The crock of gambas al ajillo is still sizzling when it hits my table. The tiny pink shrimp, hazy with the aroma of garlic, spit little flecks of oil. It smells like heaven. But on past visits to Madrid, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way: If you dig right in, you’ll scald the roof of your mouth…leaving your taste buds tenderized for the rest of your trip. So I wait, patiently, until it’s cooled off. Suddenly I hear a sharp sizzle. Under the monstrous copper flame hood in the corner, a row of squid shimmy on the griddle.
Finally, my shrimp have cooled enough — but even then, I’m careful of the second hazard of gambas al ajillo: a shirt spotted with garlicky oil, a stain you’ll never get out (or stop smelling). Careful as I am, somehow I still manage to drizzle a stripe of oil on my shirt. I try, fruitlessly, to wipe it away with the tissue-paper napkins, which I toss into the marble trough at the base of the bar. Oh well. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a shirt for a good meal. This may be only my first bite, but already I know that — on this trip to update our Rick Steves’ Spain guidebook — I’m going to really enjoy Madrid’s tapas scene.
The Spanish capital is also the melting pot of Spanish cooking. Within a few steps of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, you’ll find eateries showcasing jamón from Castile, manchego from La Mancha, sardines from Santander, paella from Valencia, gazpacho from Andalucía, octopus and sprightly white wine from Galícia, mar i muntanya (“surf & turf”) dishes from Catalunya, and wildly creative Basque-style pintxos — each one perched on a slice of rustic bread. Madrid may not be Spain’s best culinary destination (that title would go either to the Basque Country or Catalunya). But it’s certainly a handy one-stop-shop for sampling everything Spain has to offer.
Let’s begin with a touristy extreme. Dropping into Rick’s favorite bullfighting bar — La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, right on the Plaza Mayor — I belly up to the bar and order a beer…basically as a cover charge to hang out and take pictures of the grotesque bullfighting decor. The actual bulls’ heads might haunt a vegetarian’s dreams, but the many photographs of too-bold matadors being graphically gored make it clear that Spain’s national pastime has no real winners.
When my beer comes, it arrives with a tidy little pile of paella on a saucer. Always suspicious of tourist-gouging tricks, I confirm that it’s free. It is indeed. They’re staying true to the spirit of the “tapa,” which originated as a free bite of food to accompany a drink. (The little plate the bite comes on can act as a tapa — a “lid” on top of your drink.) A good paella is hard to come by; most restaurants serve microwaved portions with dreary, muted flavors. But this one seems fresh: it’s a shellfish risotto, richly flavored and colored with intense yellow saffron, tasting unmistakably of the sea.
I’m tempted to order another drink just to get the other free tapa I notice them handing out: a mini-mug of the garlicky cold tomato soup, gazpacho. But I’ve got other places to be, and I’ve had my fill of the bulls’ glassy stares (and the vintage photos of bulls’ horns piercing madators’ groins and chins). When I ask for the bill, I’m charged a total of €2…so much for ripping off tourists.
A few steps away, I see a cluster of Madrileños lined up at Café Rúa — famous for its bocadillo de calamares. This simple street food — Madrid’s answer to a Chicago hot dog or a Naples pizza — is a hunk of French bread filled with hot, greasy, crispy, fried calamari. Less than €3, this squid-wich is sold all over town — but Café Rúa is a classic.
These are all touristy choices…handy for people exploring Madrid’s compact core, looking for a bite between posing with colorful statues of flamenco dancers. But the Rick Steves Spain guidebook also recommends some areas with a more appealing mix of Madrileños and outsiders. And I find these much more fun to check out.
Over near the Prado runs Calle de Jesús, where — in one three-block stretch — you can take your pick of a dozen different tapas bars. I have the good (or bad?) fortune to reach Calle de Jesús at prime tapas time: Saturday night, 10 p.m. Each bar is overstuffed, with would-be patrons outside peering into foggy windows, waiting for someone to leave, in the hopes of bushwhacking a path to the bar.
Surveying my options, I’m drawn in by one in particular. Inside, an excited weekend hubbub bounces off the colorfully tiled walls. Madrileños stand in little clusters, precariously perching their plates and glasses on narrow counters, waving their arms in conversation…it’s a miracle glassware isn’t flying everywhere.
Behind the bar, five uniformed bartenders scurry to and fro. It’s peak-of-peak, and they’re in the weeds, but they are a well-oiled machine. They’re remarkably well-coordinated and efficient, shouting instructions to each other as they toss plates like frisbees to hungry diners. Just watching one bartender expertly fling two ice cubes each into four glasses held in one hand, in a matter of seconds, is like watching a pitcher land a split-fingered fastball at the bottom crease of the strike zone. If you’re an indecisive diner who appreciates when the server helps explain your choices…well, then, Jesús help you on Saturday night in Madrid.
