Tag Archives: spain food

fried chicken & migas: a culinary cultural exchange

I should know better by now than to commit to anything when I’m drunk, but, for some reason I found myself agreeing to the request that the patriarch of my adoptive Spanish family issued on a recent Friday evening while we were out celebrating my move to a new apartment.
“Kisha, you have to cook us some Southern specialties one day soon! I’ll buy the ingredients. You just come over and cook for us something that represents Geor-geee-yaah!”
On more than one occasion, I’d watched Pablo or his wife prepare a typical Spanish meal – tortilla de patata, paella, maritako – at their house; and had documented the steps, asked tons of questions, and snapped pics so that I could attempt to replicate the dishes for myself in my own modest little kitchen. I’d just finished showing Pablo the results of my culinary tutoring sessions – swiping through a collection of pictures I’d taken of the finished dishes. Included among the Spanish food photos, were a few pics of some dishes that were typical of my home state of Georgia – fish and grits, macaroni and cheese, barbecue ribs.
Upon viewing the photos, Pablo’s eyes widened with respect. Wowwww, Kisha! That looks amazing!” And then came his request.
‘Damn’, I thought. ‘That’s what you get for being a show-off’. But then, I realized that I actually would enjoy sharing a bit of my culinary culture with my newfound family. Besides, how could I possibly say ‘no’ to these folks who had given me food, shelter, taken damned good care of me when I was ailin’, and even helped me move all of my stuff not once, but twice since I’d been in town? That. Would not be southern.
A few moments later, I was entering a calendar appointment into my phone for the following weekend:
Southern lunch at Juana y Pablo’s
 
Almost a week later, Pablo sent me a message:
“Shall we have migas and southern tapas tomorrow in the countryside? We’ve all been invited.”
I squinted my eyes at the message. What the hell is he talking about? Countryside? Migas? Who’s invited us somewhere? Did I agree to do this this weekend!? Was I really that drunk?
As it turned out, I had indeed agreed to prepare the southern-style meal this weekend, i.e., tomorrow. Since agreeing  upon the date, a coworker of Pablo’s had invited his family to join a group of about 20 other people – more coworkers and their families – at his country house to enjoy the traditional La Manchan dish, migas. Instead of cancelling our southern lunch plans, Pablo had decided to just invite me – and my southern food – along for the ride. So now, instead of preparing a quiet little lunch at home for Pablo, Juana, and their two boys, I would now be preparing food for at least 20 people. No pressure.
After talking with Pablo about the logistics of the day, I discovered that this country house didn’t even have a kitchen per se. So, my planned menu of fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and cornbread was simplified to just fried chicken and cornbread. I could cook the cornbread at Pablo and Juana’s before we went to the country, and Pablo would bring along a portable cooking station so I could fry the chicken onsite. Hours later, after making my shopping list (and googling translations for some of the ingredients I’d need), Pablo and I hit the grocery store, then joined the rest of the family back at home where I marinated the chicken and prepped my mise en place for the cornbread, while listening to the James Brown station on Pandora. You know, for proper motivation.
Grocery shopping for the ‘Macon meets La Mancha’ culinary exchange
Marinating the chicken in ‘buttermilk’ and spices
The next day, Pablo came to pick me up. I had to admit I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. I know that Spaniards take as much pride in their regional culinary specialties as we Southerners do, and I felt like it was up to me to adequately represent my culture in this moment. What if the food turned out bad? I mean, I was cooking in an unfamiliar environment, without the same ingredients that I’d normally have back home. One of my worst fears is being the person who brings thatdish to a gathering. You know, the one that stays on the table, largely untouched, because it’s just… wrong.
In my nervousness, I managed to almost drop the pan of cornbread as I slid it out of the oven. In the process of saving it from falling all over the floor, I burned the sh*t out of my left index finger. When it was time to head out to the country, I was in such pain that I really didn’t care anymore how it all turned out. At least that’s what I told myself.
After we arrived, Pablo set up the chicken frying station, while our host, Manuel, started in on the migas. Soon, the other guests began to arrive. A flurry of names and double-cheek kisses followed. Everyone seemed excited about the fact that they’d be getting some authentic ‘Kentooky fried chicken en estilo Sureña’ to go along with the migas. In between breading and frying batches of chicken, I was also able to document Manuel’s process for making the migas.
First, water is added to the breadcrumbs and mixed in by hand. Greeting incoming guests – optional, but recommended.
Starting the fire for cooking the migas
Soothing my burned finger with an ice cold beer. The perfect remedy.
Unpeeled garlic cloves are sauteed in olive oil
Adding the moistened breadcrumbs
After heating the breadcrumbs, pre-cooked chorizo, pancetta, and italian green peppers are added. The mixture is tossed, and tossed, and tossed until done
In the meantime, Pablo preps the frying station
The first batch of chicken goes in…
…And comes out looking good enough to eat!
After a while, everything was done. The food was placed on a communal table, and everyone oohed and aahed over it before digging in.
The chicken and cornbread were a great success! And Manuel’s migas was one of the best examples of the dish I’d had yet.
After lunch, the festivities continued with plenty of wine, then post-lunch fruits, then coffee and dessert, then mixed drinks. We didn’t end up leaving until long after the sun had retired for the day. I returned home feeling full and satisfied that I’d done my culture proud.
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how to do barcelona

