tasting (there’s also an 11-course version for 40 euros). In the bar, you can order a la carte. There didn’t appear to be any menus, just a giant chalkboard with lots of words using X’s and K’s interspersed with little cartoons and commentary. I was facing the board and close enough to scrutinize much of it (though, sadly not close enough for a decent photo). 

We didn’t really know what we were going to get but it was for the best. Picking from the menu would’ve been a little overwhelming and I’m sure I would’ve missed some gems. It was like a little Spanish culinary lesson. But it’s really about the taste, isn’t it? Would it really matter if a diner came in blind and had never heard of gazpacho? Does identifying the riff make a new-style tomato soup more enjoyable than judging it on taste alone?

Kulto al plato vermouth olives

Aceitunas con vermu. This was a lot of olives for two people or maybe I just have a small appetite for olives. But of course these were no ordinary olives. Thankfully, they weren’t doing that Adrià alginate olive spherification thing that seems to wow people (not that I’m above wowing, but they’ve even done it on Top Chef now). These were real olives, it was the red centers that were faux pimento. Instead the olives were filled with a sweet, boozy gel meant to mimic vermut. I never tried the popular aperitif when I was there, but it’s common enough that bars have it on tap. From what I understand you drink it on ice with a lemon slice.

Kulto al plato vermouth olives packaged

You can also buy a 12-pack to go. I almost considered picking a few up as fun souvenirs. We were flying out the next morning but I was afraid they wouldn’t keep or they’d get confiscated.

Kulto al plato salmorejo with flowers

Salmorejo con brotes y flores. Ack, I knew I wasn’t going to get of Spain without being served flowers. It happened on my last trip too. I have a phobia about eating flowers, even stems on things like spinach, give me the creeps. Not that there’s anything wrong with the taste. I tried to concentrate on the rich, chilled tomato flavor and tune out the pretty foliage.

This menu was like a research project. It wasn’t until I returned home that I could look at my blurry, harshly lit chalkboard menu photo and try to put together what we’d eaten and what half the words meant. Flores=flowers, sure, but salmorejo means nothing to me. Now I know that it’s a cold tomato soup similar to gazpacho, but thicker due to the use of more bread. I think brotes are sprouts in this circumstance but I’ve also seen it as microgreens.

Kulto al plato licorice avocado crab

Txangurro+aguacate+regaliz. We all scream for ice cream, well at least they do in Madrid. Frozen savories seem to be quite a thing, and I’m all for it. Left to right, these tiny spheres were licorice, avocado and crab. Individually, they might be kind of weird but as they melt and flavors meld, it’s just right, though licorice dominated by a hair. The crunchy sea salt atop the sea green scoop added nice texture and salinity. Here’s a recipe and a prettier photo of the dish from their original restaurant in San Sebastian, A Fuego Negro.

Kulto al plato spinach sesame feta salad

Espinaca roja, verde, cebolla y queso feta. The spinach salad was no great shakes. Feta, red onion and lots of sesame dressing.

Kulto al plato tempura

La txiki-huerta en tempera con ketxup casero y ali-oli de patata. I didn’t know what the heck txiki-huerta was (Spanish is enough to decode—Basque is just asking for trouble) and I still don’t, but obviously these were tempura’d vegetables: carrots, onions, chile peppers, eggplant. The dips included homemade ketchup and potato aioli. The aioli was the odd component, for sure. Creamy, rich and yep, starchy not eggy.

Kulto al plato bacalao

Bacalao con “currymigas” sobre coliflor. Salt cod is ok, though I managed to eat not one bite of it until our last day in Madrid when I had it for lunch as part of a menu del dia at La Camarilla (I never wrote about it because it’s wasn’t that exciting—despite how it appears, I don’t actually write about everything I eat), and then again here for dinner. There was no question that this was the superior preparation, but once again, it’s one of those regional things you may or may not know about. Migas that Americans might be more familiar with is the Tex-Mex style using sautéed torn up corn tortillas and eggs, Migas in Spain are breadcrumb-based peasant dish often associated with Extremadura. Of course, I’ve never eaten migas, I just recall reading about them in The New Spanish Table. Book smart, street stupid.

So, they’ve flavored their breadcrumbs with curry and use them as a crunchy garnish for super Spanish salt cod. The thick cauliflower puree offered a nice mild pillow for the strongly flavored fish.

Kulto al plato wagyu burger

“MakcoBe” with txips. Ok, now hamburgers, I understand, they’re speaking my language. But there still had to be an un-American in joke.  There was a cartoon dog next to the menu description with the caption, “De Cobi no!! De wagyu” I have no idea how I recognized the line-drawn dog as the ’92 Barcelona Olympic mascot, Cobi, yet I did and felt very pleased with myself for getting the humor. Essentially, no, it’s not Cobi meat, it’s kobe/wagyu.

All you need to know is that this is a mini burger with chips. The sesame seed bun was adorable and I think it might’ve been ketchup-flavored. The chips were like homemade Terra Chips. Frankly, I don’t remember the quality of the beef at all because I was more caught up in the presentation.

Kulto al plato pineapple cake coconut ice cream

The pineapple cake with coconut ice cream was fairly straightforward. A decidedly non-tropical sprig of rosemary kept the sweets from being too sunny.

Kulto al Plato * Calle Serrano Jover 1, Madrid, Spain

Sergi Arola Gastro

Ok, let’s get the Michelin stars out of the way. I always put off writing about the more serious restaurants as if you need to give them more thought and weight. Eh, this is a blog, let’s keep it light.

