Tastes of Spain: the good, the bland and the churros

September 13, 2010 in Europe,Places,Provisions,Spain

I realized something when I arrived in Spain: you rarely hear about Spanish food. Wherever you go in the world, you can find Italian pizzerias and Japanese sushi bars. French haute cuisine is revered. Turkish kebabs, Chinese takeout and Indian curries are the best budget options. But Spanish food? Who eats Spanish food outside of Spain?

It made sense once I tried Spanish food. Sorry to any Spanish foodies, but overall, I was unimpressed. The concept of tapas—ordering many different small plates—quickly adds up. And you find the same tapas everywhere—literally, the exact same thing. Expensive, boring and a bit bland? Not exactly the winning-ist combination.

However, we did discover one hole-in-the-wall restaurant that proved that tapas can be delicious without breaking the bank. La Bombeta was tucked away on a side street in Barceloneta, an older neighborhood that borders the sea in Barcelona. The patatas bravas sauce was delightfully spicy, the gaspacho was fresh and the family-run service was down to earth. It was just what we needed after a string of disappointing and bland tapas.

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And the one Spanish cuisine item that redeemed all the failures? Churros and chocolate. Suzy and I stumbled across Churreria Granja Ruz after an early morning at the Picasso museum, desperate for a caffeine fix to start the morning. What we discovered was more like Christmas morning than a typical Starbucks fix: fresh-out-of-the-fryer churros. A local told us that the best was to eat them was to dip them in thicker-than-thick hot chocolate—and so we returned the next morning to try just that. Spanish churros aren’t the same as Mexican churros—not as sweet and not as cinnamon-y—but dipped in chocolate, it’s the dream breakfast to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Here’s a sum-up in photos of many Spanish staples:

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Patatas bravas: one of the staples of every tapas menu. Fried potato wedges covered in red and white sauces. If the sauce is done right, it’s addictively spicy. Done wrong, they’re soggy and bland.

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Gaspacho: Cold tomato soup, served with croutons and diced veggies on the side to add in. Fresh and refreshing on a hot summer day.

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Pimientos de Padrón: Deceptively un-spicy, but the lightly fried and salted peppers are nice to snack on while sipping a drink.

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Bombas: It’s the speciality at La Bombeta. Similar to patatas bravas, but fried balls of mashed potatoes in the same signature spicy brava sauce. Yum.

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Tortilla: Not to be confused with the Mexican version: a Spanish tortilla is an omelette, often filled with potatoes. The perfect protein source amidst a sea of fried food.

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Paella: A Valencia original, the seafood-infused rice dish is delicious when done right. If it’s cheap, it’s not done right.

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Unidentified goodness: We saw these on the table next to us, thought they were mozzarella sticks, were informed that they were not fromage/queso, but didn’t catch what they were called. Either way, they were delicious. Anyone know what they are?

  • And why the best cookers in the world are Spanish? Ferran Adrià. Joan Roca, Arzak, Andoni Luis Aduriz or Carme Ruscalleda.
    I am watching your photos and I know that you didn’t go to a really good tapas bar.
    I recommend you La Esquinica, best tapas bar in Barcelona.

    Meiterranen cuisine is one of the best in the world because it is so healthy but people doesn’t know it.
    Next time try good restaurants and not “restaurants for foreigners” and I’m sure that your vision will change. Also, I can assure you that everywhere in the world you can find Spanish restaurants.

    Byeee 😉

  • Anonymous

    They’re most probably croquetas, or croquettes. Mashed potatoes and ham on the inside I’m assuming?

    I totally agree with Luis, the complexity of Spanish cooking simply cannot be represented by ‘gringo restaurants’, the same way you can’t generalise Moroccan cooking by the limited tagine and couscous menus. Since Spain is one of those that is extremely diverse intra-nation – just look at the number of languages spoken – cooking styles and ingredients are delightfully different everywhere.

    Try reading A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain by Paul Richardson – I’d highly recommend giving it a gnaw before heading back to Spain for a proper culinary experience. I mean, you’re pretty much neighbours to Spain right? 😉

  • Love your honesty, not all the food is going to be good.

  • Hm. That’s too bad about the food in Spain. When I visited Barcelona a few years back, I had great food. And yes – that included many staple plates of perfectly spiced patatas bravas! But I also had other yummy – and flavorful – fare. Dishes whose names I can’t recall or never bothered learning. One of which was a heaping plate of fried sardines that people eat like french fries. Bones and all. I was super skeptical, as sardines in the States are nothing but salt sticks (blech), but done up the Spanish way – delicious.

    You should check out the series and site “Spain – On The Road Again” with Mario Batali and Gweneth Paltrow, and two other “foodie friends” whose names mean nothing to me, but whose banter I enjoyed on the show.

    http://www.spainontheroadagain.com/

    And the next time you’re back home in California, I’d recommend a visit to César in either Berkeley or Oakland (they have two locations).

    César presents a unique combination of Spanish food, a French name, American restaurateurs, and a global, award-winning selection of wines and spirits. Founded in 1998 by three Chez Panisse alumni – Richard Mazzera, Dennis Lapuyade, and Stephen Singer – César is essentially a Mediterranean-style bar/restaurant that serves a delicious and diverse selection of Spanish tapas, or small plates.

