Tapas, Tapas, Tapas

 

I'll be quite frank. Tapas are really one of the best parts of visiting Sevilla. Because they are tasty, sure, but also because of how marvelous the experience is. Pepe took us to Bodega Dos de Mayo our first night, and I was grateful because otherwise I think we would have had no idea how to proceed. Tables are scarce, and once seated, you need to send a representative to winnow through the mass of humanity to the bar to order the tapas. Which they call out as they are ready, so someone needs to hop up and grab what is ready and bring it back to the table. Which sounds onerous, but really, it's fun. Because it's kind of like your birthday. Every few minutes, there is something new to leap up and fetch and savor, and as you've probably forgotten at least some of what you've ordered, it's also a nice surprise. Oh, look! Boquerones! My favorite! How thoughtful!

The process is admittedly much harder with children. There were plenty of tapas bars we had to pass up because there were no seats and everyone's feet were consistently sore from our relentless search for tapas and the next marvelous thing. Plus, the counter or tables are inevitably taller than Gabe's head. Pepe told us he loves going out for tapas because he loves the process of pushing up to the bar, setting his elbow up to mark his spot, curving his other hand around a beer. I can see that—it feels a little like a victory when you can create space for yourself. And then it feels like the rest of the world is a blur, and you and your companions are in a bubble. It's an interesting mix of luxuriously cozy and totally stimulating. But harder with children.

And the tapas themselves. Well. They are just fabulous. Everywhere we went they were fabulous. There might be one we didn't like as much at this place or that, but in general, at every place we went to we loved our meals. And they are great for the budget conscious. We spent far less per day eating out in Sevilla than we have anywhere else we've been, and we did not scrimp. Most tapas are around €2-€3, but even the expensive tapas dinner was far under what we are used to spending for food. In fact, the most budget-breaking meal of our trip was on the side of the road coming back from Granada. It was also our worst meal.

The other advantage of dining with Pepe was that he gave us insights into the menu. For instance, I had heard of pringá before we arrived, but as it is a mixture of blood sausage, chorizo, and pork fat, I had no interest in trying it. Keith and I made blood sausage for my mom once on her birthday (she loved it when she was a girl) and it resembled nothing more than a gunshot wound in a pan. I was not eager to try it again. But with Pepe telling us it was delicious, how could we refuse? And oh, it was amazing. A touch spicy, with a pate mouthfeel that melded into the bread to create something altogether different. Kind of like meaty butter. It was served as a montadito (a tapa-sized sandwich) which Pepe had suggested for the children, who were besotted with the bread. Almost like baguettes, but individual rolls, a little sour, very chewy centers, and—most blessedly to their Umbrian-bread palates—it was salted. Gabe got the pringá, Siena got a succulent shrimp and aioli montadito, and Nicolas got a solomillo (pork sirloin) in whiskey. It must have been fantastic because he turned to eat it quietly and only commented on its deliciousness once it was completely eaten, and safely out of reach of curious tasters.

That first night, Pepe also suggested crispy pancakes made of chickpea flour and tiny whole shrimp, bacalao with baby eels made from surimi (what they use to make fake crab—Pepe told us that the actual baby eels are hugely expensive) and shrimp, fried boquerones (sardines) with a creamy green sauce for dipping. It was all delicious. Keith and I had beer and Pepe had a clara (one-third beer, and two-thirds lemonade). After dinner, Pepe continued our walking tour, showing us other tapas bars, the bakery, the shop where one can buy frozen gazpacho that is almost as good as his mother's.

The next day we enjoyed tapas at La Cantina, which is part of the Feria market, so the tables are placed outside in the alleyway between the market and the stone wall of the church. Very atmospheric, and very fresh seafood. I wasn't a fan of the razor clams, mostly because of their, shall we say, off-putting appearance. But the bacalao croquettes were the best we had in Sevilla, and the giant shrimp were succulent and sweeter than any other shrimp I've eaten. The grilled squid were also delicious. I also enjoyed that when we ordered, our items were written on the tile wall with a dry erase marker. Most tapas places had a similar system so that you could add to your tab easily whenever you wanted to order more.

Before our first flamenco show, we ate at Enrique Becerra, which was probably more delicious than La Cantina, but then again, we sampled more dishes. The one we didn't care for was the lamb and honey, and the bacalao croquettes were nothing compared to La Cantina, but both tuna tapas were extraordinary (tuna cebiche and a tuna steak on salmorejo—kind of like thick gazpacho), the lamb albóndigas in a terrine of minty tomato sauce was divine, and I also loved the grilled artichokes with slivers of jamon. Siena ranked the broiled cheese with onion marmalade as one of her favorite tapas of our trip.

On Sunday we went to Triana, the neighborhood across the river. The only way I can describe this area is to say that it felt like life distilled. There was a bustle of people everywhere, the market was full of shoppers adamant about their ingredients, the bars were packed with people in business attire and casual dress, we were asked if we needed help when we paused to look at a map, we witnessed a cheerful march of women protesting against war and blowing whistles that they halted when they realized they were approaching a wedding. And then they fell into the arms of the guests milling about outside the church with laughter. Our lunch spot was down a winding, sunny street that felt like Mexico to both Keith and I, though we were unable to articulate why.

Las Golondrinas was a marvel. Every inch was decorated with Sevillan elements in way that felt bright and hopeful rather than cluttered and wearying. Even the bathroom—the first three of us who walked in spontaneously gasped, "Oh, wow!" at the tile work on the walls and even in the sink. Except Keith, who made a concerted effort to be contrarian, asserting "This is the most boring bathroom I've ever seen in my entire life," when he opened the door; but when he returned, and the joke was over, he couldn't help quietly admitting it was really beautiful.

The food was beautiful, too. Since we were sitting we had to order raciones (larger orders, equivalent to several tapas), which is the case in many tapas bars. Which meant we sampled fewer menu items, but enjoyed them mightily. We had a cut of pork called "secreto," which is a strip of lean meat hidden beneath the belly fat (part of this cut usually winds up in the meaty part of bacon). Apparently, butchers used to keep this tasty bit for themselves, but now it is not uncommon on tapas menus. It is incredibly tender and flavorful; ours was sliced and sautéed, and then each juicy slice was placed on bread, and all 6 of them were served on a platter of top of potato chips. The grilled squid was garlicky and fantastic, and Nicolas kept trying to divert our attention so he could sneak yet another off the platter. And we ordered another dish because the waiter recommended it, chuletita de cordero. I was pretty sure cordero wasn't a scary meat, like pigeon brains. Turns out it was lamb, and the dish was lamb chops. Very much like Umbrian's lamb scottaditto, but as this is one of my favorite Umbrian foods, I didn't mind. Siena isn't a huge lamb fan, but by the end of lunch she somehow had all the bones on her plate as she relished "cleaning" them with gusto.

The children had Fanta to drink, which they said was practically orange juice. Not as bubbly as Fanta normally is (even in Italy), so that even Gabe enjoyed it, but with the same freshness that the Italian version boasts. Funny how something as universal as Fanta tastes different in different countries. The glass bottles were also a treat.

Dinner that night was our luxury meal—tapas at La Azotea. The owner was wonderfully friendly, and I was glad we got there early to secure a table. I found the meat dishes tasty, but it was the fish that rocked our collective world. Tuna belly marinated in soy (says the menu, I didn't taste soy but just an umami richness) with dabs of olive tapenade, and merluza (a white fish) in a garlicky, buttery sauce with a slight spice from al pil pil peppers which lent a smoky heat. Unbelievable. La Azotea was the only restaurant at which we got dessert, an arroz con leche mousse, and a melty chocolate cake with orange sauce and vanilla ice cream that was gone so quickly I'm including the before and after picture here. That's pretty much how quickly we devoured it. Our drinks were special, too, wonderful sangria with our meal, and then some delicious sherry afterwards. Lovely.

The next day, we ducked into Bar Las Teresas when the rain began and enjoyed several tapas. Highlights there included the fried boquerones, which were more savory and delicious than others we had, and octopus a la galegga, sliced octopus marinated with paprika, salt, and olive oil.

On our now sunshiny walk back to the apartment, we spied an open standing table at La Antigua Bodeguita in Plaza San Salvador. It was a tapas bar we'd wanted to eat at before, but it was always too crowded with no places to sit. This time, our youngest two were still full from lunch and wanted to do nothing more than run around the plaza, so Keith, Nicolas, and I grabbed a table on the outside of the cluster to keep our eyes on the little ones. This was a highlight of the trip for me. Partly for its spontaneity, partly because it was nice to have an adult discussion about global politics and languages, partly because we never saw a menu. A cheerful, chatty waiter came by and just asked what we wanted. We agreed to almost anything he suggested, or asked him for something spicy or something with fish, to which he made suggestions and so we wound up with a constant stream of little surprises. Siena and Gabe would run over for a bite once in awhile, but mostly it was just the three of us standing, enjoying the sunlight and our tapas. The waiter was so nice, laughed heartily when Nicolas ordered a second of the tiny hamburgers and then wanted to know if the second was better than the first. Knowing full well Nicolas didn't speak Spanish, he still clapped him on the shoulder and asked until Nicolas understood. And the next day when we passed the restaurant while they were setting up, the waiter saw me and smiled and waved like we were old friends.

Our last tapas, like our first tapas, were with Pepe. He shepherded us to Bodega Santa Cruz after our walking tour of lower Sevilla. When we told him how much we enjoyed pringá, he suggested we should really try blood sausage. We did, despite my reservations. I found it very nice at first, but finished with an iron-y flavor that kept me from having a second bite. Keith loved it. This was a fun and bustling spot to spend an afternoon, with the waiters in perpetual motion, keeping track of orders with a grease pencil right on the bar. We ordered dish after dish; we would moan aloud about how delicious a dish was, prompting Pepe to make another stunning suggestion. My favorites were the eggplant with honey and the gazpacho-like salmorejo. Pepe told me how to make my own, while Siena and I were busy polishing it off. I loved the hard boiled egg and bits of ham in the thickened tomato soup. Also fabulous were the papas bravas (fried potatoes with mayonnaise and spicy sauce) and the shrimp and chickpea pancakes.

Tapas are the perfect social food. It's so easy to get just one more plate, one more round. So easy to pass around and savor together. So easy to try new things with low risk. And so wonderful to sample the flavors of Andalusia, one little taste at a time.