Not one single proper sit down meal in two weeks in Spain. Honestly. Zero. Nada. I was far too enamoured with the idea of tapas to give away precious space in my stomach to a “normal” three course meal. See, tapas is the perfect solution to my natural inclination to inhabit more informal and casual eating and drinking establishments and for my desire not to commit to one portion of any food. If you’ve ever eaten in a group with me, you’ll know me as the person eyeing everyone else’s dish with envy. For a week in Madrid (and I’ll write separately on my tapas adventures in Seville later – this post will be long enough as it is), I hopped, skipped and jumped my way through some outstanding bars and snacks.
I got started on my first afternoon in Madrid at the Mercado San Miguel. Jammed wall to wall with people having the same idea as me, I did a circle of the eating stalls before settling on a perfectly perfumed paella served with a rustic Rioja. The server made sure I had my fair share of the charred rice bits in my dish (those alone should be a snack!). My first tapas in Spain was a rousing success.
I came to learn that tapas culture is about the food, people, socializing and the tapas bar itself. My hands down favourite bar in Madrid was La Taberna Sanlúcar. Luckily, it was located almost directly across the street from our apartment in the La Latina neighbourhood. My wife and I arrived here about a half an hour before they were closing up for the afternoon, and were treated to incredible hospitality. We had a lovely chat with the woman behind the bar as we watched our first ever taste of jamón ibérico be sliced for our plate. That plate of ham has ruined me – I’m afraid I’ll never taste anything like that until I return to Spain some day. The cheese, olives and bread were provided as part of the greeting after we ordered our drinks (an earthy Rioja for my wife and a chilled sherry for me). We left here in love with the place.
Later that same evening, my wife and I ventured out for some more snacks. Along a great strip of tapas joins on Calle Cava Baja in La Latina is Lamiak, known for is Basque food and drink. I chose a baked goat cheese, tomato and onion dish served on bread with a glass of txacoli, the slightly sparkling, very dry Basque wine.
A little further down the same street we popped into Casa Lucas. After I ordered una caña de cerveza, a perfectly ice cold and serviceable Mahou, the gentleman behind the bar cut up a few pieces of a house sausage and put them on some bread for us. It was about now that I was really becoming enamoured with the small plates of food you’d get just for ordering a drink. This is something I wish was more part of Canadian bar culture. I ordered a plate of croquettes here – nothing too special, but deep fried battered cheese is never a bad thing.
I know not to expect exceptional food or drink in any tourist-oriented location. After an afternoon tour of the stadium that Real Madrid calls home, we stopped in Plaza Mayor to watch the world go by. Some ham, cheese, a sangria for my wife and a larger than normal beer by Spain standards for me was the rent for this table to watch the scene on the Plaza for a spell.
We knew not to expect top flight tapas in Plaza Mayor, so later that night after a siesta, we headed back to Sanlúcar. If our rented apartment in Madrid was our permanent home, Sanlúcar would be where you would find me much of the time in the evenings. This is the night we discovered the treasure that is tinto de verano – the Andalusian summer specialty of red wine and lemon soda. My wife ordered one up immediately while I held back and went with a glass of house red. We shared a laugh at my decision making. You see, when we were in Paris a few years back, I unabashedly ordered a Kir Royale, and the waiter couldn’t believe a man would order that drink. My second drink, a beer, I ordered in as manly and deep a voice as I could muster. On this night in Madrid, once I saw a table of men ordering glasses of tinto de verano, I was all-in on this drink the rest of the trip and have started making a version of it back home ever since. Perfect olives, more of that unbelievably salty, fatty ham, some choco frito (fried cuttlefish) made for an amazing meal, all set to the backdrop of bullfighting posters in one of my favourite bars in all of my travels.
Although my wife did experience the full tapas experience at the gluten-free friendly Taberna La Concha, all of this eating out with me and settling for what was “safe” wasn’t really fair. So to even things up a bit, we visited Lateral, on the Plaza Santa Ana for a late tapas-oriented lunch. Their menu, though not extensively gluten-free, did explicitly indicate what she could order. I turned the ordering over to her: a perfect spanish tortilla (left) and a dish neither of us can fully remember but suspect was a ham and mushroom risotto (right).
Part of Spanish eating culture that I started to slide into relatively easily was the late night aspect to it. After an Atletico Madrid match, we headed to Taberna Alhambra (highly recommended!) near the Sol metro stop for some late night eats. We ordered up a platter of meats and cheese, I took the basket of bread and the Andalusian tomato sauce and made myself delectable bites from the assortment of goodies. The experience started with these interesting cocktail sausages (below right) that hit the bar with our drinks. Those were very addictive. In the picture below, my wife captured me, my beer and the clock in the background showing 11:30pm just after our arrival for dinner. Ah, Spanish time!
I’ve somehow managed to get this far without mentioning the iconic dish, patatas bravas. On our last day in Madrid, after exploring the western area of the city, we popped into Origen Taberna. The people here made this a great experience. My broken Spanish, which was getting fairly decent in restaurant situations by this point in the trip, was put to the test in ordering items that were gluten-free. Those potatoes (below, left) with their spicy tomato sauce and aioli were among the best of many, many versions we sampled. The tomato dish on the right was outstanding as well, and we were given a very nice pre-order taste of a fried egg on gluten-free bread to get us started. You can see by the man sitting across from me at the bar, that even he was interested in our orders. This place was a great find!
On our last night, with the dreaded early morning flight home looming, we made our way to Taberna Malaspina, near Plaza Sol. From the outside it looked good enough for our needs (helped by the man with his dog sitting patiently beside him at a table by the door). Although close to a touristy area, it was mostly locals inside with no English spoken. My last Spanish caña washed down a lovely egg/omlette mini sandwich, patatas bravas, ham, and more bread and tomato sauce condiment than advisable. It was a perfect last tapas experience in Madrid.