I’ll admit it. I’m kind of addicted to this town. Maybe it’s because it was the first Spanish city I visited on my own. Maybe it’s because my first visit was the very definition of serendipity. Or maybe it’s because Barcelona is the one city in Spain that I know I can go to to satisfy all my cravings of home. In my opinion, Barna (not Barça – that abbreviation is specifically reserved for the football club) is the most metropolitan city in Spain, even more so than the capital of Madrid, and that’s because Barcelona has something that I think Madrid lacks – soul. Since that first visit just a little over a year ago, I’ve been back to the Catalonian capital 4 times, and it’s only a matter of time before I go again.
After those 5 visits, here are some of my favorite ways to ‘do’ Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Take a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Yes, yes, I know. What sort of insider’s guide starts with, ‘book a tour’? I’m usually not a fan of tours, since I think it’s useless trying to pack in too much sightseeing in a single trip, and I prefer finding (and sometimes losing) my own way. But, there are some cities – such as London and Barcelona – that have so many different sites of interest spread out over such a large area, that I think it’s not only worth paying the price for a tour, it’s also worth saving yourself from aching feet and the frustration of trying to locate even your very top must-see sites using public transportation. My personal advice when booking a HOHO tour in Barna is this: Start early, then stay on the bus for a full loop (yes, it will be hard to resist getting off for photo opps, but do it) before you disembark anywhere. This will allow you get the tourist version of a sampler platter – a little taste of all that the city has to offer – before deciding which places you’d like to hop off at and delve deeper into. Barcelona’s most popular HOHO bus tour is the Barcelona Bus Turistic, and it’s the one I recommend. Some of my favorite places to hop off for a more up-close look include:
Park Güell – You simply can’t visit Barcelona without seeing this impressive outdoor space designed by Antonio Gaudí. While you have to pay for up-close access to some areas of the park, I didn’t, and I felt plenty fulfilled enjoying the park’s free areas.
 A sunny day at Park Guell
La Sagrada Familia – Perpetually under-construction, this magnificent example of Gaudí’s architectural style is always jam-packed with crowds, inside and out. I recommend viewing it from a quiet spot in the park Plaça de Gaudí located just behind the church.

La Sagrada Familia as seen from Placa de Gaudi
Casa Battló – Yet another jaw-dropping example of Gaudi’s signature style. I also like this stop because you can take a leisurely southbound stroll from here down either the Passeig de Gracia or the Rambla de Catalunya. Walking down either of these streets, you’ll eventually encounter Plaça Catalunya, the Cathedral and Barrio Gótic, passing tons of shops, street performers and other sensory satisfaction along the way.
Casa Battlo at night
The ‘Coquettish Giraffe’ statue on La Rambla Catalunya
Barcelona’s Cathedral
Batucada street performers in Barri Gotic
Arc de Triomf / Parc de la Ciutadella – The Arc de Triomf is a breathtaking structure that makes for a nice photo opp. At the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, you’ll find an equally impressive fountain and waterfall feature – La Cascada. On weekend afternoons, there’s usually a group of African drummers doing their thing near the center of the park. It’s an ideal place to cop a squat and soak up the sounds and sun.
The impressive Arc de Triomf
Parc Ciutadella’s magnificent fountain and waterfall
Weekend African drumming in Parc Ciutadella
Some places I think are better seen from the bus:
Dona I Ocell as seen from the tourist bus

Plaça Espanya – the nearby Magic Fountain is a prime draw, but since the fountains are better seen at night after the tour bus stops running, you’re better off catching the metro to this location at a later time.

Parc de Joan Miró – you can snap pretty decent pics of the iconic Dona I Ocell statue from the open-air top section of the bus.
Olympic Ring – home to the telecommunications tower or, Torre Telefónica– a quirky architectural structure that’s a nice visual treat.
MNAC – unless you plan on going inside of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, get your oohs and aahs on as you whizz by.
Camp Nou – I’m not a big football (or, soccer) fan anyway, so an up-close look wouldn’t really do anything for me.

