It was March 2000, I was visiting a friend in Sevilla, Spain, and almost as soon as I unloaded my bag we were at a café in a cobble-stoned square sipping cerveza and noshing on tapas. We filled our bellies on the cheap with a variety of fish, ham, cheese and olives, and I was hooked. It would be years before I saw a tapas restaurant back in the U.S., but I always craved the economical small dishes designed for sharing and socializing, tapeando.
Theoretically, a tapas restaurant would be a great place for the $15 and under crew to get good, cheap food. Unfortunately, the spirit and essence of Spanish tapas have been craftily stripped away from the American version. Tapa, in fact means cover, and we have definitely had our eyes covered by slick marketing.
Instead of dishing up free or at least cheap dishes with drinks, tapas restaurants across the states use the cachet of something new, with a foreign name to gouge clueless customers.
Honestly, I didn’t expect anything different from Café Barcelona in the gallery district of Third Street South, and they indeed have followed in the path of other American bastardizations of the spirit of tapas. Sad, because owner Monserat Bonache hails from Barcelona so she knows what tapas should be.
We still sat down at the street side metal tables determined to meet our budget. So we split a single serving of the not-too-sweet, tasty but fruit-deprived Sangria, and ordered three dishes to share: jamon Serrano (dry cured Spanish ham, reminiscent of prosciutto), champiñones ajillo (mushrooms in garlic sauce) and wine chorizo (Spanish sausage cooked in red wine). They all ranged from $5 to $8.
The tomato bread, a very typical thing in Spain where a fresh tomato is grated on to a garlic rubbed slice, was a good touch and welcome platform for staking out our trio of tapas.
All of the portions were surprisingly hearty, which isn’t typical with tapas – and the three plates were more than enough to satisfy the two of us. They all could have handled a little more flavor, and almost tasted toned down for the American palate. The jamon Serrano, was sliced a little too thick.
Of course we were held back by our budget, which forced us to exclude some of the more creative, but expensive dishes.
You can also get full entrees like grilled lamb chops and sea bass, which are the most expensive things on the menu at $20.
Café Barcelona and other tapas restaurants would do better to follow the true spirit of tapas, featuring local ingredients that would keep costs down. In Spain, the kind of tapas you get is dictated by where you are in the country, the closer you are to the coast the more seafood tapas you’ll get. I say embrace that idea, don’t reject it in name of having what people expect to see. Use gator, grouper, stone crabs, citrus fruit – Florida products. In the end the food will be fresher, cheaper and most likely better.
The bill came out to $30.17, so with tip we ran over our budget, and we couldn’t skip the tip because A: $15 and under doesn’t roll like that and B: The friendly, inviting service was one of the best parts of Café Barcelona.