Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

It was April 2011 and I was on the road trip of all road trips, driving through vast green landscapes in the beautiful Carolinas with like-palated friends on a united quest for great food.  We were still riding high on one of the most sensational dinners ever, one hosted by Chef Sean Brock at Husk the night before, so filling and fulfilling that we needn’t have any breakfast that morning.  But by mid afternoon hunger struck and our GPS was honed in on Asheville, North Carolina for a quick pitstop on our way to Chilhowie, Virginia.
It was just our luck that a new 1 month old Spanish tapas restaurant called Cúrate was on our path, an attractive alternative to the numerous Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels along the highway. We were excited to eat Spanish tapas by a chef who was raised in the Ferran Adrià/José Andrés family through stints at El Bulli in Spain and The Bazaar in Los Angeles, a young chef named Katie Button who opened Cúrate with her fiancé Felix Meana.  Button couldn’t have asked for a better partner in Meana who runs the beverage program and the front of house at Cúrate, and comes with a wealth of experience- as chef de rang at El Bulli for several years and most recently as the Director of Service at The Bazaar.

It’s no wonder then, that the minute we walked into this bright spacious restaurant in downtown Asheville we were given the warmest welcome and the most attentive service imaginable.  How it came to be that this couple left the brights lights and big cities to settle in a quaint and somewhat removed part of North Carolina (albeit with an edgy artsy vibe reminiscent of Berkeley) is a mystery to me, but they managed to create a comfortable and inviting space where these 4 out-of-towners felt right at home.A glorious leg of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermín summoned to us from the marble countertop amidst a dizzying perfume of flambéed sherry wafting from the open kitchen, and we happily obliged with an order of España’s finest, shaved, with wedges of pan con tomate.

There were creamy croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, garlicky gambas al ajillo and pincho moruno (lamb rubbed with Moorish spices), among numerous other staples of traditional Spanish tapas on Cúrate’s menu, and plenty of chorizo and bacalao to go around.  With nearly 40 items on their menu we had to practice restraint, a difficult thing to do, for we were on our way to a 20 course tasting dinner in a few hours.  We had ‘chistorra & chips José’s way’, spicy little chorizos wrapped in sliced potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, on the brink of being too oily yet tasty nonetheless, a popular dish served at José Andrés’ Jaleo.

Roasted red peppers, onions and eggplant drizzled with a 30 year sherry vinaigrette were crisscrossed with salty and briny Spanish anchovies in the escalavida con anchoas dish.

Tender thick stalks of Navarran white asparagus, tossed with lemon zest and a tarragon vinaigrette, were arranged as vertical towers against a backdrop of fluffy mayonnaise espuma.

Thanks to Meana there is a great selection of beverages to complement the food, from imported Spanish beers and sangria made table side, to Cavas and numerous other Catalan wines like Montsant and Priorat.  Swirl Rioja in your wine glass or spill a drop or two of panaché on your face as you attempt to drink from a glass porrón with your head tilted back.  It will all go down well with setas al jerez, mushrooms sautéed with sherry, olive oil and a sprig of thyme.

The handful of dishes that we had that day were good- certainly shy of what we’ve had and could have in Spain- but extremely promising, with a solid grasp of the essence of Spanish tapas and the beauty of its simply yet intensely flavored cuisine.  Asheville is fortunate to have this new addition to its culinary scene, and with Meana at the helm to maintain its superb level of service, it’s a Spanish oasis that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody traveling through the Carolinas and anybody needing to ‘cure yourself’, cúrate, with a good time.

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

Random trivia: Did you know that the largest living organism known to man is a mushroom? There is single specimen of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, covering 3.4 square miles of land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, that has been growing for some 2,400 years- and is still growing.

