The first thing you should know about tapas is that they are not really a Catalonian cuisine. Tapas originated in southern Spain (Andalusia), and spread up to Barcelona in order to feed tourists through deceptively expensive means. (Tapas look cheap, until you’ve had six or seven.) In Barcelona, one tends to encounter “original” Andalusian tapas and the distinct tapas of the Basque Country, nestled not so far away in the Pyrenees. I’ve now had a fairly extensive trial of both.
And now, a side discourse: how to choose a restaurant. In previous posts I’ve said that the key to exploring a city is spontaneity and following whichever path looks coolest. This is NOT true for selecting a restaurant. When it comes to eating the best food possible, you’re best of doing serious research.
The “walk-by” approach to eating has several pitfalls. First, many places look the same, especially in a city like Barcelona where every single restaurant has a chalkboard out front listing the day’s specials, which are almost all similar (all tapas, all paella, neither Catalonian) and every restaurant has an authentic-sounding name in Catalan or Basque. Generally, you can avoid any place with pictures of the food, but the equally good rule that all places with English menus are tourist traps has also been proven wrong several times in my experience. Moreover, before 1:30 p.m. (lunch) and before 9:30 p.m. (dinner), the empty places are the ones locals love. The Spanish seriously eat lunch at 2 o’clock and dinner very late. If you walk by a restaurant at 8 p.m. and it’s got a hopping dinner crowd, they’re tourists.
All this confusion makes research a great idea. Guidebooks are a decent place to start, but all too often they reflect only one person’s taste, and let’s be honest: the guidebook writer probably only ate at a dozen restaurants before doing the reviews. Your best bet is the Internet. In America that means Yelp; in Europe the top pick is TripAdvisor, where, for example, over two thousand Barcelona restaurants have been reviewed. True, some of the critics are snobs, and some would rather have a Big Mac, but the crowd usually gets stuff right.
A couple of people have told me I have been enjoying good luck with my eating. Nope. I consciously chose TripAdvisor’s 2nd-best restaurant in Girona (best budget restaurant), and have generally been hitting Barcelona’s top 50. On my first tapas-eating night, though, I broke the rules by walking into a place that looked good. Learn from this mistake, readers.
I ordered a sampler of tapas from this place – by the way, it was called O’Toxo Tres Hermanos. The sample platter was huge.
From left to right: little Galician sausages, “patatas bravas” (potatoes with a slightly spicy sauce), calamari and “empanadas” (the little fried balls), mushrooms in oil, a Spanish omelette, and bread with tomato on top.
As it turns out, this wasn’t the best tapas restaurant in the universe, which helped me decide what to eat. The mushrooms were simply bland: just olive oil? Why not a dash of vinegar and lemon juice, too? The patatas bravas, in fact the most famous non-meat tapas of all (tapas are not vegetarian-friendly), were just regular old roasted potatoes with a slightly interesting sauce. And one bite of the calamari confirmed they were rubber bands.
On the other hand, the sausages and empanadas were enjoyable, and the omelette really good.
I was thus able to prioritize foods and save myself from trying to eat everything on the platter. It was just as well, because the next day would provide my introduction to real tapas.
This time I hewed to the TripAdvisor recommendations. In the budget category, its #1 pick in the entire city was Maitea Taverna, an authentic Basque tapas bar only slightly off my planned walking route for the day. I stopped by at 1:20 p.m. and found the restaurant completely empty, so I paused for a few minutes before going in, wondering if the website was delusional. No: the emptiness at so “early” a time was the indication that this was a place for locals.
A place for locals only, it turned out. I was, for the duration of my hour-plus stay, the only person in the place who knew more than 50 words of English. A waiter, attempting to be helpful, consistently used the wrong words for foods. Locals looked at me like an intruder. I didn’t care. I was eating.
Instead of ordering off a priced menu and sitting back at your table, at a Basque tapas bar you sit at the counter, which is stocked with platters of miniature sandwiches called bocadillos. The scene looks a bit like this:
Notice that everything has a toothpick. The method of paying is this simple: they count the number of toothpicks and multiply by 1.50 euros. I devoured 9 toothpicks of food. The first four were cold bocadillos:
As noted in the caption, the combo of smoked salmon, lettuce, and egg was especially intriguing. Then it was time to order off a list of hot items; I thought I selected four very different things but when they arrived, I discovered that the other big secret of Basque food is this: they really like fried food.
Not surprisingly, the empanada was subtle but fun with a nice squidy taste (you don’t often taste it if it hasn’t been fried into calamari), the codfish was good and tasted fairly American, and the fried Camembert was sinfully delicious. But, as luck would have it, the kitchen had saved the best for last. Let’s go back to that first picture of the bar, and zoom in on our quarry:
“What’s that vaguely alarming thing that looks like a heart that’s been ripped out of a small animal?” I hear you saying. That, my friends, is a BGR sandwich. I call it a BGR sandwich for two reasons.
1. BGR are my initials, and I can spend the rest of my life making BGR sandwiches for parties and explaining to people that they’re named after me because I invented them in a fit of unbelievable inspiration. If you ever hear me say this, don’t you dare contradict me. More importantly…
2. The sandwich consists of bacon, goat cheese, and raspberries. One of the many things my mother taught me about cooking is that all great cooking is about knowing how to use opposites. You add salt to bring out sweetness, for example, or add fruit to a spicy dish. This is why Thai yam curry is so good.
The BGR sandwich is an absolute masterpiece of contradictions. The dry bacon meets its foil in the creamy goat cheese and crushed raspberry. The saltiness of the meat and cheese are countered by the sweetness of the fruit. And the thin meat, soft cheese and crushed fruit are balanced on a crunchy, crusty slice of bread. I bit into the BGR sandwich and knew I was tasting the product of a genius.
I only had one. I could have had fifteen. But such is the experience of tapas: its pleasure is you get to try many things, but its pain is that some are not so interesting and some are ravishing. Moreover, since menus change daily here, the Maitea Taverna may never make the BGR sandwich. In which case, I’ll have to roll up my sleeves.
P.S. Tonight, which is to say Day 4, I had patatas bravas at Meson David, site of my meeting with the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble. Their popularity is at last justified: the batter had a pleasing give and a nice hearty crunch, too, and inside were blazingly hot potatoes so well-cooked as to be almost melted. The sauce on top was a lot like Tex-Mex’s chipotle mayo.