What is it about Spanish tapas that seem to intimidate people?
Look around. Small plates are everywhere. Even restaurants not focused on small plates often offer an appetizer combo platter.
But the cuisine that started it all — tapas — still scares some people. Why?
My theory is that they’re associating tapas with the spice that you’ll find in so many Mexican dishes with similar names. In reality, however, Spanish tapas have much more in common with the fare of Spain’s neighboring countries, Italy and France.
When the Mrs. and I took our pre-wedding honeymoon to Europe a couple of years ago, the first meal we had was at a tapas bar in the heart of Barcelona, where it’s not unusual to see the Spanish and Catalonian flags flying side by side. From the patatas con alioli (a garlicky potato salad) to the gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp in a light and creamy lemon-garlic butter) to the datiles con tocino (dates wrapped in bacon), every dish we tried was deeply flavorful and delicious — without being hot or too spicy.
As I noted in a previous blog, our favorite dish of all was suggested by our server after we had asked for our tab. She informed us that we could not leave without trying the lamb — fresh out of the oven, and seasoned only with a little salt and pepper. It was so good that the “sharing” aspect of small-plates dining went right out the window. After devouring the first serving, we ordered two more — one for each of us.
Besides awakening the taste buds with some flavors not encountered every day and accommodating a very social style of dining, many tapas restaurants provide an opportunity to sample Spanish wines — the kind recently featured in the Vinesse wine club, The World of Wine.
Spanish wines are not as well known and, thus, less appreciated than their Italian or French counterparts, but the quality is high and the prices can be more reasonable. Most importantly, Spanish wines are extremely food-friendly, which makes them the perfect choice to serve with tapas.
Here are two tapas bar recommendations — one in Chicago, and one in Spain’s walled medieval village of Pedraza, about 90 minutes north of Madrid:
- Emilio’s Tapas — This is where I first fell in love with tapas. Its downtown location was just three blocks from my apartment in Chicago, so even when I’d work late, I could stop by and grab a quick bite and glass of wine at the bar. Since I wasn’t sharing, one order of just about anything on the menu was plenty for a meal.
- El Soportal — Pedraza is one of the places in Spain where you can still see bullfighting; a ring is set up in there each September. According to Conde Nast Traveler, the place to go for tapas and local wine is El Soportal. There, you can have the classic Pedrazan dish: “enormous beans cooked with chorizo and morcilla, and served with baby lamb or pork.” It’s called judiones de La Granja.
I hope we’ve assuaged any fear you may have had over visiting a tapas-focused restaurant, whether it’s in Barcelona, Pedraza, Chicago or wherever you may live. One more suggestion: If you need help selecting a complementary Spanish wine, ask your server. Also keep in mind that sparkling wine — known as Cava in Spain — makes an excellent “default” choice.