Street food in LA

Los Angeles has seen many food trends in the past few years- wine bars, gastropubs, burger wars, Top Chef contestant restaurant openings, temporary dining events, molecular gastronomy, mixology and food trucks .  Last year attracted much talk with the surge of food trucks galore, starting with the ever popular Kogi BBQ truck famous for their kalbi tacos, to others serving ‘gourmet’ delights like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and Peruvian saltado.  A little over a week ago on February 13th, the very first LA Street Food Festival in downtown gathered a massive crowd of food truck enthusiasts who endured an unusually hot day and 2 hour lines to get their street food fix.  It was an incomprehensible mayhem of snaking lines and piles of trash, which I don’t think that I would have had the patience to tolerate if it weren’t for having a bit of an insider’s edge and some kindness from strangers.

On board for the big festival that day were already popular trucks like Baby’s Badass Burgers, Fishlips Sushi, CoolHaus, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus.  There were a few that were about to make their LA debut, like the Dim Sum truck and a cart selling freshly fried baby donuts in the upstairs VIP lounge.  My favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre, in his now signature pop-up guerrilla style, overtook the spotlight of the festival with his LFC truck.  Decked out in bright red and white colors, his truck, which served his succulent Ludo’s Fried Chicken, proved to be the most popular truck on the grounds.  Hungry patrons were known to wait in line for more than 2 hours and an additional 1 to collect the food.  I cued in line for LFC, but after 10 minutes gave up at the insanity of wasting that much time for a couple of bites of food, even though it was Ludo’s food.  And then a miracle happened.  As we were eating savory shrimp har gow with a sesame soy sauce, and an awful peking duck taco served on a dry corn tortilla from the Dim Sum truck, a friendly group of people who sat on the lawn next to us offered to share their LFC.  They waited for 2 hours, yet they shared these golden morsels with us for free.  The dark meat chicken, which was brined for 2 days, was juicy and plump with a crispy rosemary crust that complemented the home made BBQ sauce.  Ludo, je t’aime.

I believe in reciprocating good gestures and random acts of kindness, so I quickly ran up to the VIP lounge to fetch all of us some hot mini donuts seasoned with confectioners sugar and cinnamon sugar.  They were delicious, especially shared with our new friends.

My friend and fellow food blogger Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA took me around this chaotic street fest.  He was responsible for recruiting the 2 food stands which to me really depicted the true meaning of street food. Sabor de Bahia served Brazilian street food like acarajé, which are beautiful ground black eyed pea fritters deep fried in red palm oil, then stuffed with chopped tomatoes, a creamy shrimp paste and topped with a tangy chili sauce called pimenta.  This was my favorite item of the day.

We also tried coxinha de frango, Portuguese for little chicken legs.  These small but dense deep fried dumplings were made with flour dough and filled with shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and cream cheese.  They’re formed into their classic tear drop shape before they’re battered and fried up.  The coxinha were the size of a golf ball, but they deceptively weighed heavier than a dumbbell.  Packed with power and savor, these balls delivered.  With a squeeze of ketchup right out of the bottle in true Brazilian style (according to Bill), we thoroughly enjoyed these Brazilian delights.

Antojitos de la Abuelita came strong with their tlayuda, the Oaxacan version of thin crust pizza.  3 types of succulent meats lay atop a  generous slab of beans, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage.  Chili marinated pork called cecina and salted beef called tasajo were both mouthwatering and delicious, but my favorite morsel of meat was the homemade chorizo.  We also had a fantastic plate of chicken in green mole sauce.

As we finished our day at the street food festival with some Hawaiian style shaved ice which wasn’t anything like the refreshing cups of shaved iced that I’ve had on the islands, I pondered once again over this food truck craze in LA.  Although I am not a big fan of this so-called ‘gourmet’ food truck phenomenon as previously posted in my blog, I accept its popularity and presence all over the streets of LA.  I think it’s great that there is something food related that people can get excited about, but just like the economic bubble, this food truck bubble is bound to burst very soon.  It’s impossible for these trucks to keep multiplying at the same pace.  Sooner or later, the really bad ones will be weeded out and only a few will remain.

What I have more of a problem accepting is for these young food trucks, serving outrageous new food combinations, to be called ‘street food’.  Street food to me depicts regional cuisine and local flavors which have been painstakingly protected and honored by its people.  It doesn’t matter where it’s sold- out of an apartment, a street corner, a food truck or a restaurant- but it should reflect a long history of tradition and culture that has remained untainted by modern trends.  I got a taste for real street food in East LA a couple of weeks ago when Bill took me on a food crawl to meet some of his trusted vendors.