Catalonia gets all the accolades. Can Roca, where I ate in 2006, just made the fifth spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and has also received its third Michelin star. Madrid doesn’t have any three-starred restaurants. But I did want to see what was happening on the higher end and you really have two choices: Santceloni and Sergi Arola Gastro, both with Catalonian chefs. Why no homegrown heroes? I chose the latter because if I only have one meal I’m more interested in razzle dazzle than produce worship. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

But Gastro is still fairly staid with muted neutral décor (I can’t remember a thing about it and am convinced the room was draped in shades of beige and sand—this is what the long, narrow dining room actually looks like) and formal but warm service. This was the one splurge meal and we picked the 130 euros 12-course tasting menu minus the wine pairing (I wasn’t feeling that flush).

Instead, I picked a wine from Bierzo because I’ve been interested in that region and was steered toward a light red reminiscent of pinot noir that was a little less money (50 euros) than the one I originally asked about, which was appreciated. There’s nothing worse than getting an unwelcome upsell. I felt like a rube, though, when the wine was presented to me because I expected it to be a white. I know Bierzo is a region not a grape (in this case it was the the mencía) but I had seen the word scrawled on a few chalkboard wine lists and always under the vinos blancos. Knowing is half the battle.

But one can only feel so intimidated when others chose beer as their aperitif. They really do love their cañas in Madrid. When asked what we wanted to drink while looking over the menu and snacking on “tapas” I blanked and just asked for cava. Cocktails? Beer? Wine? Not a tough question, I just wasn’t sure what was typical. This, as well as an after-dinner glass of port were a gratis part of the meal.

Unfortunately, I was fussing around with my camera’s color balance when I was supposed to be enjoying my tapas so the first two photos turned out like shit and I only had one sip of my foamy truffled shot before it got whisked away. There is certainly a good argument for just eating your food and eliminating the distraction of a camera at the table. It’s a hard habit to rid yourself of, though.

The tapas, in an unfocused shot here, included radishes, endive with romesco sauce, olives (the best ones we had all week), crispy cheese puffs, croquetas and my surprise favorite, peeled cherry tomatoes flavored with little more than salt and olive oil. One of those simple let the produce speak for itself things that pays off.

It was decided that the dishes would be presented in Spanish and if we had questions they could answer in English. Most of the staff seemed to have decent-to-fluent English skills but I would prefer someone speak in their native language in their own country. Well, when I can understand it; dishes described in Chinese wouldn’t be so helpful to me.
Sergi arola gastro anchovy ice cream

Anchoas: servido en un cornete de pan y tomate. The English translation on the menu I received at the end of the meal (and which I’ll be using here verbatim, odd translations included) simply says anchovies in a coronet with bread and tomato, but the cone itself is the bread and tomato. Admittedly, those flavors take a back seat to the cold salty fish ice cream. Perfect in a bite but you probably wouldn’t want a whole bowl of it. There were a lot more ice creams to come.

Sergi arola gastro baby squid sandwich

“Bocata”: de calamares fritos con mermelada de limon/Baby Squid: fried in a sandwich with mayonnaise and lemon jam. This was gone in a flash and I hate to say that I barely remember it. Though I never tried one, battered, fried calamari ring sandwiches are common street food in Madrid so I got that this was a tweak on that but didn’t have memory of the original to compare it to.

Sergi arola gastro patatas bravas

Las Patatas: “bravas” al estilo Arola/Potatoes: “bravas” Arola-style (spicy fried potatoes). Ok, these were freaking adorable and fun to eat. This is when we noticed that the chef loves doing tiny food. Not in an obnoxious way, though. The crispy little potato cylinders were hollow inside and housed the lightly spiced tomato sauce, capped with dollops of aioli. This was a play on a classic dish that I totally understood.

Sergi arola gastro beet sashimi avocado ice cream

Remolacha: en “sashimi” al estilo de Alain Passard con helado de aguacate/Beetroot: Alain Passard “sashimi” style, avocado ice cream. I see they’re being all British with the beetroot instead of plain ol’ beets. I have never eaten at L’Arpege or in Paris (technically, I probably ate something there in ’89 when my student exchange group spent the night in the capital before flying back to the US) so I can’t speak to the homage. The slightly sweet, toothsome squares of beet paired well with the cold, creamy avocado. I feel like there was a licorice component tying this dish together but I don’t see overt evidence of that on the plate.

Sergi arola gastro anchovies apple salad

Boquerones: “a la Espalda” con ensalada de manzana y sirope e sidra/Fresh anchovies: “a la Espalda” style with apple salad and cider syrup. We loved this not just for the bright, tangy flavors but for the insane attention to miniature detail. In the background are the world’s tiniest cubes of apple topped with a lentil-sized dab of sauce and finished with a baby leaf of what I think was parsley (whenever I think an herb is exotic and ask, it turns out to be parsley). James pictured a hamster chef crafting Lilliputian food. I imagined a perfectionist Japanese intern slaving away in the kitchen over these precision tasks (I’ve seen more than a few behind the scenes photos of high end Spanish restaurants, and I swear there’s always a young Japanese guy present).

Sergi arola gastro seafood with seaweed mojo

Parrillada: de pescado y marisco con un jugo natural y mojo de algas/Barbecue: fish, seafood with a natural juice and seaweed “mojo.” Lots of delicate grilled things from the sea. I was excited to try percebes, those rare prehistoric looking goose barnacles, and made a point to savor them. Yet now, just a few weeks later I can’t dredge up how they tasted.

Sergi arola gastro foie gras stuffed with duck confit

Foie Gras: en “torchon” rellena de confit de pato con verdures y sopa de cabello de angel/Foie Gras: “torchon” stuffed with duck confit with vegetables and its consommé. Sometimes tasting menus go wild with foie gras and kill you with heaviness too soon. This was the first very rich dish, though it wasn’t overwhelming because the consommé added a sense of lightness.

