“In Spain, frequently you’re standing with a glass of sherry in one hand and a plate of simple, rustic bites in the other as you chat with whoever is crammed into the bar beside you,” says Zach Harjo, owner of Seattle’s Ocho.
Harjo is one of many chefs translating that dining experience to America and spurring the popularity of tapas. The small-plates movement really got going here thanks to chef José Andrés, who trained at the world’s most famous Spanish restaurant, elBulli. In 1993, he introduced Americans to the pleasures of jamón ibérico at flagship restaurant Jaleo in Washington, D.C. Katie Button, a fellow elBulli trainee, recently followed in his footsteps, bringing authentic tapas to Asheville, NC, at her restaurant Cúrate.
“Spaniards begin with wonderful products and then do very little to them, retaining the purity and simplicity of food,” says Button. Typical tapas include patatas bravas (fried potatoes), gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed in garlic and chiles), latas (preserved ingredients served in small tin cans), pintxos (skewers), and tortilla Española—a potato and egg omelette, unlike the Mexican version.
“Each region has its own food culture,” explains Seamus Mullen, chef/owner of NYC’s Tertulia, “and all the culinary influences Spain has absorbed, from Moorish to Sephardic to the integration of new ingredients from the new world, influence the dishes.”
Influenced by the cider houses of Spain’s northern Asturias region, Tertulia fills its paella with fiddlehead ferns, snails, and jamón ibérico. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, La Vara restaurant explores the legacy of Jews and Moors with tapas like ajo blanco (chilled almond soup) from Granada and Andalusian remojón (citrus salt cod salad with pistachios).
To sample such innovative small plates, book your next meal at one of America’s best tapas restaurants.