Our first stop was a food truck on a street corner close to Olympic Boulevard and Dakota.  There were actually 2 similar food trucks in close proximity to each other.  One had a long line of customers, and I assumed that this was where we were going.  These customers don’t know what they’re doing, Bill muttered under his breath, as he escorted me to the one with no line called Mariscos Jalisco.  Hailing all the way from San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, these vendors specialized in Mexican seafood delights.  You can get shrimp and octopus cocteles, and even some fresh oysters by the dozen, but we were here for one thing- the shrimp tacos, taco dorado de camaron.  The deep fried morsels of shrimp were so tender they were almost creamy, contrasted by the crunchy texture of the fried taco shells.  The taco was topped with a generous heap of buttery avocados and a tangy salsa with chopped cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.  Simple.  Comforting. Delicious.

Our next stop was at Tamales Elena in the deep ghetto neighborhood of Watts.  As Bill told me about the history of gang violence in the area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were talking about the same place.  Granted we went in broad daylight on a beautiful sunny LA day, but there was a sense of peace and chill on the streets as we pulled up behind this unassuming food truck on the corner of Wilmington and 111th.  We were greeted by the patrons of the truck with bright welcoming smiles as we dug our forks into their fantastic pork tamales.  Should we go with the red or green salsa?  No need to make a decision, the friendly patron brought out another complimentary tamale for us to enjoy.  I loved the hearty consistency of the masa and the smoky flavors of the succulent pork filling.

They even let me inside the truck for my very first food truck tour.  It’s not a big space, but just big and comfortable enough to create culinary wonders to please the mass.  A big pot of tamales was quietly steaming away in the far corner, while a pot of stewed meats seduced me to take a peek inside.  Again, delicious and satisfying food for such a low price.  Can you believe that these tamales are only $1?

My favorite part of the food crawl was when I met Rodolfo, who had a food stall on the sidewalks of Soto and Michigan.  This was real street food in the literary sense- it was just a grill and a table on an otherwise vacant sidewalk with a handwritten ‘Barbacoa’ sign hanging on the chain linked fence.  When we commenced our food crawl, I told Bill that I was a big offal lover, so he made this compulsory stop for me to get my pancita fix.  Pancita is lamb’s stomach stuffed with all kinds of offal with chiles and spices, and cooked for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful.  It may not sound like your cup of tea, but when Bill started describing this dish to me, I got pretty hot and sweaty.  This is the kind of stuff that turns me on.

The pancita that day was stewed with guajillo peppers, and contained a cheerful assortment of heart, testicles, tripe, lung, liver and stomach.  It wasn’t that gamey but it had just the perfect amount of iron undertone, and the luscious pieces of juicy organ meats made me flutter my eyelashes in ecstasy.  It went particularly well with a splash of chopped onions, a smidgen of cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of Rodolfo’s red salsa made with habanero, chipotle and chile de arbol peppers and some tomatillo.

We also got to try the lamb tacos, made this particular time with a young 1 year old lamb.  The meat was surprisingly tender with a light flavor, and again went well with all of the condiments.  I loved the comforting and soothing flavors of the lamb consommé, made from the meat drippings of the braised lamb and served with chick peas.  We enjoyed this warm cup of delicious lamb juice in its simple and unadulterated state, but Bill told me that some people add onions and cilantro to it.

Although I really enjoyed the food here, what was most memorable for me was the interaction that I had with Rodolfo.  Rodolfo immigrated from Michoacan, and has been in Los Angeles for many years in order to pursue a better life for his family.  He has been cooking food for as long as he can remember, and really loves what he does.  Since his lamb dishes were so divine, I assumed that he had been doing this for his whole career, but he divulged to us that his specialty is actually seafood.  He looked truly sad when he told us that he wasn’t doing that anymore because he couldn’t find good quality seafood here that was worthy of his dishes.  We talked about his family, his life, his struggles and his passion, all on this street corner in the middle of East LA as cars and buses whizzed by.  I was starting to see the real meaning of ‘street food’.  It’s definitely about the food, but it’s really about the human spirit creating the food.  I was so touched by this man’s humility and dedication, and I didn’t want to leave that street corner.  I wanted to keep talking to him and finding out more about his life, but we had to go to our next stop.