Sergi arola gastro red mullet beans morcilla jamon

Red Mullet: beans and peas sautéed with black sausage and fat Iberian ham. The above series of dishes come to everyone then you can select your fish and meat courses. This was mine and it was perfect for me. Beans and morcilla always go well together, the firm buttery fish had wonderfully crisped skin and there was a hint of salty, porky jamon. I prefer fish dishes that have a little heft.

Sergi arola gastro fish

Lenguado: con manteca de setas, col picuda y gnoquis de cítricos. James’ sole was on the lighter side and came with mushrooms, cabbage and a single gnocchi served on a spoon.

Sergi arola gastro pigeon & basmati with candied fruit

Pigeon: basmati rice stewed with candied fruits and vegetable, charcoal grill oil. I also like dark meat and sweets together so this Moroccan riff was an obvious choice. The rice was little chewy-firm and after serving tableside there was quite a bit left over in the pan. I wondered what they did with the extras and shortly found out: they offer seconds.

Sergi arola gastro white pork with spinach

Cerdo Blanco: fricasé, tirabeques y espinacas. James’ meat course. I’m not sure what is meant exactly by white pork, if it’s a specific breed or a pig that is fed a particular diet. This almost looks like Shanghainese food to me. The spinach is on top, I’m not sure where the snap peas are.

Sergi arola gastro coconut tamarind blood orange

Coco: lágrimas de tamarindo y naranja sanguina/Coconut: tamarind tears and blood orange. The first of the desserts and it was certainly pretty and refreshing. This was mostly fruity even with the creamy island of coconut. I think by “tamarind tears” they are referring to the little brown dots on the white puck, interspersed with mint leaves.

Sergi arola gastro rhubarb wtih pea ice cream pineaple soup

Ruibarbo: guisado en frio con helado de guisantes y sopa de piña/Rhubarb: cold stew with peas ice cream and pineapple soup. This was unmistakably rhubarb, a fruit I had never associated with Spain. The pineapple broth doubled the sweet tartness and the pea ice cream…I’m not really sure. If anything, it tamed the fruits’ sharpness.

Sergi arola gastro chocolate cake chile pepper coulant strawberry ice cream

El Chocolate: coolant a la pimiento verde y helado de fresas/The Chocolate: green pepper coolant and strawberry ice cream. I was wary of this one not so much because I’m anti-molten cake but because I’m not wild about bell peppers. It turned out that green pepper meant jalapeno or a similar green chile pepper. There was tingly heat with no overwhelming vegetal bluntness. Nice.

I was happy that at the end of the meal you are presented with a dated menu detailing what you just ate. High caliber restaurants usually provide menus if asked but I prefer it being a given because I am a dork that way. The amusing thing was that apparently it was determined at some point that James was more adept with the language because his menu was in Spanish and mine was in English. I was not insulted, though I didn’t think my Spanish was that abysmal. It is handy for comparing translations such as black sausage for morcilla. I would say blood sausage but maybe that didn’t sound appealing.

Sergi arola madelines lime jelly

After dinner madelines are served with citrus candy that look like pebbles and a lime jam. Another couple that came in at 11:30pm (we were early birds at 9:30pm), the ones who had beers as an aperitif, blew through their meal before we were done and took their candy tray with them downstairs to the small bar. We followed soon after. The sleek room was occupied by a good number of young rich kids, kind of like a Madrileño cast of Gossip Girl.

I had an exemplary whisky sour, with egg white foam and all; it was finely crafted and should be for 12 euros. Maybe we frequented chichi bars but I found drinks to be Manhattan in price. Fun, deco Museo Chicote, across the street from our hotel had 10 euro gin and tonics (but they were enormous) and Del Diego, just behind Museo Chicote, (which I had to visit because the Time Out guide described it as ‘80s Wall Street and I wanted to see what a British writer’s idea of that era might look like) had similarly priced cocktails. And no, it didn’t remind me of Wall Street in the least. And of course in all venues, you could puff away till your lungs burst, and 90% of the imbibers were doing just that.

Sergi Arola Gastro * Calle de Zurbano 31, Madrid, Spain


Ok, if you’re a freak who still don't know what tapas are (and I’m coming to the startling realization that there are many—last night while dining with my grandma that I never see she asked what we did in Madrid. James answered “tapas bars,” which she heard as topless bars. It took a few minutes for it to sink in that we were talking about two entirely different things) I’m naively hoping that you must know paella. Rice with saffron and stuff in it, you know?

Yes, it’s a Valencian thing but being in Spain at all brought us closer to the ricey specialty than eating at say, Socarrat in Chelsea. I’ll admit right up front that I’m not a crazy rice-lover, but I think it would be a shame to pass up a paella opportunity on its home turf.

We chose Balear over a few other options in Madrid, not really on a whim, there were a few other contenders but out of practicality. We were happy to discover that Balear was open on Sunday, a day that many restaurants pack it in.

Balear exterior

Judging from the cheery yellow walls and palm trees hinting at tropical chic, I’m guessing Balear refers to the Baleriac Islands. It was almost enough to make me forget it was 50-something degrees and wet outside. After a few glasses of cava (arroces and cava are displayed together on their signs and I’m susceptible to advertising).

Balear tapas

No appetizers were ordered because we were afraid extras would overstuff us. Maybe we were being overly cautious. I was fine with the pan con tomate and tuna escabeche that comes standard.

There were so many choices, I was interested in rabbit and snail, but ultimately we picked the mixta, which included a little bit of everything. And I’m still not clear on the difference between arroce and paella, both are rice dishes with things mixed in and both variations were on their menu.

Balear paella mixta

Before I could even come to my senses or snap even a blurry shot, a no nonsense Filipina came out and manhandled the paella. Within seconds, 90% of the pan’s contents of were scooped with two large spoons and tossed onto our plates. Wham.