 

 

How to Do Barcelona: Buy a Metro Pass

Barcelona’s metro system is pretty easy to navigate, and there are several options available for multi-trip Barcelona metro passes. While which pass you buy will totally depend on how long you’ll be staying in the city and what areas you plan on visiting using the metro, I’ve only ever bought the 10-ride pass, aka the T10. A single one-way ticket on the metro runs €2.15, and the 10-trip pass will set you back €9.95, so it’s a great value; you can even share it with others travelling with you. I don’t mind walking between a lot of the places that I visit, and only use the metro if I have to go from one area of town to another, so the 10-ride pass has been sufficient for my multiple 3-4 day trips to Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Stroll the Beach

Barcelona’s most accessible beach, Barceloneta, isn’t exactly the most picturesque, but it’s definitely a nice place to have a Sunday stroll during cooler months, or work on your tan during warmer ones. At night, the area along the beach is filled with nightcrawlers visiting the many posh Miami-style nightclubs in the area.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Eat

There are no shortage of amazing places to eat in Barcelona, and I know for sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to fabulous dining options, but the following Barcelona restaurants have met or exceeded my standards for price, quality and uniqueness.
Teranga – Senegalese restaurant located en El Born district of Barcelona. The lamb dishes are my favorites.
Restaurante Bar Roble – Located on the edge of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. A good option for lunch or dinner, this very old school restaurant often gets busy, and the service is typical Spanish / Catalan – occasionally brusque, but always efficient. And if you go when they have the lunch menu special (or menu del día), and you order wine as your included beverage, they plop the bottle on your table, and you drink as much as you want. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All-you-can-drink wine at Restaurante Bar Roble
Fideos de marisco con ali-oli on Restaurante Bar Roble lunch menu del dia
Milk – Bar and restaurant located not far from Las Ramblas. An excellent choice for first meal, as they offer a daily ‘Recovery Brunch’ from 9am to 4:30pm. Perfect for coming back to life after a night out partying in Barna. If you go on weekends, get there early – Spanish early, like 10 – to beat the rush.

Huevos rancheros at Milk. I dream of this brunch dish often.
A Tu Bola – Funky little eatery in the eclectic Raval neighborhood. Billing itself as a gourmet street food restaurant, the menu features a variety of different meat or veggie balls. Slightly pricier than I would normally go for, but the food and service are both very high quality.

Savory Mediterranean ball at A Tu Bola
Sweet chocolate truffle ball at A Tu Bola
Wok 2 Walk– A quick serve chain restaurant with 3 Barcelona locations. Is it life-changing food? No. But I really miss Asian noodles, so it does it for me. Plus, the food is fresh and fast.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Enjoy the Nightlife

Grácia– Probably my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. Full of funky shops, bars, and people – a perfect place to just stroll around and get lost in, day or night. Plaça del Sol is a good launching point for exploring the neighborhood.
El Born – A little sexier and more polished than Gracia, with higher-end shops and restaurants, El Born is a great Barcelona ‘hood to see and be seen.

Antique jewely shopping in El Born

 

Afro Bar Bella Bestia – Offering a variety of soulful entertainment, from ska to soul to soulful rock, this low-key bar is a good place to get your groove on.
Harlem Jazz Club– Live music that might include funk, flamenco, Cuban jazz, and everything in between. More tourists than locals, but the music makes it worth your while.

 

Plaça Reial– Just off La Rambla, this well-known plaza is a good place to go for late night hanging, after you’ve finished dinner and clubbing elsewhere and you want to watch (or act like) a drunken Spaniard or Catalan.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Stay

L’Eixample – The L’Eixample neighborhood is fairly centrally located and you can find some good bargains on vacation rentals or homestays in this part of town. However, it’s also a pretty big area, so where you choose to stay in L’Eixample can make a big difference as far as walkability to points of interest is concerned.
Where I’ve Stayed in L’Eixample: Airbnb room near Passeig de Graciaand Hostalet Barcelona
Las Ramblas On my first few visits to Barcelona, I avoided staying here because I didn’t want to be smack dab in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle that is Las Ramblas. But the one time I did stay here, it was quite nice to be able to quickly get back to the flat after a typical late night out without having to worry about catching the last train or possibly walking a really long way after the metro had shut down for the night.
Where I’ve Stayed in Las Ramblas: Airbnb Room with Private Lounge
Near Park Güell – If you’d prefer to be able to retire from the noise and crowds in central Barcelona at the end of the day, staying near Park Güell is a good idea. But – and I stress this caveat – be absolutelysure that you’re willing to tackle the very steep, very long incline that leads up to this area, especially if you plan on staying out late – I (and my hamstrings) learned this the hard way.  Depending on your fitness level, it can be a beast going and coming.
Note: Unfortunately, the very affordable housetrip.com room I stayed in is no longer available.

