Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Madrid "Ultimate Spanish Cuisine" Food Tour

"These are delicious!" exclaimed J, chewing on the orejas (pigs ears) laid out on our table at Casa Toni. I assented, preferring the more succinct "yum" to escape out of my lips. The rest of our group were busy partaking of the other dishes - pimientos de padron (peppers), callos (tripe), chipirones (cuttlefish), among others.

This feast of Spanish dishes was the culmination of our Ultimate Spanish Cuisine food tour, one of the tours run by Madrid Food Tours.  Our group of six tourists and foodies had spent the last four and a half (!) hours together, walking and tasting around Madrid's center, and although most of us were stuffed, there's always a little more room for great eats.

Casa Toni
I am a lover of Spanish food; well, of food in general, and of food tours. The more memorable ones I have taken were in New York City (numerous!), Istanbul, San Sebastian and Quebec City.

However, for sheer length (again, 4.5 hours!) and volume of food there was no comparison to the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine food tour - I felt so stuffed afterwards that I had to take dessert from La Mallorquina to go!

The tour doesn't cover that great of a distance, sticking mainly to the Puerto del Sol area, and included stops at a couple of my favorites, Chocolateria de San Gines and Mercado San Miguel (this is my second time in Madrid).

 I won't give away the rest of the tastings, but suffice it to say that all the food was delicious, and you definitely get your money's worth. Our tour leader, Paula Movil, a native of Guatemala who has settled in Madrid, was a lot of fun and helpful in answering most of the group's (mostly mine) questions.

The tour is a must for those who are well-versed in Spanish food but need guidance in discovering reputable shops and restaurants, and also if you're not quite familiar with some dishes but have an adventurous spirit. Thus, the pigs' ears and tripe, two specialties that tend to polarize diners, but in our group's case, there was near unanimity on how delicious they tasted.

Sadly, due to other commitments I didn't have time to join any of the other gastronomic experiences offered by Madrid Food Tours, but will definitely do so on my next visit to Madrid.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Mercado San Anton, Madrid

Mercado San Anton
Sure, like every other tourist in Madrid you've visited and possibly had a relaxing cup of cafe con leche in Plaza Mayor, and afterwards jostled fellow tourists for space at the food counters of the neighboring foodie paradise Mercado San Miguel, or waited interminably for your turn to order those mouth-watering jamon iberico sandwiches, or duck foie gras tapas.

And therein lies my lament with Mercado San Miguel. It is a great place to hang out in and stuff yourself with somewhat pricey Spanish food items, but it is somewhat small to begin with, and with the daily onslaught of hungry tourists eager to sample Spanish cuisine, the cramped atmosphere can become wearisome.

Luckily, another refurbished market is situated not far from Madrid's center - the multi-level Mercado San Anton in Chueca (the metro station is a block away). Spread out over four floors, this spacious market has food vendors (some are the same as Mercado San Miguel's), restaurants, and even a supermarket on the ground level.

Fortunately for myself, Mercado San Anton was only a few minutes walk from my hostal on Avenida Fuencarral, thus I had a couple of opportunities to visit. I marveled at the sheer size of the market, magnified by the low foot traffic during the morning hours. During peak hours, I'm sure Mercado San Anton will attract numerous locals and tourists alike, but there's more room to accommodate everyone.

On both occasions, I had breakfast consisting of a cafe con leche accompanied by a croissant and pan de chocolate which satisfied both my stomach and sweet tooth, and afterwards, I was ready to shop!

Since I was headed back to the States soon, I went over to Casa de Bacalao to stock up on canned navajas (razor clams) and the superb Bocarte anchoas (anchovies) in olive oil - they are quite expensive but are quite intense and flavorful, and the cheap stuff can't compare. I love putting the anchovies on top of Brie, with a zesty, refreshing albarino or godello on hand for imbibing. Definitely a treat.

And of course - how about some jamon iberico de bellota? Although now available in NYC, the king of Spanish hams is often sold at stratospheric prices.

The pre-sliced packages at La Charcuteria de Octavio broke down whatever weak resistance I offered, and despite warnings from friends that passengers are not allowed to bring jamon past Customs, I picked up some of the fatty pork to savor, relish, and get me through the winter, risks be damned.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Spanish Craft Beer Finds in Madrid and Santiago de Compostela

I love drinking good beer. I love traveling to Spain. However, those two don't mix together well, since as we all know, Spain is wine country. Sure, I love Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Rueda, but I knew that at some point on my trip I'd be craving for a tasty, flavorful Spanish craft beer. No offense, but Mahou, San Miguel, and Estrella Damm need not apply.

What to do? Like any diligent food tourist, I devoted a lot of time and effort in doing my research, i.e. I googled "craft beer Madrid", and presto, this article "Madrid craft beer revolution" by a local food blogger popped up, and voila - problem solved!

Fabrica Maravillas
Using the article as my compass, the first stop was Fabrica Maravillas, a popular brewpub in the Malasana district, and by happy coincidence, only a few minutes walk from my hostal. The place is a bit small, consisting of a bar as you enter, and a few tables to the side. Gleaming tanks holding the beers being brewed on-site are visible. Fabrica Maravillas serves a rotating menu of 5 or 6 beers, and the staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable in explaining each variety's flavor profile. Being pressed for time, only had the chance to try refreshing saison valverde. 