Balear romesco aiolli

The major difference from what I’ve seen in the US is the addition of aioli and romesco as accompaniments. Nice. But still a bit baffling. Do you dab a bit onto individual bites or mix big blobs into the pile of rice on your plate? Even though I’m normally wary of mayonnaise, I loved the extra richness.

The paella, itself, was just right. Chewy, slightly oily but not too sticky, with grains that just cling together. Mixed in were shell-on prawns, rings of octopus, slices of chicken, combined with slices of green beans, peas and strips of red pepper. I honestly find it hard to describe what saffron adds to a dish, though I know its absence would be missed if it wasn’t there. It tastes sunny.

Balear pudin

Up until this point we had been too full to order postre, a.k.a. dessert, anywhere. I was determined to try at least one Spanish sweet before leaving. I was most impressed by the wooden cart with shelves enclosed in glass that gets wheeled to each table. I am a sucker for a dessert cart. I chose the pudin, which looked to me like a rectangular flan. Visuals are important; if I’d only heard the word pudin I would’ve imagined a pool of pudding. Blah.  I didn’t realize until later that this was quite a generous potion and richer than any other versions I tried. Yes, it is like a crème caramel but much thicker and richer; this had a consistency closer to cheesecake than the expected slipperiness. The substantial wedge was drizzled with an orange-flavored sauce that made me wish I hadn’t waited until the end of vacation to try a postre.

Balear * Calle Sagunto 18, Madrid, Spain

Café Nebraska & Vips

1/2 I wouldn't recommend Café Nebraska to anyone unless they were nostalgic for the European trip taken with their mom and sister when they were 15. No, I’m not talking about myself. My family's vacations rarely consisted of more than a two-hour drive to the Oregon Coast. (To be fair, there was a 1984 Disneyland excursion where I watched part of Stop Making Sense in the motel room adjacent to my parents, not knowing what to make of David Byrne's oversized jacket, and a trip to Vancouver B.C. where my dad was too bashful and Hank Hill to go into any of the over-18 shops to buy the Duran Duran posters hanging in the window that my sister and I were clamoring for.)

James wanted to see if Café Nebraska, a Denny's-like chain he had been to over 20 years ago, was still chugging away on the Gran Via. It was, and still is thriving in multiple other locations too. Our first morning was the only time we woke up early enough for breakfast so we stopped by to get some café con leche and plan out our day.

Cafe nebraska churros

Just plain churros, not with thick chocolate for dipping. These crispy tubes actually tasted more savory than sweet, even with the addition of powered sugar.

After 20 minutes we realized we weren't getting our other ordered item, huevos rotos. I’m still not exactly sure what happened but after finally grabbing our waiter's attention and asking again, we still didn't get them. I would've just left but James was intent on getting our eggs, which we did after the third try and angering the waiter who subsequently wouldn't bring our bill after asking for that twice. That’s the Spanish style service legends are made of. Ok then, it wasn't as if I expected Café Nebraska to come with Michelin-starred service…or food.

We asked for huevos rotos, literally broken eggs, because the night before we were mesmerized by numerous people eating fried eggs, ham and French fries from what looked like individual cast iron pans with handles at a tapas bar, and I finally deduced that this was huevos rotos.

Cafe nebraska huevos rotos

This version unexpectedly contained a bed of mashed potatoes drizzled in like a gallon of olive oil, with eggs over easy and fried jamon. This was good in the same way that a giant platter of oozing melted cheese nachos topped with sour cream and guacamole is good. Gut-busting and tasty, but not for every day consumption.

Throughout the week, I spied many variations on this seemingly popular dish. It was a common first course in menu del dias. Quite a few used thick-cut potato rounds, like chips but fatter.

On to Vips. I've mentioned them before out of my own nostalgia. Though I can't seem to find much evidence of the restaurant's existence (just this pin on eBay and a buried mention in this state representative’s bio) and I'm pretty sure they are in no way related, we had a chain called Vip’s (with the apostrophe) in Oregon. I also noticed Vips in Mexico City, which I do imagine is affiliated with the company Grupo Vips in Spain (that also owns TGI Friday’s and is somehow affiliated with Starbucks). But in Mexico, Sanborns is the Denny's-esque place to be so I never checked out Vips.

I had no intention of going to Vips in Madrid, but at 12:30am on Sunday after getting out of a movie, I was starving and concerned about missing out on a dinner opportunity during vacation (James ate a giant popcorn, a.k.a. palomitas so he wasn't hungry but I don't like popcorn. Well, I do like palomitas dulces, caramel corn, which seems to be standard in theaters in Spanish-speaking countries, but I didn’t want to fill up on sweets) our nearby options were limited. Sure, there were a few brightly lit cervecerias with a few older gents at the bar still open but I wasn't sure what kind of food, if any, they might have. And frankly, I was kind of happy to have an excuse to try Vips.

Vips blooming onion

Neither of us had the nerve to try the aros de cebolla, listed first on the paper place mat menu, which I'm guessing was a bloomin' onion.

Vips croquetas

James ordered ham and cheese croquetas. I don’t think marinara is standard at Spanish restaurants. I guess these were more like mozzarella sticks.

Vips quesadilla

I went totally off the rails and opted for a ham and cheese quesadilla. My expectations were not high. The tortilla was a bit overdone and the middle wasn't thoroughly warmed, instead of melted cheese, individual grated squiggles were still detectable. And the salsa was barely more spicy than diced tomatoes straight from a can. The guacamole might've used real avocado, though.

