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?