When you go into a tapas restaurant in the US, you look over a menu, then order your food and drinks separately. That does happen in many places in Madrid, but the traditional tapas bars are different. For example, when I walk in to El Urogallo (my favorite tapas bar in Madrid), I just walk up to the bar and ask for a beer (many Spanish prefer wine of course). On the bar, there are small window-displays that contain all sorts of culinary treasures. After pouring my drink, the bartender scoops some of the culinary treasures onto a plate, and delivers it with my drink. I don’t look at a menu… I don’t even ask for food. And the result is delicious… the food makes the beer taste better, the beer makes the food taste better… everyone’s happy.
There’s some hierarchy to the food that magically appears beside your drink. With your first drink, you might get some marinated olives that arrive with a dash of olive oil and diced bell peppers and onions. These olives were most likely marinated on-site; trust me, you’ve never had anything like them in the US. With your second drink you might get a little patatas alioli (a simple garlic potato salad). And it only gets better from there: tortilla española (not a flour tortilla like you’re thinking… it’s sort of like a potato omelet; El Orogallo makes them better than anyone else in Madrid… I think they use meat drippings, which turn into kind of a sauce during frying), empanada (not like the empanadas of Latin America… it’s sort of like a pot pie, usually made with tuna or cod, and has a deliciously flaky crust), mejillones (steamed mussels, usually served with olive oil, bell pepper, and onion). My personal favorite is croquetas: a savory fried dough that can contain chicken, jamón, or even fish. I just had ensaladilla rusa for the first time recently; it’s a potato salad with tuna or crab, bell pepper, and onions (absolutely delicious).
I typically go tapeo (the Spanish verb meaning ¨to eat tapas¨) around 6pm because restaurants in Madrid don’t open for dinner until 9ish (and most Spanish people don’t eat dinner before 10pm). Since I make an appearance at El Urogallo several times a week, the guys take good care of me. Not only do I typically get large portions, but sometimes they’ll even ask me which tapas I prefer.
Tapas aren’t meant to be a meal… just a little something-something to whet your appetite and make your drink even more enjoyable. If you particularly enjoy something, you can order a ración of it (a larger helping that you pay for).
The Spanish are much more focused on wine than beer. Most bars only have one type of beer on tap (Heineken or a Spanish equivalent). Beers are typically served in cañas (about an 8 oz serving), so if you want something resembling a pint or half-liter like we’re used to in the US, ask for a doble (double).
This is by no means the end of the culinary story in Madrid. I’m sure I’ll have several more posts about food. For example, in this post, I´ve skipped what are probably the two most traditional Spanish tapas: jamón Serrano and chorizo… I feel that these deserve their own posting. But don’t worry, I’ll get to it all before we end!
¡Buen provecho! (Or as Alton Brown would say, ¨I bid you good eating¨)