Our next stop was Antojitos Carmen Restaurant on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.  This is a true rags to riches story, as they used to be a food stall but became so successful that they opened a restaurant.  We started with their pambazo, a torta drenched in chile and fried to a nice black sear.  The one we had was filled with potatoes, lettuce and chorizo.  This, Bill taught me, was real street grub.  This Latin hamburger of sorts was hearty and filling, and the kind of food that would satiate any late night cravings.

They gave us a special salsa to augment our meal.  I don’t think this is on the menu, and it’s something you have to ask for if you know about it.  It was a decadent and heavenly salsa made with different types of seeds and nuts, and brought together with a fiery chile de arbol paste.  It was really delicious, and reminded me a little of Korean gochujang. The mezcla of different textures and flavors in each powerful spoonful was intense and inspiring.

Everything that I tried at this restaurant was new to me, including the huarache with a half portion of huitlacoche and half of chicharrones. Huaraches, named after sandals which resemble its shape, are oblong deep fried masa tortillas with any number of toppings.  I had been dying to try huitlacoche, corn fungus, and I’m glad that I entrusted Bill to guide me to the best place in town.  These tender silky pieces of corn fungus had an earthy and smokey flavor to them that was almost like eggplant.  The other half with chicharrones was fatty and crispy, and evenly tempered by the fresh ribbons of lettuce.

I also got to try a bowl of migas, a pork soup with soaked bolillo bread.  The pork bits, in all its meat, cartilage and fatty glory, had been braised for hours and hours, rendering the cartilage into a soft gelatinous delight and the meat into a tender fall-off-the-bones wonder.  The smokey and intense flavors of the soup reminded me of the heartiness of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  This wonderful bowl of soup that I had at Antojitos, is something that I would crave when I’m feeling sick, hungover, or even sad.  I can see myself gulping down this entire bowl in silence as the comforting and loving essences of the soup circulate through my body and permeate my cells.

Although my street food crawl, so wonderfully orchestrated by Bill Esparza, taught me the real meaning of street food, I know that I only grazed the surface.  I cannot claim to know the first thing about the Latin street food culture in LA, which penetrates deeper into the veins of this city than anybody can imagine, but I can tell you that the genuine feeling that I got in my heart as I ate this wonderful food and met the even more wonderful people behind it was real.  The so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks may appeal to the trend seeking part of the brain, but it doesn’t grab your heart or embrace your soul.  Go explore the streets of Los Angeles and experience for yourself the true spirit of street food.  Take the time to talk to the vendors, and you will be sure to hear an inspiring and brave life story that spans many generations and crosses many borders.  Go taste the traditional foods that are all lovingly prepared by hand and let these flavors open up your heart.

Random trivia: Did you know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn and destroys it?  Also known as corn smut or corn fungus, these blue-black spores are considered delicacies in many Latin cultures, and are harvested specifically for human consumption, hence its other name which is Mexican truffle.  Huitlacoche, in Nahuan culture, means ‘raven’s excrement’.

The Tapas Lounge, Aman Resort- New Delhi, India

The sights and sounds of the chaotic city of New Delhi were new and exciting for me during the first few days of my travel, but after the second week I started to slow down my pace and let everything settle into my overstimulated brain.  The polluted air filled with toxic fumes from the auto-rickshaws aggressively winding through tight spaces on the crowded streets was getting to my lungs, and the constant honking of horns was piercing right through my eardrums into my throbbing brain.  The more time I spent in New Delhi, the more I was confused about how to accept this profoundly different culture which bore no resemblance to my more structured American and Japanese upbringing.

