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Ten temples of Spanish tapas

EL PAÍS SEMANAL has traveled across the country to find out why people are willing to stand in line for as long as it takes just to get a taste of these deceptively simple dishes

Diners photograph the famous Spanish omelette at Bar Nestor in San Sebastian.
Diners photograph the famous Spanish omelette at Bar Nestor in San Sebastian.

In Spain, food is a religion. That's why there are bars and restaurants where a specific tapa may be an object of worship. EL PAÍS SEMANAL tried 10 places around the country where people flock for a taste of deceptively simple dishes, prepared the right way.

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Bar Néstor, San Sebastián

The tortilla de patatas at Bar Néstor (Calle de la Pescadería, 11) in San Sebastián is the stuff of legend. Getting your hands on a slice requires two trips. The first one should take place an hour in advance, just to make your reservation. The second one delivers the object of desire. Potato, free-range eggs, olive oil, onion and green peppers work together to create this miracle. Only two omelettes are made a day; one is served at 1pm and the other one at 8pm. In the summer there can be lines of around 30 people, so run for it!

A slice of history

Casa Labra, Madrid

Founded in 1860, Casa Labra (Calle de Tetuán, 12) is one of Madrid’s historic taverns, politically and gastronomically. It was here that the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) was founded in 1879, although few people visit for this reason. They come instead for its exquisite and famous piece of cod (tajada de bacalao). The fish is juicy, tasty and flakey, denoting freshness, and it melts in the mouth. The flood of customers never ends.

People lining up outside Casa Labra, founded in 1860 and famous for its pieces of cod.
People lining up outside Casa Labra, founded in 1860 and famous for its pieces of cod.

Mushrooms, a path to happiness

Bar Soriano, Logroño

Naturally you could order something else at Bar Soriano (Travesía del Laurel, 2) in Logroño, but it would be like asking for a glass of chardonnay at a winery in La Rioja. So ask for mushrooms with shrimp (champiñón con gamba). They’ll make it for you straight away. You can look at it, smell it, taste it. The oil will permeates through the bread, creating a masterful substance. You’ll weep for joy.

The see-through omelette

Casa Balbino, Sanlúcar

It almost looks like a net that caught some shrimp. And that's what a good shrimp omelette (tortilla de camarones) should look like. This fried dish is a pillar of Cádiz’s gastronomy. But the secret to this omelette lies with the people in Casa Balbino (Plaza del Cabildo, 14), in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, who claim it was told to them by a local sailor.

Shrimp omelette in Casa Balbino, Sanlúcar (Cádiz).
Shrimp omelette in Casa Balbino, Sanlúcar (Cádiz).

An orthodox Russian salad

Restaurante Nerva, Málaga

For Restaurante Nerva (Calle del Cristo de la Epidemia, 55), in Málaga, simplicity is key. That’s why their ensaladilla rusa comes with no eccentricities: just boiled monalisa potatoes with the skin on, carrots, eggs, tuna, langoustines and onion create a perfect dish that is topped with mayonnaise made with extra virgin oil and a hint of sunflower oil.

Pride of the Mediterranean

La Pilareta, Valencia

Valencians say that clòtxines are tastier than mussels. In reality, they're all mussels, but clòtxines, which are harvested in the Mediterranean during the summer, are smaller and “have a special taste.” This is confirmed by the waiter at La Pilareta (Carrer del Moro Zeid, 13), a bar that has been serving this delicacy for 102 years. The long bar is decorated with tiles and bottles and on it, thousands of diners have enjoyed this Valencian recipe: steamed ‘clòtxines’ with water, salt, lemon, a pinch of paprika and grated chili.

A waiter from La Pilareta, in Valencia, serves clòtxines, or 'true mussels' from the Mediterranean.
A waiter from La Pilareta, in Valencia, serves clòtxines, or 'true mussels' from the Mediterranean.

The king of fried food

El Brillante, Madrid

The calamari sandwich (bocata de calamares) from El Brillante is, without a doubt, a fundamental Madrid classic. The experience goes beyond the sandwich itself. El Brillante, (Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, 8) will create an impact before you even enter thanks to its luminous storefront sign. Once inside, sitting on a stool at one of the long bars, you can enjoy the trained voices of the waiters who sing the orders as if they were performing in an operetta. In terms of the ‘bocata,’ which is really what we came for, its pure simplicity should be noted. Just two slices of bread and some fried squid in the middle has earned itself a place of honor in the aristocracy of Spanish fried food.

The essence of the fried egg

La Ponderosa, Cuenca

A bar, nothing more. There are not even stools to sit on. And yet it is impossible to forget a visit to La Ponderosa (Calle de San Francisco, 20) in Cuenca. Besides the mushrooms, tomatoes, mussels and partridge that are also served to the Royal House, the masterful fried egg stands out from their menu. And it is not just for the superior quality of the eggs or the fact that they raise their own chickens, but also for the vinegar dressing that makes them truly unique.

Memorable chickpea stew

Pinotxo Bar, Barcelona

Chickpeas sautéed with Burgos blood sausage (morcilla) is one of the most typical dishes at Pinotxo Bar (Mercado de la Boquería), the establishment that has served the most stews in the whole of the Boquería Market in Barcelona. Despite being inundated by tourists, this spot is worth a visit because it is still an oasis of good cooking, with dishes to dip your bread into like chickpea stew (guiso de garbanzos), baby squid with beans, or tripe (cap i pota).

A customer eats a serving of chickpea stew at Pinotxo Bar in Barcelona's Boquería Market.
A customer eats a serving of chickpea stew at Pinotxo Bar in Barcelona's Boquería Market.

Sumptuous patatas bravas

Docamar, Madrid

Docamar (Calle de Alcalá, 337) boasts about having “the best bravas in Madrid since 1963.” This is a big statement and it will attract a range of opinions, but what’s certain is that what they serve is delicious: some fat,crispy potato wedges covered with the bar’s own secret sauce. “The ingredients are special, for example the paprika from La Vera that we use,” says the waiter Javier Peralvo. There are other elements that go into the sauce of course, but they’re secret. The result is a well-balanced taste with enough spice to give a kick to these patatas bravas.

English version by Alicia Kember.

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