    Our tapas menu is culled from the vast repertoire of classic Spanish recipes, made with a combination of authentic Spanish ingredients and the bounty of the San Francisco Bay Area, often revised and re-imagined by Chef Maggie Pond, her sous chefs Mil Apostol and Germain Andrade, and her kitchen crew. Maggie has traveled throughout Spain and continues to go back each year to scour the markets for new ingredients, and to eat and cook in the finest tapas bars in Barcelona, Madrid, and San Sebastián. She brings back recipes from all over Spain, transforming some into our signature dishes, while others inspire some of her own creations.

    http://www.barcesar.com/index.html

    Bon appétit! Or whatever they say, in Spain.

  • Omg, I’m over here droooooooling, ahhhhh that all looks AMAZING! I would be 300 pds if I lived in Spain. Actually, I think Spanish restaurants are becoming quite popular in the States now.

  • Anonymous

    Nom Nom Nom, I want those Patatas Bravas.

    I spent about a week in Madrid and went to the same tapas bar every night we were there. It was magic. We’d order a tinto de verano and they’d give us a new plate of food – half the time we didn’t know what it was as our Spanish was less the perfect, but it was all so delicious.

  • Christine! You make me feel so much more normal about the food! When we were there at the beginning of the year, I too was unimpressed. I had one of the best cafe con leches in my LIFE but overall I have had better meals.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t seen any! I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for them when I’m back–but only if they have churros and good patatas bravas!

  • Anonymous

    I might just be spoiled by France–and I’m sure there are really good restaurants–but it’s certainly not a destination for a budget foodie!

  • Anonymous

    I feel the same way about churros and chocolate–absolutely amazing, but the rest was so-so.

  • Anonymous

    I’d heard about the free tapas with drinks culture, but that doesn’t happen in Barcelona! Maybe if that was true, I’d be a bit more inclined–but they get expensive!

  • Anonymous

    I’d heard about the free tapas with drinks culture, but that doesn’t happen in Barcelona! Maybe if that was true, I’d be a bit more inclined–but they get expensive!

  • hunger….. strikes……

    sounds lovely, i’ll be in barcelona in two weeks for a quick weekend and la bomba has been added to my list, looks delicious! and barcelona is so charming anyways :) do you remember the address or the street name at least? would be great!

  • Anonymous
  • Katelyn

    Those unidentified mozarella stick-looking balls are croquetas :) And they’re delish! Also, I’m sorry you don’t like Spanish food. Maybe when you get back I can make you paella that my host mom taught me how to make and it will change your mind!

    And, there’s this great Spanish restaurant not too far from my apartment in the city–when you come home I’m definitely taking you there!

  • I haven’t really had a lot of Spanish food, but I do love Paella. For my birthday I tried to find a good Spanish restaurant to go to, but where I live (Edmonton) it’s pretty hard.

  • Anonymous

    I think I’ve just gotten spoiled with French food– between cooking classes and restaurant staff meals, I’m eating amazingly (for free!) every day. We had some good finds, but overall, I think I prefer French food :) But I would love to have a Spanish night with you when I get back–but only if we have sangria and Spanish music!

  • Anonymous

    Paella was good, but I’ll take a nice Italian risotto instead any day!

  • Anonymous

    I think I’ve been a bit spoiled by French cooks and French cuisine–even though it’s Mediterranean as well, it’s certainly a bit different.
    I’m sure that there are really good Spanish restaurants, but as a budget traveler, I wasn’t impressed by the overall quality of food available. Maybe next time!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely get your point, but I do think it’s nice when a country has great budget food options. I did have some delicious food in Spain, but overall, I wasn’t overwhelmed. Maybe next time!

  • kahlia

    Luis is right (both about La Esquinica and your tapas experience). The thing is, Barcelona is *not* a tapas city. With a very few notable exceptions, they really only do them for the tourists who think that all of Spain is like Andalucía (sangria & tapas). If all you did was go to the string of tapas places in the Born, you didn’t get a chance to eat real Spanish or Catalan food, and it’s no surprise that you didn’t really like it. Barcelona actually has a lot of budget places to eat that are really, really good… but I promise that they’re not within 100 m of La Rambla and that the menus are not in English.
    I’m sure French cuisine is incredible (I’ve only ever lived in the U.S., Spain, and Italy), but from what I understand it’s so different from any of the other typically Mediterranean kitchens that you really can’t even compare them.
    If you go back to Barcelona, ask people who’ve lived there for suggestions before you go–it’ll be an entirely different experience.

  • Spaingirl1027

    I’m sorry that was your experience, but you cannot made such a generalization if you were only in Barcelona. If you want to eat the most delicious spanish food on a budget, you need to go to the out of the way places. And the local eateries in Castilla Leon, I believe you would have had a much different experience.

  • camorose

    I will say that I wrote this two years ago, and I have had plenty of excellent Spanish meals since then! Still not my favorite cuisine, but I’ve definitely started to appreciate tapas culture :)

  • w9ow

    unidentified goodness are “croquetas”

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