Every day as I explored the city, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at the immense traffic that was generated by people who drove by their own illogical rules.  I didn’t see the point in traffic lights and road signs as nobody seemed to follow them anyway.  As if the ignorance of road rules was bad enough, there were camels, mules, cows and monkeys causing mayhem in the middle of the streets during rush hour.  Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow let alone bat an eye, as honking cars maneuvered past urinating cows and famished street children at busy intersections.  On several occasions I witnessed entire families on single tattered bicycles trudging down the highway going the opposite direction into speeding cars, oblivious to their near brush with death.  And to all of the reckless moped drivers- do you really think that your turbans take the place of safety helmets?  If people honored traffic rules and actually stopped at a red light, then the constant traffic jams would let up.  The utter inefficiency of ignoring all form of order and common sense was flabbergasting.  But….that’s India.

On another one of these typical days in New Delhi where my senses were being flooded with the absurdities of the culture, I went to seek refuge at my new found urban paradise, the Aman Resort.  I was captivated by the peaceful atmosphere of this beautiful hotel on my first visit, and my soul yearned to make its pilgrimage back there.  This time I went to the split level Tapas Lounge that boasted a wood-fired oven in the large open kitchen and was decorated lavishly yet tastefully with silver leaf ceilings and leather flooring. The ground floor is where this action is, and where diners can enjoy Spanish wines and sangrias in a sexy and seductive atmosphere.  The second floor lounge, with an unobstructed view of the reflection pool, is where diners can stretch out on plush sofas and leaf through rare Taschen books.   The third floor is more formal and traditional for those who want to get serious and enjoy the resident Spanish chef’s wonderful tasting menus.

Spanish chef Jonay Armas runs the kitchen at the Tapas Lounge.  Young and handsome Armas has worked alongside famed Michelin starred Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, among other reputable chefs like Paco Roncero.  He did a lovely tasting menu lunch for us in the relaxing second floor lounge.  The vegetarian portion of the tapas menu featured classic dishes like patatas bravas, ensaladilla rusa and tortilla Española, and a Papas Canarias with Mojo to reflect his Canary Island heritage.  Non vegetarian items included garlic prawns, lamb skewers and cured anchovies.   All, except for a plate of jamon iberico, were under 350 Rupees ($7 US).

The toasted almonds and house cured olives were amazing.  The olives were meaty and succulent, bursting with aromatic juice and savor.  We started our fantastic meal with one of the best gazpachos that I have ever had.  Slivers of fresh garlic, forest green basil oil and a twist of finely ground black pepper added the perfect amount of zest to this silky Andalucian tomato soup.  The amalgam of vegetable essences was rich and dense, and the intense flavors in each spoonful coated my sensory receptors with a magical fruity veil.

I was in meat lover’s paradise with the grilled chorizo dish.  Of course, the chorizo was imported from Spain, as the predominantly Hindu and Muslim populations of India do not eat pork.  It’s very difficult for me to survive more than 2 days without pork products, so this grilled plate, saturated with the finest pork essence and drippings ever imaginable, was a heaven sent gift.  Each slice had that perfect crunchy sear that is necessary to concentrate the meat flavors.

Tender cubes of crispy potatoes on a bed of spicy red tomato sauce were generously layered with creamy aioli in the patatas bravas dish.  Each cube had a pleasantly crisp exterior with the perfect amount of oiliness to complement the rich aioli.

Crispy calamari was indeed extra crispy with a wonderful light texture.  These deep fried rings of seafood delight, with a squeeze of sour lemon and a light dip into the aioli, were delightful.  Once you start, you can’t stop…

We enjoyed our delicious meal with a refreshing glass of their Sangrina, a virgin sangria with diced apples.

Chef Armas brought up this plate of assorted croquettes with fresh green salad.  Mushroom, chicken and jamon croquettes were warm and toasty.  As I bit through the perfectly fried crunchy shell, the creamy rich filling melted in my mouth and gently massaged my tongue into a catatonic bliss.

We finished our fantastic meal with crema catalana, the Spanish version of crème brûlée.  As I struck the top layer with my spoon, the solid burnt caramel shattered into large pieces and gave way to the sweet pool of cream underneath.  I watched the silver spoon slowly sink into the thick ooze of vanilla sap before I pounced on it with my ravenous appetite.