Café Nebraska * Gran Via 55, Madrid, Spain

Vips * Calle de Alcalá, Madrid, Spain

La Taberna de la Daniela

Cocido is muy, muy Madrileño and I’ve never seen it in NYC, so passing up the regional specialty would be morally unacceptable (in my book of ethics). It's essentially every meat you can think of boiled with garbanzos and a few other vegetables. Not such a tantalizing description, sure. Luckily, the chilly weather made such heftiness seem appropriate. I don’t know that the lunchtime stew holds as much appeal when it’s sweltering.

The biggest question was where to try cocido since we’d only have one shot and it’s not something you decide on spur of the moment; most restaurants that feature it require advance reservations. Malacatin concerned me with their too mammoth portions, though I loved their logo of some kid with an ax (or maybe it’s a hoe, I’m pretty sure it’s not a bindlestiff as I initially thought). La Bola, I'm certain would've been fine, but I really wanted to get away from the tourist track  environs of our hotel.

Taberna de la daniela exterior

We chose Taberna de la Daniela, which I later discovered has three locations. We inadvertently picked one further away that we needed to in a neighborhood that ended up being near the big soccer stadium. The subdued area reminded me vaguely of the Upper East Side, and had a proliferation of children’s clothing stores in addition to a mini mall with a TGI Friday’s and Tony Roma’s. Cocidos is spelled out right on the restaurant’s yellow tiled sign lest you had any doubts.

Taberna de la daniela cocido accompaniments

Initially, you are brought what appears to be two versions of romesco. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between the two other than that one was thicker. Long green peppers (odd, since Spaniards are notoriously spice-averse) and pearl onions accompanied the sauces. Were these appetizers meant to be nibbled on or intended to go with the main meal?

It’s times like this when I realize that I actually have more culinary knowledge about Asian obscurities, which I’ve read about and eaten more extensively. My experience with traditional Spanish fare, and European cuisine in general, is much more limited. In some ways it’s more freeing to travel in places like China or Thailand because Americans aren’t expected to speak the language or know shit about anything. The bar is low for us so it’s not as embarrassing to make mistakes. But Spain? Spanish is a common second language in the United Sates; it’s not too much to expect Americans to be capable of communicating. Not making cultural faux pas is another story. 

Taberna de la daniela cocido broth

Soup is first. This broth is neither light nor subtle. I swear it tasted like mutton but that's the one meat not present in cocdio. Must be the pork. Barely detectable beneath the orange surface are fideos, broken vermicelli. This was a lot of soup for two. I wavered between not wanting to waste and seeming unappreciative and not wanting to fill up on liquid knowing the bounty that was in store for us. I sipped two not-quite-full shallow bowls worth.

Taberna de la daniela vegetables

This cocido was listed as three courses; two and three are presented at the same time. The meatless plate was primarily garbanzos with one potato, two dumplings, bits of carrot and cabbage. I just dug in, mixing as I pleased with no idea about the proper procedure. The bib-wearing businessmen next to us ate vegetables first and mushed them down with the back of a spoon. Then one of them cut up a green pepper with a butter knife and added rounds to the meat. I don’t think this was normal.

Taberna de la daniela meat

No lamb, but just about everything else. Chorizo, morcilla, chicken, brisket, pork fat (I think that’s tocino, though I was under the impression that was more bacony), marrow bones and the cross-section of a pig’s foot. I wasn’t that excited about the chicken and pure pork fat blocks made me a little nervous, but it was hard not be impressed with the selection. There are no fireworks with cocido, everything tastes as it is, no wild seasonings. It’s peasant food that people have grown to love, kind of like corned beef and cabbage (another bland dish I enjoy) times a thousand. Though I don’t think I could eat this on a frequent basis. Once a month, no problem.

Taberna de la daniela licores

Diners are sent off with bracing, supposedly fruity but really more herbal, shots of liquor. I really wish I could work that two-hour lunch with wine and digestifs into my daily routine. The practice doesn’t seem to fly, stateside.

La Taberna de la Daniela * Calle de Gutiérrez Solana 2, Madrid, Spain

Tapas Round 2: Casa Toni, La Casa del Abuelo, La Venencia

Numerous times we ended up in another popular tapas enclave near the Puerta del Sol. I was reluctant to take chances on places I hadn't written down (or rather copied, pasted and printed) or heard of because who knows if they would suck or not. I’m not a risk-taker.

One of the many sporadic bursts of rain that punctuated the week hit while I was out trying to stroll instead of power walk. Desperate for a speedy respite, we popped into the first inoffensive, non-packed place we could find. I had wanted grilled pig ears at tiny La Oreja de Oro (on my approved list) but the tavern was prohibitively full both times I attempted a visit. 

Casa toni exterior

Casa Toni, the bar we randomly entered, advertised pig ears too, though the skeptic in me was suspicious of a sparsely populated room with an open table, no less. Too crowded? Too empty? There's just no winning. I don’t think anything was wrong with Casa Toni and we soon realized after easily getting a seat that there was an upstairs dining room people regularly headed to, potentially diffusing mobs. 

Casa tino orejas

The first thing listed on the menu is oreja a la plancha, which was my intended dish. I already knew I liked pigs' ears (as you may have noticed, I'm no grammarian, and now I'm having trouble deciding between pig ears or pigs' ears because I've seen it both ways) but you never know what you're going to get. Resto's pig ear salad is awesome but the pigs' ear salad I had in Macau was pure crunch, no chew, too garlicky and not compelling.

To my surprise, these grilled pigs' ears were the underdog hit of the entire week, even according to James who's indifferent to offal. Quite possibly my favorite thing. These rough ribbons of meat and cartilage had the perfect ratio of fat and softness to tough bits and lots of flat surfaces for maximum crispy char.

