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Posts tagged ‘Tapas/Pintxos’

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


It seems that Mercat sporadically invites guest chefs from restaurants in Catalonia. I’ve never paid much attention but the latest crew, Paula Casanovas and Felip Planas, compelled me to pay a visit for no other reason than I’ve been on a Spanish food kick this week (I know, I was just obsessed with visiting the Yucatan, and now I thinking about a March trip to Madrid).

Unfortunately, there was no prix fixe as advertised; instead everything was listed a la carte. I don’t know if this was just poor execution or a genuine switch and bait (as a miffed Grub Street commenter double posted). For instance, our server obviously had been instructed to tell diners about the chefs and to explain what El Bulli to the unknowing, but didn’t seem prepared for anyone to actually order from the special menu.

Mercat canelons de rabo de toro

We picked two items from the diy tasting menu and supplemented what I assumed would be small portions with cheese and cured meats. Yes, the canelons de rabo de toro/oxtail-stuffed pasta with langoustine was tiny. So fleeting, I can scarcely remember my few shared bites.

Mercat coca de pato con peras

The coca was more substantial. I liked this a lot. Four slices of rare duck were served atop puff pastry with a pear compote tinged with cinnamon. I initially assumed the creamy crown was melted cheese but now that I think about it, it may have been aioli. Duck with pears is a traditional Catalan combination and definitely less candied than the l’orange style fruitiness that ducks seems to get saddled with here.

Mercat embotits assortment

This was quite a bounty of charcuterie, or rather embotits. The selection included—morcilla, jamon serrano, lomo, sobrassada, xoriç, llonganissa—everything Mercat has at their disposal minus jamon Iberico. They throw you off with all of the Catalan, it's all those Ks and Xs. At first I was puzzled by xoriç until I deduced that it was simply chorizo. Sautéed to oily, crispy perfection and mounded on a slice of bread, it was my favorite cured meat of all. I’m also still convinced that Americans would love the lush, also cinnamonny, morcilla, as long as no one told them it was blood sausage. It’s not even in the same league as other Bizarre Foods fodder.

Mercat cheese plate

Garrotxa, la peral and idizabal, goat cow+sheep and sheep. I wasn’t expecting la peral to be a blue, though I’m glad it was. The flavor was strong and salty with a creamy texture. Not overpowering at all.

Mercat brussels sprouts & romescu

Ok, produce. Doesn’t Spanish food get knocked for the seeming absence of vegetables? I love Brussels sprouts, especially this charred version that I imagine was meant to mimic calçots. The vegetable is grilled to blackened sweetness and served with a rich, nutty romesco for dipping.

Mercat churros

And dessert: simple churros and chocolate.

Mercat * 45 Bond St., New York, NY


As much as a complain about Manhattan, I do appreciate that it’s business as usual on Sunday nights. The last time I attempted going out after 9pm on a three-day weekend Sunday was in Toronto, and it was a complete ghost town. Boqueria (as well as Olive Garden) was almost at capacity the night before Martin Luther King Day.

I was determined to have creative Spanish food after getting hopped on Tapas: a Taste of Spain in America, but deciding where to go was no easy task. Spending more than you’d expect on small dishes was a given; value wasn’t my concern as much as agreeable food and atmosphere. I’d already been to Tia Pol (too far) Ostia (too average) and Pamplona (good but I wanted something new). Everything I read about Mercat said it was loud and oversalted, Casa Mono seemed tiny and irritating, ditto for Quinto Pino but probably not so irritating. I’d been to the old Suba a few times and wasn’t inspired to try the newest incarnation. Boqueria was all that was left.


I hate to admit that my photos are even more off than usual. I was playing around with the white balance trying to counteract the dreaded candlelight and not only made everything washed out and fuzzy but somehow changed the height/width ratio. I don’t even know if I should be allowed to have a camera.


This was regular jamon Serrano, not the fabled Iberico ham. Nonetheless, it was still handsome and meaty. I hadn’t expected the jamon to come atop pa amb tomaquet, pan con tomate, Catalan, Spanish…however you like. I’m always surprised how tomato guts on toast can be so appealing.


“Why are there so many eggs on the menu?” asked the girl half of the couple next to us. I honestly hadn’t noticed the overabundance but yes, there is a soft-boiled one in this dish. She ordered it too. I love anything with chickpeas and morcilla. Garbanzos al Pinotxo are in the style of Barcelona’s Bar Pinotxo. I was very bummed that all the food biggies, including this stand in the Boqueria market, were closed the week I was there last summer.