The luxurious and serene Aman Resort, one of my favorite resorts in the whole world, allowed me to escape from the noisy and turbulent streets of New Delhi.  With Chef Armas’ magical touch, my dining experience at the Tapas Lounge took me further along in my retreat away from reality to the lush green countrysides of Spain.  These delectable dishes were some of the best tapas that I have ever had, and it rivaled some of my most memorable plates that I had in Barcelona.  We concluded our Aman experience with a fascinating tour through the wine cellars and cigar humidors.

My body is back in the US, but my heart and spirit still remain attached to the tranquil grounds of the Aman Resort…

The Aman Resort, New Delhi

Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110003
India

tel (91) 11 4363 3333

Random trivia: Did you know that gazpacho, the most famous Andalucian dish of chilled vegetable soup, was originally considered poor man’s food?  It was made with bread, water and olive oil, all pounded in a wooden bowl called a dornillo.  Later versions were made with bread, water, anchovy bones, salt and olive oil.  It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 1400′s that tomatoes were added to gazpacho.

Tapas, tapas, tapas! – Barcelona, Spain

When one thinks of Spain, the first thing that comes to mind is probably ‘tapas’. A visit to Spain without going to a tapas bar is an incomplete and boring experience.  I love dropping in to tapas bars to grab a quick and tasty bite to eat with a cup of cava, and to meet interesting locals who can teach me more about the wonderful Spanish culture.  Where did this wonderful concept come from?  One theory states that it started when bar owners used to place a slice of bread or ham over glasses of sherry to deter flies.  ‘Tapas’ means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’ in Spanish, so this certainly makes sense.  Another legend states that while King Alfonso X was sick, he was only able to eat small bites of food with his wine.  After he recovered, he ordered all taverns to offer small dishes to accompany alcoholic beverages.  Whatever the case, it’s one of my favorite ways to savor simple and delicious local food.  During my short trip to Spain, I tried to visit as many tapas bars as my schedule would allow.

The Mercat de La Boqueria, the large covered market near the Gothic Barrier in Barcelona, is perhaps one of the most famous markets in all of Europe.  Infinite numbers of food stalls offer fresh seafood, meat and produce.  There are also many charcuterie stalls that specialize in sausages and hams, namely the famous Jamón Iberico de Bellota that is to die for.  I started my tapas adventure here in the Boqueria market, where they have about 20 bars.

Perhaps the most famous of the Boqueria tapas bars is Bar Pinotxo, ideally situated at the entrance of the Boqueria market.  Legendary server Juanito Bayen, sporting a bright green vest with a green bowtie, works with a smile and a wink to serve a never-ending crowd of locals and tourists who wait patiently for a bar stool to open up.  This place is always crowded, and although there are tables to the side of the food stall, it’s worth waiting for a seat at the bar.  That way you can get an up close look at the busy happenings in the small kitchen, and a chance to have a nice chat with Juanito.

We had deep fried bacalao, which is a must-try in Spain.  These dried salt cod fillets are superbly delicate and tender once re-hydrated, and have the most wonderful salty flavor.  The ones at Pinotxo had a nice light crunchy exterior that gave way to a generous chunk of steaming hot moist cod.

My favorite dish here was a plate of tripe stew that Juanito quickly brought over for me after he saw me drooling over my neighbor’s plate.  Absent in any gameyness whatsoever, this stew was rich in flavor and intensity.  A few dollops on torn baguette pieces, washed down with a few gulps of cava,  and I was transported to a different world.

By the time we ate at Pinotxo at around 3pm, most of the food was gone.  The only last item available was this dish that resembled a hamburger patty.  Although it was good, it wasn’t my idea of eating tapas in the Boqueria market.  I learned a valuable lesson at this point- go to Pinotxo early before the food runs out.  They’re actually quite famous for their breakfasts too.