Half-way through devouring this plate like the drenched, starving beasts we’d become, we noticed two of the cooks looking at us and laughing, possibly thinking that those American gluttons must not know what they're eating. (I don't doubt that's an uncommon mistake if you couldn't read Spanish and just pointed to the first thing on the menu). Believe me, we knew what we were doing. All I could think was that if this was the ho hum version, Oreja de Oro's must be insane. 

Casa tino patatas bravas

These patatas were specifically brava, spicy (I use that descriptor loosely) sauce only. Often you see patatas bravas served with aioli too; at Casa Toni that rendition had some made up name like patatas bravaioli. Thank goodness they were crispy because I hate all-mush steak fry-type preparations. Portions of both the potatoes and ears were larger than anticipated.

Casa Toni * Calle de la Cruz 14, Madrid, Spain

Casa del abuelo exterior

Casa del Abuelo is directly across from Oreja de Oro, and both bars were perennially packed. When we spied a gap at this gambas specialist we jumped. For lunch we dared to try food court gambas al ajillo (oh so much more on that later) so for variety we had our prawns a la plancha here. 

Casa del abuelo gambas a la plancha

Saline and moist, similar to Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, these crustaceans were fun bar snacks. And there's nothing more fun (ok, I can think of a few others) than tossing heads and shells onto the floor. We were standing at a tiny marble table but the bar had a garbage trough along its front. It’s also not unusual to see cigarette butts stamped out and tossed to the ground indoors. I not only feel weird smoking inside restaurants, but ashing on the ground feels criminal. 

Casa del abuelo garbage trough

Oreja de oro coupon Apparently La Casa del Abuelo and La Oreja de Oro are more than just neighbors, they are affiliated. Upon paying the bill for our shrimp we were given a coupon for a free chato across the way. I didn’t know tapas bars gave out coupons; it was almost carnivalesque. I felt like Charlie with his golden ticket, though a tiny €1 glass of wine isn’t the grandest prize. I intended to take them up on their offer after seeing Watchmen, but at 12:30am on a Sunday night the gates were down. I never did get to taste those golden ears.

La Casa del Abuelo * Calle Victoria 12, Madrid, Spain

With dusty bottles and sawdusted floor, La Venencia is a classic sherry bar–and like much of Madrid, seemingly straight from a '20s movie set. I do like the specialization aspsect of many tapas bars. Casa Labra is another, known for things made with cod, and Las Bravas, is always teeming with patatas bravas eaters, obviously. I just don’t see a tapas bar that only served variations on the same few ingredients thriving in NYC. 

La venencia interior

The back room was fairly empty because it was near to closing time, if I'm correct either 1am or 1:30am. Despite what people say about Madrid being a late night city, that didn't seem to be the case. We've encountered this phenomenon countless times on vacation. We're still bright-eyed at 3am and nothing's open. Sleeping till noon is the downside to not being tired in the middle of the night. I think it balances out; it just means that I rarely eat breakfast in foreign countries. 

La venencia olives & manzanilla

I didn’t experiment, only sipping a single glass of dry manzanilla and picking at some olives. I'm no olive connoisseur but every single type we were offered, and we were given many in every shade of green and brown, tasted different. So many olives. These were salty and richer than ones I'm used to in the U.S. or maybe the sherry was enhancing the olives’ flavor.

La venencia manchego

No skimping on the Manchego here.

La Venencia * Calle Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain

Tapas Round 1: Cañas y Tapas, Txirimiri, Casa Lucas

If people only know one thing about Spanish food, it's tapas. (At least I thought so until the person who sits six feet from me at work stared blankly when I uttered the mysterious word in response to his "What did you eat in Spain?" question. I'm a speed talker/mumbler so I thought I wasn't enunciating properly and repeated "you know, tapas.” Then again for good measure, “tapas?” Uh, no.  I thought that was the easy answer, not wanting to get into pig ears, percebes or 12 miniature courses employing, yes, a little foam.) Or maybe paella, damn, I should've just said paella.

I have mixed feelings on Spanish tapas. I love the concept of lots of little things spread out over an evening yet I’m crowd-phobic and don’t enjoy eating while standing (or walking, for that matter). But it must be done. I can concede that our American style of tapaing (I also love that tapear, to eat tapas, is a verb) with full table settings is a mild aberration yet still be ok with it.

We ended up in the thick of two tapas hubs (at least for tourists, and I will always wonder how Europeans are already drunk by 11pm and chanting what I imagine must be sports anthems outside in large groups) on our first two nights.

Ok, I'm not ashamed to admit that our first stop, hours off the plane, was a chain. I love franchises, so there. Sure Cañas y Tapas is tourist friendly, positioned right on the Gran Via, but I wouldn’t call it a trap and Spanish speakers were in the majority (not that all Spanish-speakers in Madrid live there. I don't imagine many of the English-speakers I see every day taking photos with the Financial District bull live in NYC) even at the early hour of 9pm (where it's still jarringly light out in Madrid, for contrast the sun set at 7:35pm in NYC on April 15).

This is where I acclimated to being enshrouded in cigarette smoke, how to maneuver and finagle spots at the counter and the level of assertiveness needed to get served and pay the bill. Not that anyone is rude, eh, some are brusque, but mostly they are just inattentive. If we were in the Applebee’s of Spanish food, I was none the wiser because the food was far from crappy. Then again, I’ve eaten a few riblets in my day.

Canas y tapas morcilla & croquetas

Morcilla de Burgos isn't the intense sweetish blood sausage that I'm used to. This was crumbly and contained a good amount of rice. I think a blood sausage hater would like this if you didn't mention the word blood when serving it to them. Madrileños seem to enjoy dry crackery things, and all sorts of them turn up in breadbaskets along with non-dried out slices of bread. Simple ham croquetas are hiding in the background.