Any iteration of dates, bacon and cheese (and sometimes almond) are a must. In this instance the cheese was valdeon, a blue. I’ve made these with manchego and think they would be perfect for a Super Bowl snack even though they seem kind of froufrou. I couldn't even snap this shot before one date went missing from the skewer.


Brandade is kind of like shrimp toast. Maybe the whipped salt cod and potatoes on bread were grilled not fried; they still had that oily unctuousness that goes down well but might cause trouble later.


As Americans we would’ve eaten cheese with everything else, but we obeyed its place on the desert menu. Idizabal came cubed and tossed with olives and the rosemary manchego was surrounded a few tiny squares of membrillo and filberts (wow, I tried to not say hazelnut but filbert just sounds backwoods even though that’s what I grew up with and oddly what I saw used in Toronto. Did you know that Oregon is the nation’s largest hazelnut producer?). Our two choices were enjoyed with a rose cava that James thought was like a wine cooler.

Boqueria * 53 W. 19th St., New York, NY


I’m pleased to see the recent upswing of snacky Spanish options. While NYC hasn’t fully accepted full on Spanish cuisine, avant-garde or traditional, we love small plates. And oddly, small plates often equals small space. You have to be in the right frame of mind to brave Tia Pol or Casa Mono. Less distinguished places like Tasca and Ostia, nearly across the street from each other, have the potential to lighten the load though I’m not sure they deliver much wow.

Ostia_griled_sardinesI guess I want tapas to be more exciting. I’d like to see Basque pintxos, crazy combinations (cod and chocolate sauce, anyone?) piled on bread or crammed into tiny glasses and secured with a toothpick. Bar counters with options on display and up for grabs. But America’s tapas knowledge isn’t vast, there’s barely enough of a foundation to begin tweaking the familiar.

On an early weeknight, though an hour and a half past opening, Ostia was nearly empty. The feel stool occupiers looked like more of a happy hour crowd than diners. Of course, there are worse things than deeply discounted glasses of Tempranillo and freebie marinated artichokes. I don’t mind being verbally offered a couple choices of red or white upon asking, but others might find it odd not to be given a wine list by default.

Ostia_bacon_wrapped_datesWe were informed that the ham croquettes weren’t ready yet, which bummed me out. A replacement suggestion, bacon-wrapped dates, were obviously tasty. I still wanted a croquette, though. The grilled sardines a la plancha were creative with oily, sweet and bitter flavors. I’m not sure what the charred black orbs were, they looked like olives but tasted more like dried cherries. We also tried a chorizo cooked in beer and salsa picante, though the tart tomato sauce slightly overwhelmed the sausage. All the greatest hits were on offer including serrano ham displayed whole-legged, hoof-on.

Ostia_chorizo_salsa_picanteI wasn’t about to order the meat as much as I love it because I didn't want to take any chances on being disappointed. There’s a propensity in NYC to rough-up showcased, cured pig legs, resulting in short stubby hunks when they’re supposed to be paper thin and lengthy. Hand crafted only makes an impression when it’s done properly. I can’t figure out if shopkeepers don’t know better or if they enjoy manhandling the goods. Crudely sawing our Jamon Iberico with a 99-cent store pocket knife on our hotel bed was just as deft as anything I’ve witnessed around here. Maybe it’s pride that keeps people from just using a mechanical slicer.

No matter, I’m still happy to have more Spanish newcomers to choose from. I’ll just steer clear of the ham.

Ostia * 113 Seventh Ave. S., New York, NY


1/2 For some unfounded reason, I thought this tapas place was some sort of frat haven. That didn't appear to be the case on my visit, which was reassuring. What was less than soothing were the seating arrangements. I have my own personal issues with stools. I think I must just be graceless because I find it unreasonably awkward to climb up and perch properly without feeling off kilter and exposed. Lord help me on my Barcelona trip in August. Maybe I should practice my mount and dismount in the next month.

These weren't normal stools at the bar (that set up did exist), but rather stools positioned around a too low, too small wooden barrel. More than two plates and glasses caused a problem and bending towards the food felt unnatural. And the food itself was a touch unnatural, or at least unorthodox.