Just around the corner from Bar Pinotxo is Kiosko Universal that specializes in fresh seafood.  All of the fresh selections of the day can be prepared a la plancha or grilled with olive oil.  I was really excited to try this tapas stall, as I heard that they served great razor clams, or navajas.  I love the oblong succulent flesh of razor clams, and I haven’t been able to find a place in Los Angeles that serves them.  Kiosko Universal is much larger than Bar Pinotxo, and has a bar counter that goes all the way 360 degrees around the central kitchen, in addition to extra bar table seating to the side.  We started with a plate of Salteado de Setas, grilled wild mushrooms. The great assortment of fungi was dressed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and sea salt.

I was very excited to finally be reunited with razor clams, but the dish was a bit of a disappointment.  It had the same flavoring and garnishing as the mushrooms, and was even a tad bit undercooked.  I longed for the delicious razor clams at Mary’s Fish Camp in New York City.

The mussels weren’t that great either. Again, same flavor, same garnish, same degree of being undercooked.  We were ready to move on to the next stall.

El Quim de la Boqueria is another tiny tapas bar, farther way from the market entrance, deep into the central area of the market where the seafood vendors are.  I ordered a plate of huevos fritos con chipirones en su tinta, fried eggs with baby squid and squid ink.  Wow, what an amazing dish.  The tender and delicate baby squid, softly enveloped in a veil of runny egg yolk and black ink with just the right amount of saltiness, was divine.  This was perhaps the most memorable and delicious plate that I had in Barcelona.

I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me at El Quim.  He was born and raised in Barcelona, and swore by the tapas at El Quim, stating they were the best in the city.  By the way the baby squid dish tasted, I didn’t doubt his claim.  He told me proudly that he’s been coming here for as long as he could remember, at least once a week.  I asked him where else he could recommend for me, and he did not hesitate to give me the directions to Taktika Berri.

The gentleman told me that the waiting list for table reservations is about 2 months long, but the place to go isn’t there anyway- it’s at the pintxos bar up front.  Similar in concept to tapas, pintxos are more representative of Basque cuisine and are small bite-sized morsels held together with toothpicks.  Pintxos, or pinchos, means ‘spike’ in Spanish, precisely because of the way these delicate eats are speared with a toothpick or a skewer. Taktika Berri specializes in montaditos, which are pintxos featuring ‘mounted’ heaps of meat, seafood and vegetables on a slice of bread, held together by a toothpick.

As soon as I walked through the glass double doors, I was glad that I trusted that gentleman’s advice.  This place was packed with locals only, and there was not a single tourist in sight.  This was the real deal, and I knew I was in for some authentic Basque delights.  We squeezed our way to the bar and managed to grab a couple of seats.  The system here is such that you must first ask for a plate, which lets them know that you’re ready to start eating.  Then the pintxos commander behind the bar will come around with a plate of one type of montadito at a time, setting it on your plate if it’s something you want to eat.  This process happens only once every 10 minutes or so, reflecting the cultural notion behind pintxos that it’s an adjunct to drinks and long conversation, and not necessarily the main act.

We tried some lovely pintxos here, including deep fried ham croquettes and a savory bacalao cake with potatoes and eggs.  Montaditos included fresh anchovies with diced peppers, chorizo wrapped in bacon, fried sausage, and smoked salmon.  All were simple but flavorful and simply satisfying to the palate and stomach.  I loved the lively atmosphere here, and by being a part of this wonderful experience, I could really see how this style of eating and drinking is such a crucial part of socializing in Spain.  I met a lot of interesting people in the hour that I was at Taktika Berri, including an architect and a science professor at the local university.

At the end of the meal, you get charged for the number of pintxos that you ate, made apparent by the number of toothpicks on your plate.  A simple and smart system.  Ahhh, tapas.  What a joyful way of experiencing food and life!

Bar Pinotxo- Stall 466, Mercat de la Boqueria

Kiosko Universal- Stall 691, Mercat de la Boqueria

El Quim de la Boqueria- Stall 584, Mercat de la Boqueria

Taktika Berri- Carrer Valencia, 169, Barcelona, 08011.  Tel: 934-534-759

Random trivia: Did you know that the Norwegians were exporting salted fish like bacalao as early as 875 AD?