How to Do Barcelona: Beware of Pickpockets

Before my first trip to Barcelona, I’d heard so many stories about how bad and rampant pickpocketing was, that I was definitely on high alert. I actually even saw a foiled pickpocketing attempt occur right in front of me on the metro during my first visit. But, honestly, a little common sense and street smarts will go a long way and keep you from becoming a victim. Walk confidently with your head up (not staring at a tourist guide or map), make eye contact with too-close strangers, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings (tip: go for a crossover-style bag versus a backpack), and you’ll be fine. Especially if you’re used to travelling in large metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago.
Other Barcelona blogs and resources:
Resident Advisor – I’m a big fan of soulful house music and there’s usually some place to get my fix in Barna. RA keeps an up-to-date listing of weekly  and special events for house heads.
Planning a visit to Barcelona or other Spanish cities? Check out: 7 Things You Must See in Every Spanish City for a quick and dirty guide on sightseeing in Spain.
What are your favorite ways to do Barcelona? Any tips on places to see or avoid? Leave ’em in the comments! 

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tapa of the week: bar california, ciudad real

“Kisha, a few friends are going out to celebrate a birthday on Friday. Would you like to join us?”

The invitation came from Pablo – the dad in my adoptive family here. I gladly accepted, eager for the opportunity to meet some new people.

When the day arrived, I was a little bit apprehensive about the fact that I might not be able to understand the rapid-fire Spanish conversations that were sure to ensue. But after sufficiently lubricating ourselves at Bar Acuario, I found my ears were up for the challenge.

After finishing our first round, the birthday girl suggested we head to Bar California for more substantial tapas. We entered, copped a table for 5, and I listened as they ordered, not exactly sure what was going to show up on the table.

What arrived a few minutes later was this:

Gambas in garlic sauce. Basically a well-prepared version of shrimp scampi. Served still sizzling in a mini casserole dish. The shrimp were fresh and perfectly cooked. The sauce – perfect for mopping up with pieces of crusty bread.

Lomo con queso. Tender slices of pork loin cooked with herbs and caramelized onion, and topped with little piees of what I think was goat cheese. In my head, pork and cheese shouldn’t go together. But in my mouth? Magic.

 

 

“Oh. What’s this?” I ask. Pablo responds, “Orejas de cerdo.” Wait. Did he just say ‘pig ears’? Like the ones my grandma and her grandma used to make? Like the ones I never eat ’cause I think it’s gross? Hm. Well, I suppose I should try just a little bit, so as not to be rude.

The small bite I take is fatty, a little chewy, with just enough meatiness on it to make it worth eating, The pieces of meat have been chopped small and cooked so that the fat has rendered out a bit and left some nice charred bits on the edges. I try at least one more bite before deciding that this dish is best left to my dining companions.

Chuckling at the similarity of this dish to the Southern one I’m used to, I share with Pablo that we have a saying back home that we eat everything on the pig ‘from the rooter to the tooter’. Pablo laughs and shares that Manchegos have a similar phrase.

So much for not being able to understand.

Bar California

Calle Palma, 12, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price per Tapa: Prices vary according to menu. Since I was treated to the meal, I can’t say for sure :}

My Rating: High-quality tapas. A good place to go for sharing a few plates with friends. 

 

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tapas protocol 101

Since I’ve been on my one-woman tapas tour for the past few months, I’ve noticed quite a few unwritten rules of behavior that are common in many if not all of the tapas bars here. So, I thought I’d share a few:

  • Ask ‘Se dan tapas aqui?’ or ‘Se da tapas con consumicion?’ before ordering. You don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised or disappointed when your drink shows up without a free, tasty little morsel to accompany it. 

  • Throw your napkin on the floor. The first time I walked into a tapas bar and saw the crumpled up, used napkins scattered everywhere, my Southern sensibilities were a bit offended. ‘Is this ok?’ I thought to myself. I’m still not sure that it is ok, but it is certainly standard practice. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do it without sort of letting the napkin happen to ‘accidently’ fall from my hand as discreetly as possible. In some bars, there will be a small bin under the bar or the table, so, in those cases, it’s expected that you’ll dispose of your used napkins in them. Ditto if you see a sign posted somewhere that reads, ‘No tirar papeles’ or ‘No tirar servilletas‘.
At Bar El Alcazar in Ciudad Real – the floor is your wastebasket

Other tapas bars are more ‘fancy’. If you see a wastebasket, use it.

  • Order your next round by gruffly (or sweetly) yelling, ‘Cuando puedas’ at the bartender. At least that’s how most of the old fellas I  usually find myself surrounded by do it. The universal signal of raising your empty glass and pointing to it while eyeballing the bartender also works pretty well.

  • Learn the difference between a caña, a tubo, a botellín, a jarra, and a copa. These are all different sizes of draft beer or other adult beverage, that obviously range in price. And, just to keep things confusing, all of these names (with the exception of caña) may vary depending on what city or region in Spain you’re in. No matter what shows up after you order, just drink it.

  • Figure out the rules to that dice game that you’ll sometimes see the fellas playing at the end of the bar. It’s usually accompanied by loud shit-talking.