Instead of the usual aioli topped patatas bravas, these potatoes were simply drizzed in Tabasco sauce. And I swear the cheese plate contained slices of mozzarella. I wasn't aware of any similar fresh Spanish cheeses. The simple long thin spicy chorizo was satisfying, as was the square, pan-baked bacalao empanada. The menu is fairly large, so it's fair to guess that there are lots of hits and misses.

Xunta struck me as half-decent, half-weird. It's definitely not a first choice tapas bar, but it would suffice if you were in the neighborhood and felt too lazy to venture beyond the East Village.

Xunta * 174 First Ave., New York, NY

Las Ramblas

Tapas are tricky. I love the little morsels, but I'm averse to the little rooms that usually go along with the package. It's not like I'm accustomed to large open spaces in NYC, but tapas in particular seem synonymous with long waits and being squished. Um, and I have my own issues with bar stools: one, my balance is horrendous, I feel like I'm going to topple over, and two, I have a fat ass, at least fat enough to mush over the sides of many stools' tiny circular tops.

I shied away from Tia Pol for ages because I thought it would be a nightmare, and it wasn't at all. Las Ramblas is more how I envisioned Tia Pol to be, if that makes any sense. Not a nightmare by any means, but bedroom-sized with a handful of nearly touching tables. When I arrived there were actually two spots open, but they wouldn't seat me without my dining companion so I waited the four-stooled bar. Of course, the place filled up in mere minutes and when James showed up we just ate at the bar because there was no telling if anyone was ever going to leave (we were asked if we wanted an open table about half way through, but we were already established where we were).

We didn't go wild with ordering, just four items, and pretty basic ones at that. Everything was likeable, but perhaps a notch below the dishes we had at Tia Pol (I'm only using them for comparison because it's the most recent tapas experience I've had, though it wasn't all that recent).

Simple gambas. There was something almost Caribbean about the preparation. Instead of simply sliced garlic, it was like they'd used a sofrito.

I'm scared of mayonnaise but love patatas bravas. And I never thought I'd say this, but these potatoes could've actually used a touch more aioli.

Albondigas, plain and simple.

Serrano and idiazabal. I could eat this ham and cheese all day.

Las Ramblas * 170 W. 4th St., New York, NY

Tia Pol

I had avoided Tia Pol for ages because I feared it was the type of place that would make me unhappy. You know, tiny, cramped, jostling, long waits. All of that was true, but it didn't bother me. Maybe it was the drinks I'd downed prior to dinner.

One of the main reasons I'd never been to Tia Pol is that it's just not on my way to anything. I finally found an opportunity when I decided to see Architecture of Density, a series of photographs by Michael Wolf at Hasted Hunt Gallery down the street. I never go see art, but I really love these images of Hong Kong and got an invite from the photographer after writing online about how I was just going to blow up color photocopies of images from the book since I couldn't afford the $8,000 (or so) price tags. I always forget that people actually read what I write occasionally, and it's probably not wise to talk about things like flagrantly violating copyright (or tax laws).

So, there's nothing like little bites after viewing large scale photography. There was about a thirty minute wait, and the bar area is narrow, but like I said, it wasn't unbearable. We eventually got a nice two-seater in the back away from the fray.

With tapas I'm never sure if I'm under or over ordering. Our strategy here was to order a decent number of the small sized servings (most items come in two sizes) and opt for more if necessary (I've never actually done this when using this plan of attack, for fear of seeming too gluttonous). A glass of Txakoli made a nice accompaniment.

Grilled sardines with a carrot slaw. There was a distinctive coriander seed sweetness to the shredded vinegared vegetables.

I can never pass up the gambas. My question is whether or not you're supposed to eat the shells. I always do, and the heads too. Is that barbaric?

Chorizo, chocolate and little chile strands. Yes, the combination is peculiar, though not untasty. I think it's just regular chocolate, possibly milk chocolate. I can see it working better with a darker more bitter permutation.

Classic patatas bravas. Weird how mayonnaise can be so blech, but aioli can be so addictive. That's garlic for you.

Blurry lamb skewers. Nice and cuminy.

I can never recall all the contents of a cheese plate after the fact. But there was definitely some marcona almonds, honey covered walnuts, quince paste, cabrales, manchego and idiazabal.