Cañas y Tapas * Calle Gran Via 71, Madrid, Spain

We moved onto La Latina, three metro stops away, and as we accidentally discovered later, less than a 20-minute walk from our hotel. Madrid was surprisingly compact. Barely walking the distance from Houston to 14th Street puts you into a totally different neighborhood. We kept ending up in La Latina without even meaning to. Cava Baja is the main tapas strip in the area, and the side streets are equally plentiful.

I was torn on Txirimiri. The front bar was jammed predominantly with under-30s drinking cañas, smoking and not really eating any of the pintxos (as a Basque place it's all about things on bread and lots of K’s and X’s) displayed in cases while the restaurant in back was sparsely populated with over 40s. Who to emulate? Was it stodgy to eat a real meal? Instead, I blindly picked two pintxos and found open space on a ledge to house my plates.

Txirimiri tortilla pintxo

Despite being told what this was, I couldn't tell you exactly what it as called. I think it's a tortilla sandwich. Served room temperature, it contained potato but as you can see, also ham and crumbles of cheese. Caramelized onions were also tucked in. It might not have been my first choice, it’s simply what caught my eye immediately and I was reluctant to ask about every last thing on the counter in my so-so Spanish. This ended up being a minor problem the whole week. I read Spanish, particularly food Spanish, very well but if I’m only verbally told what's available it garbles in my brain. Luckily, there isn't anything (other than melon) that I won't eat so I don't mind being surprised with what I end up with.

Txirimiri pintxo

This was a jamon-wrapped nugget of goat cheese topped with mushrooms and garnished with basil oil. A lot of flavor is packed into these little bites. I would've tried a few more offerings but we needed to explore more. I vowed to return for proper dinner another night but that never happened; we ended up at Kulto al Plato, another creative Basque tapas place instead. So many regrets.

Txirimiri * Calle del Humilladero 6, Madrid, Spain

Small and boxy Casa Lucas felt more traditional, with an amicable older counterman and a quieter vibe. It's not a scruffy taberna. We had a few glasses of red wine. I couldn't tell you what because I don’t always pay the same attention to what I’m drinking as to what I’m eating (though I’m trying to be more astute). But this definitely wasn't a cheap house wine place—there was a thought out list written on the chalkboard and best of all, nothing was over 3 euros (ok, so that’s cheap). I'm accustomed to spending as much, if not more on alcohol than on food, so it was a pleasant surprise to find perfectly nice glasses of wine for $3.25 rather than $10 for a change.

Casa lucas freebie

What added to my notion that this was a more traditional or at least genteel tapas bar is the fact that this was the only place we encountered the entire week that gave us a freebie with our drinks, as I think is more commonplace in locals type places. I won't say no to salchichon.

Casa lucas ventresca

We shared ventresca, tuna belly atop roasted red and green peppers. Tuna, and canned seafood in general, is huge in Madrid. I didn't take a photo but entire grocery store aisles are devoted to clams, mussels, anchovies and what seems like every iteration of tuna imaginable. This was lively, vinegared in an escabeche style. So much better than water-packed Chicken of the Sea.

Casa Lucas * Calle Cava Baja 30, Madrid, Spain

The Rain in Spain

Once again, humans and sights are distressingly absent from my vacation photos. At this point I've given up on even trying to be well-rounded. (I've also discovered that I take abysmal outdoor photos, I'm still working on that.)

Comic Relief. There is only one constant on all vacations: a Robin Williams movie will inevitably play on the plane. Thankfully, there were 20 to choose from (I tried watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but can never sit through movies on planes. A rousing game of Bookworm did keep me occupied for a while) so Dead Poet’s Society wasn’t forced on me. Later in the week I had a strange brief dream, more romantic than sexual, involving Robert Sean Leonard (who was in Dead Poet’s Society and who I’ve never given much thought to ever) but he was supposed to be some indie comic, if I can type such a phrase straight-faced. Also, had a dream that Oliver Schwaner-Albright, a New York Times dining section writer that I no absolutely nothing about, called me. On the the line was a gay man claiming that my father was a relative in common and he knew this because he was working on a documentary with Ken Burns. I kept insisting there was no way we were related but he wouldn’t believe me.

Tortoises vs. Hares. When I saw a Spanish thirtysomething couple saying "adelante" and mocking a fast walker, exaggeratedly pumping their arms up and down, I knew I was in upside-down town. No matter how hard I try to ease up, I cannot stroll. I enjoy barreling past people and storming around; that's why I wear flats. (Just yesterday I got suckered into taking one of those Facebook quizzes about my inner nationality and very unsurprisingly I got German. I've never been pegged so accurately: "You are precise yet romantic, efficient yet dreamy, friendly yet somewhat suspicious of others…you are easily annoyed by the slowness and/or stupidity of others.") But Spain, like much of the world outside NYC is composed of slow movers. Abnormally slow movers, like the motion of their feet is a visual trick like that Russian Futurist dog painting (who knew it was housed in Buffalo?). It looks like they are putting in a lot of effort yet they're moving at what I'd estimate to be 60% of a normal gait. For fun, I tried to match everyone else's strides but it was physiologically and psychologically damaging. I don't necessarily enjoy being in a hurry but I find it insufferable to get stuck behind someone on a sidewalk or staircase and not be able to pass.

Mad Props. Which brings me to the matter of the pervasiveness of canes and crutches and not just among the elderly. James even commented on this and he's not one to notice such things. Why do so many people in Madrid need walking aides? I've also wondered why I see more people with vitiligo in NYC than anywhere else on earth, so maybe it's just one of those things.