  • Perfect your not quite perfectly pronounced drone of  ‘Ha luwayooo…’ (hasta luego), as this is the most acceptable way to exit the bar and say goodbye to both the bartender and everyone else within earshot.
Have you noticed any other unwritten rules of tapa etiquette?

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tapa of the week: meson las brasas, ciudad real

On a rare sunny and slightly warm day I decided to mount Roci and go for a leisurely ride down to my favorite park in Ciudad Real, Parque del Pilar.

I’d noticed on previous visits to the park that there was a sizeable bar / restaurant near the center, but I’d never had the good fortune to find it open. At least, not until today. So, I parked Roci, headed to the outdoor bar and ordered a glass of wine.

Meson Las Brasas – Ciudad Real

With my first glass came a simple but fairly tasty tapa of chicken stewed with onions and peppers. Not a bad start. And the little bit of sauce on the plate was quite nice when ‘sopped up’ with the bread that came alongside the tapa.

My first tapa – simple mix of chicken, onion, and peppers

I decided to order a second glass… you know, for research purposes. This glass was accompanied by a decent portion of deep fried chicken strips that had a slight coconut flavor and a little bit of a balsamic glaze drizzled on the plate. With the unseasonably warm weather, the mild taste of coconut seemed just right, and, for a moment I imagined that I was in some more beautiful, more tropical location than a park on the south side of Ciudad Real.

My second tapa – Coconut fried chicken strips with a balsamic glaze

Service at Meson Las Brasas was quite good. The bar staff was friendly and attentive – not something I’m used to at Spanish eateries. Due to a private event, I wasn’t able to see the inside of the establishment, but with the huge patio that lets you look out over the park and soak up the sun, I doubt I’ll ever want to see the inside.

I have a feeling that this place might be in regular rotation once warmer weather is here to stay.

Meson Las Brasas

Avenida de Europa, 1, 13005 Ciudad Real (inside Parque del Pilar)

Average Price per Tapa: Free tapa with drink. Glass of wine set me back 1.50.

My Rating: Great service. Amazing patio. Quality wine and decent tapas. 

tapa of the week: bar acuario, ciudad real

After the so-so experience I had at Meson de Ocatvio, I decided to ditch the idea of following a tapas guide. I figured it would be better if I went maverick, trying out and recording notes on tapas bars I happened to encounter on my own.

I had my very first tapa in Ciudad Real at Bar Acuario, located in the center of town in Plaza Mayor. Acuario is well-known for its ample and inviting patio, but moreso for its signature tapa: huevo con bechamel. This is something that has to be experienced at least once if you come to the capital of Castilla – La Mancha. 
It’s essentially a boiled egg, enveloped in a rich, creamy sauce, dipped in breadcrumbs, and deep fried. 
Cholesterol be damned.

huevo con bechamel at Bar Acuario, Ciudad Real
While it doesn’t exactly sound like the most appetizing of items, it was suprisingly tasty. When cooked just right and served warm, the combination of crispy and creamy, along with the unique texture of the egg makes for a delightful few mouthfuls. Washed down with a cold cana or nibbled on between sips of a vino tinto, it’s a filling morsel that sticks to your ribs. Though, seriously, I wouldn’t suggest eating more than one of these every couple of months.
Bar Acuario has a number of other tasty tapas to select. I’ve tried a handful of others, and haven’t been disappointed with any of them. All of the tapas come free con consumicion, so it’s a good place to have a filling lunch or snack without spending too much.

Bar Acuario

Plaza Mayor, 11, Ciudad Real, Spain 13001

Average Price per Tapa: Free with drink. Drinks about 1.50 euro

My Rating: Solid. Worth a visit and worthy of being in regular rotation.

tapa of the week: meson de ocatvio, ciudad real

One day whilst sitting in my little apartment in my little town of Ciudad Real, bored as bored could be, I decided to take matters into my own hands. “What…” I asked myself, “…could I possibly do to keep myself entertained and inspired in this smallish city where I still haven’t quite found my ‘scene’?”

Before long, an idea struck. The weekend I’d arrived, there was a tapas festival, Tapearte, going on in Ciudad Real. Dozens of restaurants in the city were participating, and each restaurant had created a special tapa for the week of the festival. The idea was that residents and visitors could do a sort of ‘ruta de tapas‘ by visiting all of the different participating restaurants and sampling their tapas. There was even a printed guide with a map of all the restaurants and their featured tapas that I’d snagged from the hotel I’d stayed in my first week. Unfortunately, since more pressing matters like finding an apartment and figuring out my school routine were higher priority at that time, I didn’t get a chance to visit any of the restaurants, but I’d held on to the guide and map.

“Why not do your own personal ruta de tapas?” I thought to myelf. “You could visit all of the places on the guide and sample whatever they have on offer. It’d be a great way to get to know some new places while keeping your belly full.”