As somebody leaves, I make my move to squeeze in the door and shimmy along the bar to the far end, hoping to find a spot to claim for my own. I never do, but the procedure allows me to survey the complete lineup of canapés (little sandwiches) under glass and make my selection. I wave my arm until the bartender takes note. He points me all the way back down to the other end of the bar, where he’s spotted a space that just opened up.
Once positioned, he gives me a quizzical look — a “whaddaya want?!” sneer, pulling back his top lip to reveal questioning teeth — and I rattle off my order: open-face salmon sandwich and a banderilla. Named for the fancy stakes the bullfighter jabs into the fleshy neck of his victim, this is simply a variety of pickled items pierced with a toothpick. But it turns out I’ve upset the delicate order of things: There are two kinds of banderillas under that counter, each with a subtly different type of preserved fish peeking out between chunks of pickle and pepper. Which one do I want, for God’s sake? We don’t have all night here! I point to one at random, and within moments my food is before me.
It’s delicious. The salmon is incredibly tender. And the banderilla is an explosive pop of vinegar and salt, with a slight anchovy finish. It’s so good, I order a second.
Surveying the hubbub, I think of some of my friends back home who would love this…and even more who would absolutely hate it. Tapas are a full-contact sport, and not for everyone. You’re diving headlong, as a rank beginner, into a very specific culture that you can’t possibly understand.
Checking out dozens of Madrid tapas bars for our guidebook, a few things become clear: All of them are supremely tempting. But not one of them is what you’d call user-friendly. Posted menus are rare, and ones in English are almost nonexistent. You can survey the few items they have ready to go, under glass at the bar. But then, after you order, you’ll notice delicious, piping-hot, and (frankly) much better-looking plates coming out of the kitchen…ordered by in-the-know locals who understand that what’s at the bar is only the tip of the iceberg. A menu?! How were you to know there was a menu?
My best tips: Be patient. Don’t expect attentive service. It’s nobody’s job to make things easy on you. Do a little homework — be aware of what each bar is known for (especially if it’s something you have to order from a menu). And while you’re getting up to speed, don’t be afraid to show up early with the rest of the tourists, at around 8 p.m., when things are still quiet. If you wait until 10 p.m., like the Spaniards, you’ll be swimming with sharks. (For even more tips, see my post on “The Trouble with Tapas.”)
Another great strip of tapas bars — hitting that elusive sweet spot between touristy and local — runs a couple of blocks south of the Plaza Mayor, along Calle Cava Baja. While the bars on Calle de Jesús run to more traditional choices, Calle Cava Baja mixes in some boldly innovative variations.
This is a great strip for checking out trendy Basque-style tapas bars, which many first-timers find more enticing and accessible than the old-school ones. In a Basque bar, the counters are lined with eye-catching, typically wildly creative bites — making it easier to understand exactly what you’re getting. Along Calle Cava Baja, Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileña (at #26) is a great example of this.
But this trip’s best Madrid tapas experience took place just beyond the far end of Calle Cava Baja, where the bar called Juana la Loca overlooks a lonely square. Named “Juana the Mad” (for the 16th-century Spanish queen), it feels like a more sophisticated, more civilized alternative to the standard tapas bar. It’s crowded, but not crazy. Like at most tapas bars, you can try to show up a little earlier to snag a table, or stake your place at the counter and peruse your options — which, here, run to creative, updated Spanish classics and experimental “fusion” dishes.
Their signature dish — and the best €4 value in Madrid — is a tortilla de patatas. It’s a creative variation on the typical tortilla española (egg and potato omelet), but it’s jammed full of heavenly caramelized onions — giving it a sweet, slightly bitter, intensely satisfying flavor.
Ultimately, the Madrid tapas scene is like Spanish cuisine generally: It’s not delicate, and it’s not subtle.
Spanish cooking is Spanish culture — bullfighting and flamenco and Picasso — on a plate: Bold. Uncompromising. Unrelenting. Aggressive. Spanish food is about choosing a flavor profile, then doubling and tripling down on it. The chef wants to slap the eater across the face with flavor…challenging them to turn away. If French cuisine is about technique and nuance and subtlety and surprises, Spanish cuisine is the opposite. It’s a firehose of flavor. (I like to half-joke that a Spanish chef never met a vegetable he didn’t want to submerge in olive oil and garlic. And maybe sauté, too.) For this reason, Spanish cooking could be accused — not unfairly — of being one-note. But there’s no question it’s flavor-forward.
Personally, it can overwhelm my palate. After a few days in Spain, I need to detox my taste buds with something different. But for now…I might just have to circle back for another portion of gambas al ajillo.
Every single tapas place mentioned here is recommended in the Rick Steves Spain guidebook. I’m in Madrid updating that book — but I’m finding that I can’t improve on Rick’s great picks.
The tapas scene is intimidating. And that’s why, after a previous trip to Spain, I wrote a blog post all about the procedure for making the most of Spanish tapas, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
While in Madrid, I’ve also bumped into a few Rick Steves’ Europe Tours in Spain…who are navigating Spain’s culinary scene with the expertise of a top-notch guide. It makes me a little jealous, I must admit. We make things so easy on our tour members…