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A Tapas Tour of Spain

"We are the world’s smallest restaurant with the biggest pantry," the owner of nearby El Quim de la Boqueria quips. He has prepared a succulent nugget of bacalao under a cap of candied tomato sauce zapped with ginger purée. The dish is an epiphany—as is everything that emerges from this grand, dime-size kitchen. Deeper into the market, Ana Gambeta, of the tourist-friendly Bar Central, hawks her baked dorada (bream), her butifarra sausage with white beans, and her tripe casserole—in five languages. "Israelis and Palestinians eat at my counter, shoulder to shoulder," Gambeta boasts. "We even have fans from Kenya and New Caledonia."

Thanks to Barcelona’s mind-boggling popularity, the city’s centro has been gentrified beyond recognition. In ­Barceloneta, the gruff fishermen’s quarter, laundry still flaps in the wind over streets that at times smell of sewage—but apartments here go for a million dollars. Nostalgic barrio denizens hold back the clock with the rich, frothy, German-style ale at El Vaso de Oro, a dark, narrow bar where the city’s snappiest countermen, in white uniforms with gold epaulets, might break into spontaneous song along with the regulars. Foie gras escalopes are slapped onto griddles like burgers; the patatas bravas—served with both alioli (garlic mayo) and piquant tomato sauce— remain unsurpassed. A pair of pickled locals tip us off to Bomba Bar Cova Fumada, a few blocks away. We find the unmarked door and muscle our way to the worn marble bar through a crowd that seems to include actual fishermen. Twenty dollars buys us grilled sardines, terrific bacalao fritters, and bomba, a crisp meat-and-mashed-potato cannonball doused in an explosively fiery sauce. Cova is the trip’s best discovery.

Farther afield, in the working-class barrio of Poble Sec, Quimet & Quimet proves that canned is better than fresh, catering to the Spanish obsession with gourmet latas (tins). Quim Pérez, Spain’s greatest conserva collector—and curator—runs a bar that resembles an Aladdin’s cave of preserved edibles. Over vermouth and soda I watch him mount his delicacies onto round bread rusks. Out comes lacón, Galician ham, under a green, tangy relish of capers; anchoas over tomato jam; smoked salmon doused with truffled honey. In Spain, cans are even aged, like fine wines. Limited-edition tinned mussels from 2001, anyone?

Most Barcelona bars shut down on Sunday nights—which is why Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo is so indispensable. It’s not just the business hours that lure me to the swank blond-wood bar. A meal of scallion fritters with zesty, chunky romesco sauce, grilled asparagus, a beef tartare canapé, and any shellfish on offer singed a la plancha—this is my Platonic ideal of Sunday supper. Plus, Paco serves Barcelona’s greatest tomato bread: a flat, split, porous roll grilled to a perfect crunch and slathered with pink, frothy tomato pulp. Now, that’s catalán.

Seville

In Seville, where tapas really are tapas—small!—we decide to set ourselves a challenge: How many bars can a sane, healthy human hit in two days?How much flamenco-and-bullfighting ambience can be soaked up, how many montaditos, cazuelitas, and frituras devoured?There will be no meals, only morsels snagged en route to more morsels. To drink: frosty cañas—small cups of beer—to keep our brains clear enough.

We strike gold with the very first place, La Flor de Toranzo. A weathered 1940’s zinc bar with beautiful azulejos of orange groves on the walls. And to eat, freshly baked Antequera rolls stuffed with salt-cured pork loin and apples, or mounted with Cantabrian anchovies under squiggles of condensed milk. Service and ambience are so simpatico here, it’s painful to leave. But steps away, on Calle Gamazo, slices of first-rate chacina (charcuterie) plonked onto wax paper await at Casa Moreno. Here, concealed within an old grocery store, is an eating nook so festooned with comestibles one feels trapped inside a gaudy Andalusian Baroque altar. Only instead of angels’ wings there are tins, jars, and packages. Oh, and the endless posters of the Virgin of Macarena, patron saint of matadors, Gypsies, and, apparently, the local Real Betis soccer team. "La Macarena es bética," insists a man in all seriousness.

At night, over in the Arenal area, where tapas haunts are concentrated around the Maestranza bullring, aficionados’ cries are audible from inside Spain’s most perfect plaza de toros. Rushing to beat the jamón-hungry hordes to the bars, we swing three in quick time. Bodeguita A. Romero, despite its pink walls, is renowned for its he-man’s oxtail stew, grape-size caper berries, and pringa—cocido (boiled dinner meats) pressed into sinful sandwiches. By the time we’ve polished off the grilled gambas at the battered 1893 Bodega San José, crowds are spilling out of the ring, clutching their seat cushions, talking toros. In front of La Taquilla, a hard-core taurino hangout, grandmas guzzle Cruzcampo beer and complain how timid bulls have become. Inside, iron-lunged countermen deliver rapid-fire pregons (tapas recitations) amid the clinking of plates. The decibel level can shake plaster off the walls—then again, a great Andalusian bar routine is as frenzied as corrida moves are slow and controlled. We inhale yet more pork sandwiches, then collapse in our hotel room.

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