Inspired by my idea, I whipped out the Tapearte guide, quickly perused the list to see which place sounded most appetizing, then decided it was best to just start at the beginning. And that’s how I found myself at Meson de Octavio, the very first restaurant on the list.

When I walked into the restaurant / bar located just north of the Puerta de Toledo in Ciudad Real, there were only a few other people inside. I greeted the bartender and asked if there was anything to tapear. At first he acted as if I’d invented the word, Then after I’d explained that I’d found this place from looking at the Tapearte guide, he suggested a tapa of risotto. I figured if he knew what I was after, he’d recommend something good.

What I got was slightly undercooked, slightly oversalted rice in a creamy sauce with a little drizzle of oil.

I think the bartender saw by looking at my face that I wasn’t exactly pleased with the dish, so he quickly recommended 3 other things. I opted for ternera (beef) en salsa.

Ah, that’s more like it! The dish was simple, but the meat was very flavorful and very tender – like a really nice beef stew. It even went really well with the crunchy risotto.

Along with my caña, the two tapas came out to 3.60 euro. Not a bad deal. But not a great deal either, considering I wasn’t pleased with my first selection. Ah well, there’s always next time!



Meson de Octavio

Calle Severo Ochoa, 6, Ciudad Real, Spain 13005

Average Price per Tapa: 1.20 euro

My Rating: Meh. Probably not worth a second visit for tapas. 


my culinary adventures in spain – eating out

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been surprisingly underwhelmed by the food here in Spain. Before coming here, I imagined that I’d be in absolute gastronmic glee over all of the delicious food available. Not exactly the case. But still, I’ve had some delicious and some very inspiring experiences with food that are definitely worth sharing.

EATING OUT

Tapas
The Spanish are best known for tapas. They invented the whole concept of small plates eaten / shared with friends over rounds of drinks. They’ve even made a verb to express the act of having tapas – tapear. Almost every Spanish restaurant offers a selection of tapas along with larger portions called raciones. However, there are two things that have left me feeling lackluster about the whole tapas experience: 1) every restaurant generally has the exact same selection of tapas (oh, look, they have croquetas!), and 2) none of them are prepared exceptionally well. They’re not bad, mind you, but compared to my hyped-up expectations, they’re not that great. Yet, thankfully, there have been exceptions:

In Sevilla, La Morena de Andalucia (aka, Dominique) showed me her favorite tapas restaurant, Duo. Located on the Alameda de Hercules, this little bar serves up some more creative twists on traditional Spanish tapas. The higher quality of the ingredients is noticeable as well. So far, this ranks as my #1 restaurant meal in Spain.

@ Duo Tapas in Sevilla. foreground: pulpo a la gallega; background: carillada

In Cádiz, the tapas were tastier than the usual, and seemed even better because they were cheap and plentiful.

@ La Isleta Bar in Cádiz. left: carillada; right: pescado en salsa roma

In Granada, the tradition of buy a drink, get a free tapa is alive and well. Unfortunately, the free tapas are mostly carb-heavy, not-that-great snacks. But Chantarela is a tapas bar that does justice to free tapas.

Standard free tapas in Granada. Carb-tastic!

Free tapas at Chantarela in Granada.

Beer
One of the very first things I learned when I arrived in Sevilla was how to order a caña. A caña is basically a half-pint of beer, and usually costs about 1€. It’s common to have a caña before/with/after lunch, after work, or basically any time you need to take a quick break with a refreshing beverage. I’ve even started to use the caña as a standard for pricing other things. For example, “Wow. That bus ticket costs 2 cañas!” Spain has several local / regional beers that are only slightly better than Budweiser, Coors, or PBR. When you order a caña, you’ll usually be served either Cruzcampo, Mahou, Alhambra, or San Miguel depending on what city you’re in. All of them are your standard lager – refreshing, effervescent, uncomplicated and, honestly, quite perfect after a long day of walking around in the heat. But not too exciting in the way of flavor or body.

More recently, I’ve lucked up and found a few craft beer dispensaries. The phenomenon of craft and artisan beers is still fairly new here, so you often have to look a little harder to find a place with craft beers. Also, many of the shops or bars only have bottles, not taps. Still, there are some really good brews to be had, and the prices are on par with if not a little better than what you might find in the States. Right now, my favorite Spanish craft brewery is Naparbier – I’ve tried 2 of their Saisons and 2 IPAs, and loved them all. Plus, they have some really cool bottle art. One thing I’ve noticed in my tastings is that Spanish IPAs are not as over-the-top hoppy as others I’ve tried. They still have the prominent grassy or floral notes of an IPA but not the huge, hoppy ‘bite’ that I dislike about American IPAs.

Gulden Draak at La Tienda de Cervezas (The Beer Store) in Madrid.

Just a sliver of the bottled selection at La Tienda de Cervezas, Madrid

Freidurías
Ok. So there are these places here, right? They serve nothing but various fried things. It’s like a Southerner’s dream come true. Well, at least this Southerner’s. You can find freidurias anywhere – in municipal markets, as standalone restaurants, or takeout-style counters. The menu selection in a freiduria consists of a variety of frituras, which I lovingly call, ‘frieds’. You can choose from a selection of fish and seafood (anchovies, calamari, squid, etc.) or vegetables (eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, etc.). The best freidurias use a very light and crisp coating or batter for the fish, and I think most all of them use olive oil for frying. The result is a crispy, light-tasting exterior that doesn’t mask the flavor or freshness of the fish. With a wedge of lemon to squeeze all over crispy, bite-sized pieces of fish hot out of the fryer, I am in heaven.

‘Frieds’ at a stall in the municipal market in Algeciras

Fritura from a take-away restaurant in Cádiz

Chiringuitos
A chiringuito is a beachside shack or restaurant that specializes in whole fish cooked over an open flame. Talk about some serious food porn. My first chiringuito experience was at Malagueta, Malaga’s most popular beach. After placing my order, I watched as an older gent delicately salted and skewered a whole fish, pitched it almost vertically next to a carefully tended wood flame, and lovingly basted it in olive oil until it was perfectly cooked and charred just-so on the outside. I have dreams about that day sometimes. Though a little pricey on my budget (at least here in Málaga), it’s definitely worth the occasional splurge.

Yes – he is expertly cooking whole fish over a mound of burning wood piled into half of a boat. Yep.
yep.

Libations
My stateside mantra is, ‘retail drinking is for suckas’, and that hasn’t changed much since moving to Spain. But when I do go for a cocktail at a bar, it’s usually one of these:

Tinto de verano – A simpler alternative to sangria, tinto de verano is a blend of vino tinto (red wine) and a fizzy lemon drink found in Spain called casera. It’s decent, but the casera sometimes has a strange aftertaste to me, so I plan to try making an at-home version with real lemons, sugar, and sparkling water or tonic.

Vermut – a fortified red wine that’s sweet but strong and has lots of herbal undertones since it’s usually infused with some botanicals. Served over ice with a slice of lemon or orange. I’ve only had it in Madrid and Cadiz, however.

Vermut and tostas in Madrid

Chupito – The Spanish term for a shot.

Occasionally though, I head to Mañana, my favorite bar in Málaga. They make really good versions of classic cocktails like mojitos and manhattans, plus a few beer cocktails like the James Brown.

Tomax preps for a ‘make-do mojito’ (they were out of limes)

Xamot carefully crafts the James Brown – a beer cocktail


Fast Food
The most commonly sighted fast food restaurants here are McDonald’s and Burger King. Many of the menu items are the same as in the States, with some differences to suit local tastes. For instance, McDonald’s serves gazpacho in the summer. They also serve a habit-forming alternative to the already addicting McDonald’s fries, called ‘patatas deluxe’. They’re little seasoned potato wedges that pair perfectly with a McBeer.

My favorite after-school snack: patatas deluxe and a beer

One other notable difference is the prices at fast food chains (at least the 2 burger chains). If memory serves, they are more expensive than at home. A regular-priced combo meal at McDonalds can cost 7€ or a little more; and the ‘daily special’ is still pretty expensive at 5.50€.

It’s the little differences.

surprising / annoying / amazing things about spain

surprising things about spain

how NOT amazing the food is.

The food in Spain is definitely not bad. But it isn’t nearly as amazing as I’d expected it to be. Part of that could be because I live in Marbella, which isn’t exactly hailed for its cusine. The other part could be that, given my teaching assistant’s salary, I try not to eat out too much. When I do eat out, I go for the best value. Maybe if I could afford to splurge on some higher-end places, I’d have a different experience. But for now, I remain surprisingly underwhelmed.

pan con aceite y tomate. a typical spanish breakfast. when it’s good, it’s good. but usually it’s just soggy bread.

it’s kind of country.

I live in Andalusia – the south of Spain. Among Spaniards, it has a pretty similar reputation to the South in the United States. Spanish people who live elsewhere seem to think Andalusians are ‘slower’ and have a funny-sounding accent. Even though I live in a fairly large city, it’s quite common to see touches of rural life on a daily basis – like the horse-riding vaquero that grazes sheep, cows, and steers in a big field near my school. Also, I was surprised that much of Spain seems to be uninhabited. When I’ve flown or taken a long-distance train, I’ve seen large expanses of land that have no cities or towns to speak of – only the occasional pueblo / village or often just a small house or farm in the middle of nowhere.

cattle grazing near my school (and adjacent to a major highway)

how cold the houses are in winter.