Tia Pol * 205 Tenth Ave., New York, NY

Zipe Zape

1/2 Egg_1 I don't eat tapas as much as I'd like to, but I finally got the chance to try Zipe Zape since I was in Williamsburg for New Year's Eve. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing that a mere four hours later my precious tapas (along with Jameson, Frangelico, cheap champagne, Rioja and Sauvignon Blanc) would end up splattered all over a stranger's stairwell. Oh well, way to ring in 2006.

ZgambasBut I started the evening with good intentions and a nice Spanish spread. I had heard the servings were small and overpriced, and that was probably true of the $5 potato and chorizo nibble topped with a quail egg, but in general everything was a fair value. We also ordered baby chorizo in brandy, which are like Catalan lit'l smokeys (I love them), a cured meat platter, whose contents I can't fully recall, gambas al ajillo, which were super, and a touch spicier than I would've expected. They include the heads with whiskery antennae, which only meant more for me. ZcheeseWe were so impressed we recreated the simple dish for dinner the following night. Dipping crusty bread into the garlicky oil is almost as good as eating the shrimp, themselves.

We also ordered a cheese plate, which we were getting antsy waiting for because there's nothing like a parade of meat, cheese and bread, but as it turned out we were being American and didn't realize they were holding it as an after-dinner treat. The cheese portions were really large in comparison to the rest of the dishes and way too heavy for two who'd already Zmeat eaten a meal, but we plowed through. The selection included tetilla, manchego, a goat cheese, and membrillo. The food was better than average, the service gracious (it seemed like a mother and teenage daughter running the room) and all was well (until after midnight, at least). That's why I was surprised to read this negative Chowhound account from the same evening. I was glad to be on the good side of things for a change, it often seems that I have poor experiences with places that others love.

Zipe Zape * 152 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, NY


Restaurants housed in stores can be scary like Little Caesars in K Mart, but of course, ABC Carpet and Home is no blue light special. Though after facing a sold out showing of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," tapas, across the street, seemed like a good second choice.

It was Saturday night, there was a long wait, the Gipsy Kings were blaring, but by the end of the evening, I was happy as a clam (or maybe that was the giant pitcher of sangria taking effect). We ordered way more food than we should've: shrimp and crab-stuffed piquillo peppers, shrimp in garlicky olive oil, a hearty salad with machengo, Serrano ham and the sweetest-ever sun-dried tomatoes and a dish called "lamb rice" filled with olives, figs, more of those tomatoes, topped with little lamb chops.

Though I didn't see the bill, I have the feeling Pipa is one of those places where little things quickly add up. Tapas have that way of sneaking up on your pocketbook.

Pipa* 38 E 19th St., New York, NY



1/2 Closed: I think the owners are now focusing on Zipe Zape (which I've yet to try) down the street. (6/6/05)

It's about time Williamsburg got into the tapas game. Well, I'm not sure if quail with quince, chestnut puree and chocolate qualifies as tapas, but I was definitely intrigued. This was more of an entree, but Allioli also offers smaller, standard fare like grilled octopus and bread topped with serrano ham and olive oil.

Make sure to bring cash because they don't take credit cards and ATM's are none too near (as we discovered a bit to late). Cash-only seems to be a big trend these days. Is it the recession or primarily a Brooklyn thing? (2/1/02)

Both times I've eaten here, I've ended up with a stomach ache. I never know if it's because devouring tapas always seems to go hand-in-hand with imbibing heavily. I also feel like we must over-order, choosing four dishes. The waitress seems ready to take off after the mention of two. But then again, this is Williamsburg and if girls are going to persist in walking around with ten-year-old-boy bodies, the servings must be kept to a minimum. The baby squid baffled me because I wasn't sure if you were supposed to dig into its bulbous head or not. I wasn't put off by the notion until James talked me out of it. Suddenly self-conscious and squeamish, my thoughts turned to a conversation from earlier that evening about the Daniel Pearl video (which I still haven't watched–I tried the other day, but my internet connection was too slow, and the movements were drawn out and jerky and it seemed even more upsetting and ominous in slow motion so I turned it off) and the notion of eating this disembodied squid head made me uncomfortable. I relish in offal, innards and the like, but this time around I had to take the waitress's chiding ("how come no one eats the heads?"). I just couldn't bring myself to take a chomp out of the darn thing. (6/7/02)

Allioli * 291 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY