Tasty Tapas Tips
By Rick Steves
|Hams hang from the ceiling in a traditional Spanish tapas bar. Often, the noisiest spots are the best.|
Any time of day or night you'll see Spaniards enjoying small plates of tapas (appetizers) in bars. For me, tapas are the best thing about Spanish cuisine. Tapas are small portions, like appetizers, of seafood, salads, meat-filled pastries, deep-fried tasties, and on and on — normally displayed under glass at the bar.
Most bars push larger portions called raciones (dinner-plate-sized) rather than smaller tapas (saucer-sized). Ask for the smaller tapas portions, or a media-ración (listed as 1/2 ración on a menu), though many bars simply don't serve anything smaller than a ración.
Eating and drinking at a bar is usually cheapest if you eat or drink at the counter (barra). You may pay a little more to eat sitting at a table (mesa) and still more for an outdoor table (terraza). Locate the price list (often posted in fine type on a wall somewhere) to know the menu options and price tiers. In the right place, a quiet snack and drink on a terrace on the town square is well worth the extra charge. But the cheapest seats sometimes get the best show. Sit at the bar and study your bartender — he's an artist.
Be assertive or you'll never be served. Por favor (please) grabs the guy's attention. Don't worry about paying until you're ready to leave (he's keeping track of your tab). To get the bill ask: "¿La cuenta?" (or la dolorosa — meaning literally "the sadness" — always draws a confused laugh). Bars come with a formidable language barrier. A small working vocabulary is essential for tapas proficiency, and will help you eat better, too (see below).
|Recipe for instant romance: Order assorted tapas. Add wine. Stare gently until desired effect is achieved.|
Chasing down a particular bar for tapas nearly defeats the purpose and spirit of tapas — they are impromptu. Just drop in to any lively place. I look for the noisy spots with piles of napkins and food debris on the floor (go local and toss your trash, too), lots of locals, and the TV blaring. Popular television shows include bullfights and soccer games, American sitcoms, and Spanish interpretations of soaps and silly game shows (you'll see Vanna Blanco). While tapas are served all day, the real action begins late — 21:00 at the earliest. But for beginners, an earlier start is easier and comes with less commotion.
Get a fun, inexpensive sampler plate. Ask for una tabla de canapés variados to get a plate of various little open-face sandwiches. Or ask for a surtido de (an assortment of...) charcutería (a mixed plate of meat) or queso (cheese). Un surtido de jamón y queso means a plate of different hams and cheeses. That, bread, and two glasses of red wine on the right square — and you've got a romantic (and inexpensive) dinner for two.
pincho: bite-size portion
pinchito: tiny pincho
tapas: snack-size portions
ración: larger portions (half a meal, occasionally available in a smaller version called a "1/2 ración" (media-ración)
...a la plancha: grilled
Quanto cuesta una tapa?: How much per tapa?
canapé: tiny open-faced sandwich
pulguitas: small closed baguette sandwich
montadito: baguette slice with the tapa "mounted" on top
bocadillos: baguette sandwiches, cheap and basic, a tapa on bread
flautas: sandwich made with flute-thin baguette
pepito: yet one more word for a little sandwich
almendras: fried almonds
banderilla: small skewer of spicy, pickled veggies — eat all at once for the real punch (it's named after the spear matadors use to spike the bull)
bombas: fried meat and potatoes ball
boquerones: fresh anchovies
calamares fritos: fried squid rings
caracoles: snails (May-Sept)
cazón en adabo: salty, marinated dogfish
croquetas de...: breaded and fried béchamel (made of flour and milk), usually with chunks of jamón (ham)
empanadillas: pastries stuffed with meat or seafood
ensalada rusa: potato salad with lots of mayo, peas, and carrots
espinacas (con garbanzos): spinach (with garbanzo beans)
gambas (a la plancha, al ajillo): shrimp (sauteed, with garlic)
gazpacho: cold soup, made with tomato, bread, garlic, and olive oil
paella: rice dish with saffron, seafood, meat, and/or chicken
patatas bravas: fried chunks of potato with spicy tomato sauce
pescaditos fritos: assortment of fried little fish
picos: little breadsticks
pimiento (relleno): peppers (stuffed)
pisto: mixed sautéed vegetables
queso: cheese (or a beautiful woman)
queso manchego: sheep-milk cheese
rabas: squid tentacles
rabo de toro: bull-tail stew
revuelto de...: scrambled eggs with...
...setas: ...wild mushrooms
tabla serrana: hearty plate of mountain meat and cheese
tortilla española: potato omelet
tortilla de jamon/queso: potato omelet with ham/cheese
variado fritos: typical Andalusian mix of various fried fish
Cured Meats (Charcutería)
jamón ibérico: best ham, from acorn-fed baby pigs
jamón serrano: cured ham
chorizo: spicy sausage
lomo: pork tenderloin
flan de huevo: crème caramel
arroz con leche: rice pudding
helados (variados) : ice cream (various flavors)
fruta de la estación: fruit in season