Before coming here, I knew that many Spanish houses lacked central heating, since most are built to be naturally cool during the sweltering summer months. But nothing could have prepared me for how cold it would be inside the average Spanish home from January to early March. Even when the temperature outside was Fall-like, the temperature inside was much chillier. With electricity being very expensive, space heaters are generally out of the question. And even if they weren’t financially impractical, the lack of insulation, and the heavy use of marble, tile, and stucco for interiors would render them almost useless anyway. My #1 saving grace was a hot water bottle that my roommate wisely suggested I purchase, and was my nightly companion for my first two months here. There were many nights that I went to sleep muttering profanities under my breath about the cold, and many mornings where I could see my breath in front of me while getting ready for school. Thankfully, all that seems like a dim memory now that Spring is here.

i actually bought a space heater, but it ended up collecting dust once i found out how expensive and ineffective it was.
my ‘hot water bottle boo’ in granada

annoying things about spain

dog poo. everywhere.

Spanish people love their dogs. It seems like almost every family here has at least one. And every one of them is cuter than the last. Yet I have no idea why these people feel it’s ok to let their cute little dogs leave unsightly poo all over public areas. If you’re walking down the sidewalk, there’s no such thing as absentmindedly taking in the sights around you. You’d better keep your eyes focused on the sidewalk or else you will definitely end up stepping in one of the many mini monuments of poo peppered all along your path.

poo
poo
and more poo

spanish people can’t walk. or stand. or generally congregate in large groups.

There are some cities where it’s almost a pleasure to walk in. In crowded, pedestrian-heavy cities like New York, London, or even Amsterdam, most people have figured out how to navigate the streets on foot so well, that you can tell a tourist from a local by the way they walk. The folks in Spain have acquired no such talent. Spaniards don’t walk so much as they meander. On a given day, while walking the streets of almost any city in Spain, at least one of the following pedestrian ‘violations’ are bound to occur:

  • Stopping short for no apparent reason.
  • Walking 3 or 4 abreast on a narrow sidewalk at a snail’s pace.
  • Darting out of a doorway into oncoming foot traffic.
  • Tripping or hip-checking another pedestrian with a stroller or rolling bag.
  • Having an involved conversation while blocking an entrance/exit.
  • Doing 1 or more of the above without awareness or apology.

shhh… it’s a secret.

There’s a certain clandestine nature about vital information in Spain. Info that you would assume should be readily available or clearly communicated, often isn’t, and if you don’t ask specifically, you might only get a piece of the full picture. This secret but valuable info could be anything from a bus schedule or ticket price, to exact directions to a location you’re looking for, or even what day you will get paid on.

amazing things about spain

there is no famine of beauty.

Geographically speaking, Spain pretty much has it all. Glittering beaches, impressive mountains, rolling countryside. And since there are those large expanses of unpopulated space, it makes for some really lovely, truly breathtaking vistas. I can’t count how many times I’ve involuntarily whispered to myself, ‘That’s beautiful!’ There are so many lovely natural and architectural sights in this country that sometimes I  think to myself, ‘Ok, Spain. Enough already! I get it. You’re beautiful’.

the lifestyle.

In general, Spanish people are more relaxed than Americans about… everything. Sometimes, this can be irritating (as is the case with customer service), but for the most part, it’s a huge plus. If there’s one thing the Spanish are good at, it’s enjoying life at their own pace. This is not to imply that the Spanish don’t have worries or issues that they struggle with on a daily basis, but rather to highlight that there’s not also a constant undercurrent of external stress from hectic schedules, long work hours, few vacations, and infrequent naps that they have to contend with. Besides that, most Spaniards seem to make the most of what they have, even if they only have a little. The often used Spanish phrase, ‘no pasa nada’, is the Iberian equivalent of ‘no problem, mon’ or ‘no worries, mate’, and it adequately sums up how many people here approach life.

the transportation.

Even without a car, it’s incredibly easy to get around within a particular city, and especially between cities. The buses and trains within Spain are extremely reliable and comfortable. Way better than Amtrak and Greyhound in the States. High-speed trains can be a bit pricey if you’re on a tight budget, but offer huge time savings. Buses are usually very affordable when travelling between cities, although they may not be the most convenient where timing is concerned. Yet both are clean, comfortable, and well-serviced. It sets the perfect stage for easy, affordable weekend excursions.

how amazing the food is.

While restaurant food underwhelms me, the quality and price of grocery store goods makes me very happy indeed. Mind you, I can’t find everything that I’d normally cook with at home, but the produce and meat available here is of much better quality than in the US. And the prices for most non-packaged goods are comparable, if not much better. Especially the fish and seafood. Seriously, there are days when I just go to the seafood counter at the local grocery store and just drool. There’s stuff there that I have absolutely NO idea how to cook, but I geek out just looking at it.