Sunday, May 29, 2011

On the tapas trail in Madrid

After a hectic English language volunteer week in Valdelavilla, I came back to Madrid with my new friends, both Anglos and Spaniards. Yup, that's what being together for six entire days will do to people - we'll always look back at the fun times in that tiny village in Soria province. 

But first, plans were made to hang out over the weekend and do what everyone loves best: going for tapas in Spain, hitting a few places in one night. First up on Saturday night was MJ, who along with her boyfriend brought Rebecca, Joanne, Aileen and myself on a walk around the main sights in Madrid (whose details I won't bore you with). The food fest started at Taberna Almendro 13 in La Latina for some huevos rotos (broken eggs), pictured on the right, a concoction of sunny side-up eggs, jamon bits and potato chips.  We also had roscas de jamon, a round ham sandwich which everyone shared, washed down by vino or cerveza, of course.

David, another Spaniard on the program, met up with us at Plaza. Sta. Ana, and together we headed to another one of MJ's (and apparently, lots of other locals') favorites, Las Bravas - a casual joint specializing in Spanish fast food. The wait for a table did not deter us, and soon we were gorging on orejas (pig's ears) and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy sauce).  

At first MJ wouldn't tell everyone about the pig's ears, preferring to keep it a mystery, but since I spoke Spanish I knew what she ordered. Any trip of mine wouldn't be complete without eating some weird animal parts, so I was quite eager to taste them. The pig's ears were pretty tasty actually, but some Anglos didn't like biting into the cartilage, so I ate more than my fair share of the dish. 

Last stop for the night was nearby Villa Rosa for some drinks and dramatic touristy flamenco. We didn't have anything to eat anymore; sometimes it's amazing how these little bites fill you up without noticing it. 

Same meeting place and same time on Sunday, but with different Spaniards - Ignacio, Antonio and Jose Luis, three of the most popular participants in the program. 

After some sightseeing we headed over to a hole-in-the-wall joint off Plaza Mayor for some bocadillos - sandwiches stuffed with meat or seafood. JL recommended the bocadillos de calamares (fried shrimp stuffed inside a roll) plus more carbs in the form of patatas bravas, which were less spicy than last night's. 

Once again, the cramped space was packed to the gills, and you can quickly become good friends with diners at adjacent tables given the close quarters. Everyone seemed intent on wolfing down their huge sandwiches in the least amount of time. . 

The tour went on to the next place specializing in mushrooms which seemed a bit hokey, with the cave-like atmosphere, but the chatty piano player who played contemporary Beatles and Pink Floyd hits ("Original Spanish music is really nice to listen to", Antonio quipped wryly), and the mushrooms made up for it. 

I forgot what exactly these were called, but our group was full at this point, and the Anglos were just clamoring for more wine, so off we went to La Latina in search of good vino. Last stop was Taberna Tempranillo on the street Cava Baja, a wine bar with an unparalleled collection of bottles and a perfect place to sip, relax and talk. 

Part of me didn't want these nights to end - it was great to discover these places and dishes that I normally wouldn't have found nor sampled on my own (given the infinite number of establishments in Madrid), but more so the pleasure of new friends' company. Here's to fun times, lasting friendships, and more English conversations. Salut!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheapskate Chronicles: Frugal Eats in Madrid

Eating out in Spain can be an expensive proposition. With tons of restaurants in the major tourist zones in Madrid (Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, etc), if one isn't careful then it is easy to spend lots of money. 

Luckily, your cheapskate traveler has done some legwork in figuring out how to eat good food in Madrid for less euros. Here are a few strategies. 

Go for the menu del dia. Most restaurants offer a fixed-price daily menu during lunch time. This typically costs 9 or 10 euros, and includes two courses, bread, a drink (wine, beer or water), and coffee or dessert. If this sounds like a lot of food, well that's the idea. The dishes below aren't too shabby for the price, eh? Now you know why the Spaniards need a siesta after lunch.

Get free food. Yes, sometimes there are free things in life. At most tapas bars, ordering a drink comes with a plate of tapas, usually olives, or potato chips. 

Although not quite filling enough for a meal, this small snack can tide you over until the late dinner time - 9pm at the earliest, and even then you might have the restaurant all to yourself.

Just don't load up on the booze at one place, or the free tapas might wind up costing you. Moreover, it is customary for the Spanish to eat a couple of small plates at one place, move on to the next to sample their specialty, and so on.  Remember, when in Madrid, do as the Madrilenos do. (Or something like that).

Skip the restaurants and tapas bars.  There are a lot of small cervecerias offering bocadillos, or snacks. Usually these are sandwiches stuffed with calamari, sausages or ham, and cost as little as 2.70 euros ($4). 

Or you can go to a market like Mercado San Miguel and choose among the freshly prepared products from the different counters. At left are jamon iberico sandwiches (2.50 - 3.50 euros or $3-5) which are quite filling. 

Finally, remember: No tipping! Don't be a dumb Yank and give an automatic fifteen, or worse, twenty percent gratuity. 

So,  these are just a few strategies to reduce the cost of meals in Madrid. In addition, just follow common sense advice like checking a restaurant's menu before sitting down, and avoiding tourist traps. 

Be sure you're not among the hapless tourists who got snookered at this restaurant. Check out these prices - 11.50 euros for a mixed salad! And the place was packed to boot. I do get a kick out of other people getting fleeced, as well as a pang of pity.  Allow me my moment of schadenfreude as I munch on sumptuous jamon iberico washed down with vino, knowing I paid much less than for a bunch of leafy veggies.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Porras or Churros - Deep fried goodness at Chocolateria de San Gines, Madrid

The whole world calls them "churros", these deep-fried strips of dough that are eaten for breakfast or a snack, preferably dunked in hot chocolate. However, in Spain, these fat greasy long fingers are called "porras". And the place to be in Madrid to try these is Chocolateria San Gines, tucked behind an alley just off Calle Arenal.

follow the sign to Chocolateria San Gines

Open since 1894, Chocolateria de San Gines is open round the clock, just in case you feel like a midnight snack. Immensely popular among locals and tourists, there is plenty of outdoor seating but like those in a hurry, I stood at the long, marble counter inside and ordered a "chocolate con porras" (3.50 euros, two strips) for a late breakfast. 

The cup of hot chocolate was just to my liking, not cloyingly sweet at all. (A local I met at a tapas bar mentioned a preference for a competing chocolateria, due to its sweeter chocolate, but the name of the establishment esapes me). 

While busy dunking my porras and biting into it, I could peek inside the kitchen where their skinnier counterparts, called churros (this is getting confusing), were being dunked in a huge fryer in long strips, then cut into shorter straws as they came out. These thinner strips came four to an order, and below is a visual (taken at Mercado San Miguel), to illustrate the difference.

If hot chocolate doesn't tickle your fancy, most locals simply dunk their fat or skinny greasy fix into their cafe con leche, and that seems to work splendidly as well. Perhaps I will find out for myself tomorrow. Or tonight.