Aw, Nuts. I’m a sugar limiter but I’ll make exceptions for extraordinary sweets. Unfortunately (for me, not my health) most of what I saw displayed in Madrid bakeries was frankly, kind of resistible. Everything seemed brown, tan, beige, crumbly, hard, dense and dry—the anti-Demel. Soft, moist and colorful is where it’s at. I didn’t take any photos; you’ll just have to believe me. When I started seeing Frutos Secos advertised on the windows and awnings of their equivalent to a corner deli, it reinforced my impression of their odd palate. Dried fruit as a calling card? It only now occurred to me to look up frutos secos and as it turns out the phrase isn’t literal: it means nuts of all types and dehydrated legumes and garbanzos. Still shrivelly and dried out, though.

Black Lungs. I know Europe still clings to cigarettes more strongly than the US but even France has banned indoor smoking. Not so, Spain (I don't recall Barcelona being so nicotine-crazed). The only other places I've been where smoking was still semi-tolerated indoors were China and Macau (not Hong Kong) but that's nothing compared to Madrid, and besides, in Asia the behavior is kind of a men-only thing where Spain is equal opportunity. Not only is smoking rampant in most public spaces, smoking sections are nearly nonexistent and yet no one seems to have a problem with this. If you even light up while outside in the US, you are certain to get at least one dirty look or pathetic scolding cough from a passerby. I smoked through half of my teens, all of my twenties and a bit of my thirties, though I haven't smoked seriously in six years, meaning I don't buy packs but might have a cigarette at a party, equaling no more than two-three cigarettes a month I would guess. I only smoke when I drink and only rarely then. Yet, I love smoking. It's not a nasty habit to me and I was sad to give it up (if I didn't have high blood pressure and get gross-feeling and raspy, I would probably not stop). I always cave on vacation just as I eat as I please when not in NYC. Luckily, I can turn it off in a (rapidly failing) heartbeat. I can smoke like a locomotive for a week and then not touch a cigarette for months. It's a gift. Unlike sugary and fried foods where once I start, I can't stop eating junk and that's all I want to eat. I'm still trying to get back on track with a semi-healthy eating regimen. Last night it was homemade fried chicken but today it is oatmeal, sashimi and jogging (is it '80s to use the word jogging? At least I didn't mention aerobics. I hardly move fast enough to qualify as full-fledged running).

Strange Brew. Beer is the drink of choice, not wine, cider or sherry (yes, sherry's a wine). I think outsiders equate Spain with wine but as my Madrileño Spanish teacher pointed out, "ir de caña" going for beer is a common phrase where no one says "ir de vino." Even at high end restaurants, men, women, young and old had cañas on the table while perusing the menu, though a bottle of wine might eventually be ordered to accompany a sit-down meal. More oddly to me were the Lilliputian portions. Everyone seems to drink juice glass-sized beers these s-called cañas or equally tiny glasses of wine dubbed chatos. They're cheap, like 1.50 euros and intended to accompany a single tapa. My concern was that these bars are so intimidatingly crowded that getting another drink was barely worth the hassle. Perhaps that is why a one-drink/one-tapa crawl is standard procedure.

Underground. We rode the subway numerous times per day and not only was it never crowded (once it did approach NYC levels of uncomfortable closeness) we never waited more than four minutes, which was easy to gauge since they have those nice arrival time boards hanging on the platform. I love efficiency (uh, oh, that inner German is getting excited)! They even have a Bibliometro, a.k.a. a staffed library kiosk in the middle of some stations…and riders were actually checking out books. What did weird me out was that the subway doors do not open automatically. This was not immediately apparent to me on my first day trying to disembark and I panicked. A passenger getting off or on has to either push a button or pull a lever (depending on train style) and the trains are so uncrowded that at stops many doors simply stayed shut. Is this an energy-saving tactic? It made me nervous that a door might malfunction and I would be stuck on the subway car.

You Kin't Do It. Dunkin' Donuts is Dunkin' Coffee in Madrid. Maybe they don't know what donuts (or even doughnuts) are because the chain calls them rosquillas, which from my observation of traditional bakery windows seemed denser and hefty than yeasty frosted American donuts, which is what Dunkin' Coffee were selling. I'm not a donut person and forgot to peek at what flavors were on offer. While at Alcampo an awesomely enormous modern supermarket (with a department store on the second floor) in the Vaguada Mall, there was a guy dressed up like a donut and handing out chocolate-iced samples in individually packed plastic shells. The container just said Donut, so maybe it's a new marketing push. To spare his dignity, I did not snap a photo.

Stay Seated. Just as in Buenos Aires, movie theaters have assigned seating. I like this (perhaps it's that inner German in me). I often see a movie I would never watch in NYC while on vacation (Madrid: Watchmen; Mexico City: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; Buenos Aires: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Penang: Red Eye). After purchasing a ticket, you can show up late as you'd like knowing you have a seat waiting for you. None of that annoying NYC up-and-down, hovering, maneuvering, squeezing into empty spots at the last second in the dark. Or maybe that's just my issue because I tend to go to movies early and get a good seat, then have to stand up to let people in and out for the next 20 minutes.

One Last Thing. No one has ever questioned me about my last name in NYC (eh, in the early 21st century a Puerto Rican girl who signed me up at the world's most demoralizing Lucille Roberts on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border suspiciously asked me if I was "Spanish") or the few big cities I've visited in Latin America. They have no reason to since Garcia is the eighth most common surname in the United States. Might as well be Smith or Williams.  But both the woman who checked me in to my hotel and the woman who checked me in for my flight home seemed unusually curious about my last name and made a point of mentioning how Spanish it was. The older airport woman simply asked if I could speak Spanish while the younger hipper girl at the hotel scolded me playfully. My only authority on Madrid-ness, Pablo the teacher, said, "They think all Americans have names like Jackson." For the record, Jackson is at 18th place in surname popularity.

And by the way, it rained all six days I was in Spain. Like a mold, I thrive on chilly dampness, though.