Only a couple of minutes away, also in Malasana, is Irreale. A long, narrow space with the bar deep inside, it offers 10 rotating beers on tap, along with numerous bottles from all over the world (I recognized some Belgian favorites, among others). I visited on a couple of occasions, and both times out of 10 draft beers, 2 were local Spanish craft brews so I opted for those. And boy, they didn't disappoint...the porter from a brewery in Toledo, and the pale ale from El Pedal (also based in Madrid) were pretty good, as well as the black IPA from Navarra. (I forgot to take down names of the breweries, sadly).  

On one visit, a fellow patron sitting at the bar beside me started asking the bartender about other craft beer options in Madrid. Sensing a fellow beer enthusiast, and seeing as they had difficulty communicating, I volunteered to translate, and also chipped in my tiny bit of knowledge gleaned from the article. The guy was visiting from Norway, and had walked around Madrid for hours, looking for bars serving more than the usual suds. I circled Fabrica Maravillas on the map for him, as well as La Tape, which I didn't get a chance to visit. Nothing like bonding over a beer and sharing info with like-minded tourists.

Lastly, and this also goes under the classification of good fortune, upon finishing my Camino de Santiago hike in Santiago de Compostela, I spent a day sightseeing around town, eating pulpo, navajas, and anchoas, and guzzling all the albarino and godello humanly possible. What I didn't expect was to stumble upon a newly-opened craft beer shop a mere five minutes from my hotel - La Atlantica Beer Shop.

Having opened just over the summer, La Atlantica offers a lot of international beers, as well as local craft beers, mostly from Catalonia and Galicia. The owner is quite friendly, and with my serviceable Spanish we managed to chit-chat about different beers, and I eagerly quizzed him about the burgeoning craft beer scene in Spain. 

He admitted that the best craft beers in Spain came from Catalonia, but that Galicia is currently on the upswing. Although the shop is quite spacious, there isn't an area for imbibing; however, in addition to the bottles displayed on the shelves, there were a few local brews inside a small refrigerator. 

Figured I might as well try the hyper-local Galician beers which he gladly opened - Keltius Mosteiro, a strong dark ale brewed just down the road in Ourense by recently-established Keltius, and Menduina's Imperial Stout called Demo Neghro, brewed in Pontevedra. Both were outstanding interpretations of their respective styles, and much to my liking. So, beer lovers out there, there is hope for finding good brews in Spain - although it takes a bit of looking - and hopefully they will become more numerous and mainstream in coming years. That's something we can definitely raise our glasses and drink to! 

For a more comprehensive list of Spanish craft beer, check out Birrapedia.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Spanish montaditos 100 ways in New York

Spanish food has long been popular in New York - tapas and paella bars abound, sangria never seems to go out of style, and jamon iberico is increasingly becoming widely available and appreciated by foodies. To add yet more variety to the scene, an outpost of the uber-popular Spanish chain Cerveceria 100 Montaditos (shortened to 100 Montaditos), which offers those namesake snack-sized rolls with fillings a hundred different ways, recently opened in the Village.

#66 Serrano ham with Manchego cheese (left), #20 Spanish tortilla montaditos

Like most tourists, I had come across 100 Montaditos branches in Madrid, and had grabbed a beer or two and perhaps a montadito filled with ham or cheese. Given that country's economic crisis and resulting unemployment rate of over twenty five percent, the locals are also flocking to 100 Montaditos primarily because of the attractive price point - every montadito costs the same - one euro!

So it was quite a surprise to stumble upon the first (there will be more, said the counter person) branch in New York, which had been open a grand total of five days. I figured I'd have a light dinner before heading off to an engagement, and perused the menu, finally making up my mind (a hundred choices!) and ordering #20 (Spanish Tortilla), #54 (Brie, chorizo, and aoili), and #66 (jamon Serrano with Manchego cheese).

Choosing a beer was more straightforward - they only had Bud, Bud Light and Estrella Damm on tap, so I went for the last one. After all, this was a Spanish food experience, wasn't it? Hopefully, better choices will be added soon, and I don't mean Mahou or San Miguel.

The pricing scheme works a bit differently at this branch compared to Spain. Not all 100 montaditos are priced uniformly, but rather 25 varieties cost $1, another 25 cost $1.50, another 35 cost $2 (including the above-mentioned #54 and #66), 15 premium montaditos will set you back $2.50, and finally 5 varieties of sweet dessert montaditos go for $2. (On Wednesdays ALL montaditos are offered for $1).

It's still a pretty good deal - my three montaditos plus one beer cost $10 before tax and tip - and I felt full after my "light" dinner. So it's not gourmet food but they were quite tasty, and I was pleasantly surprised that chips came with my order. These are good quality snacks which everyone who loves Spanish food will enjoy, regardless of your budgetary constraints.

Now that I've crossed three items off the list, 97 more to go...check out the menu here.

100 Montaditos on Urbanspoon