Oh, Spanish cuisine, how confusing you can be: tortillas aren’t flat flour or corn crepes, but rather potato-and-egg omelets; authentic paella is relatively hard to come by outside of the Community of Valencia; and the word “taco” has positively nothing to do with a combination of meat, cheese and lettuce.
The confusion doesn’t stop there, either, I’m afraid. But as a veteran eater of Spanish cuisine, I’m here to break down two critical culinary customs for you, sharing some of my favorite Madrid foodie spots along the way. Grab a glass of Rioja wine and a few slices of manchego cheese, because things are about to get painfully mouth-watering.
The truth about tapas
Ahh, the tapa. These days, everything seems to be served tapas-style: Mexican, Greek, fusion – there’s no limit to the type of cuisine that gets on the “small shared plates” bandwagon. It’s a great and indeed very Spanish concept, but the term “tapa” might need some clarifying.
Whether it’s a small bowl of olives, a couple of vinegar-and-oil-marinated anchovies, or a teeny toast layered with tomato and a slice of jamón, a tapa isn’t much more than a very small serving of food, ordered alone or eaten along with a beverage. In fact, at many restaurants and bars the tapa will actually come free (never mind the fact that a glass of wine or beer usually only costs around €2!).
Things get tricky, though, when we start talking about the concept of going out for tapas – or, as they say in Spanish, ir de tapas – which can have less to do with what is being ordered and more with the action itself. And, in Spain, that action doesn’t include formally sitting at a table in a restaurant, but rather going to a tapas bar (or, usually, multiple bars) and sharing plates of food while washing them down with some good drink.
Where to get your tapas on
Madrid happens to be one of the best places to perfect your tapas-crawling tactics. One of the city’s most famous areas for the national pastime is the La Latina district, where locals and tourists alike hop from bar to bar, downing a drink and a tapa, before moving on to the next stop. Such is especially the case on Sundays when Europe’s biggest open-air market, El Rastro, fills the neighborhood’s streets.
To get in on the tasty action, make stops at favorites like Juana la Loca and Txirimiri: two of the best restaurants in the city to sample the famous Spanish tortilla. Just like my mother-in-law, they serve their egg-potato-and-onion omelets extra juicy. Still hungry? Then hit up Taberna de los Huevos de Lucio for a hangover-busting serving of huevos rotos – fried egg-smattered French fries that you mush together with chorizo or jamón. It’s borderline criminal, but sooo ridiculously good.
If La Latina wears you out, or you’re just looking for a change of scenery, pop over to nearby El Mercado de San Miguel, where under one roof you can go from kiosk to kiosk, getting your fill of delicacies like steaming homemade croquetas or smelly artisanal cheeses.
The menú del día
Now that you’ve been initiated into the most fundamental of foodie experiences – tapas hopping – it’s time to embrace another component of Spanish culinary lifestyle: the menú del día, or the daily menu. (Note that the word “carta” actually refers to the typical American menu as we know it, with a list of “a la carte” items.)
Started during Franco times, this thrifty menú concept was created to offer workers a nutritious and affordable lunch option. Nowadays, the menú continues to make it possible for Spaniards and tourists to stuff themselves silly with delicious fare on the cheap. Often costing around €8 and €12, these menús typically include a choice of a first course, second course, beverage (that means wine, people!), bread and dessert/coffee.
The best of the Spanish menú
To try a super typical menú while only dropping a total of €10.50 per person, head to La Esquina de Santi. Their extensive list of firsts and seconds changes each day and gives the hungry traveler a chance to generously dig in to some of Spain’s most popular plates, all with a side of bread, a beverage and a dessert. Plus, it’s located in the city’s funky Chueca neighborhood, which means that lunch isn’t the only reason to make your way over to this part of town.
For an ultra traditional sampling of Madrid, head to Casa Carola. While a bit pricier at €29, this epic meal goes all out, starting first with an appetizer of sparkling cava wine and a side of croquetas. Next up, brace your belly for the most classic of Madrid dishes: cocido (a bowl of broth and noodles, accompanied by a plate of the garbanzo beans, meat and greens that flavored it). And, because you’re on a roll, finish off the food fest with dessert, some coffee and even a shot of liqueur. Afterward, head back to your hotel for a siesta (AKA food coma).
If you’re like me, sometimes a full-on multi-course meal is more than my not-so-Spanish stomach can handle. Oftentimes, this means no menú del día for me, no matter how tempting it is. That’s why one of my favorite spots in town to get my menú fix is at Ojalá. There, they offer a menú express (essentially a mini menú), which allows you to still try two plates, except they come in smaller, more – eh hem – digestible portions. Not only is their cuisine delicious, but the menú express includes all the works: bread, two main courses, dessert/coffee AND often even a little amuse-bouche to get your taste buds warmed up. Seriously, does it get any better than that for €8?? No, no it doesn’t. Oh wait, it does: They have free WiFi too!
Now that you’ve wrapped your mind around a couple of Spain’s most popular culinary traditions, it’s time to get your tummy on board too. And I’m pretty sure that won’t be hard to do after downing a few juicy tortilla tapas and trying the best of Madrid’s multi-course meals.
Photos courtesy of Erin Ridley.
Read more: Insider’s Guide to Madrid
- Erin Ridley