Tapa Thursday: Meson Sabika in Naperville, Illinois

 Growing up, I didn’t even know Spanish food existed. My mother is not an adventurous eater, and even our tacos were devoid of spice, onions and garlic powder.

When I began studying Spanish at age 13, I was exposed to an entirely different culinary world – Spanish cuisine. Tapas were discussed extensively in my textbook, but it seemed like a foreign concept that I’d never get to try. That is, until Señor Selleck took us to Mesón Sabika – one of the few Spanish restaurants in the Chicagoland area at the time – senior year for a field trip.

Recently, Kaley of Kaley Y Mucho Más published a post on why she thought American tapas restaurants get it all wrong. She’s definitely got a point – tapas portions at raciones prices and a more crowd-pleasing “take” on Spanish cuisine is not for me – but since I had to be at Meson Sabika for a lunchtime meeting, I figured I could have a beer and a few dishes.

Arriving at a Spanish meal time of nearly 2pm, the frazzled but friendly waitress led us immediately to the bar, where we figured we’d get away from the lull of chatter of the other patrons. Built in 1847 as a family home, the mansion that houses Meson Sabika has various dining rooms named after Spanish cities, landmarks and foods with accented ceramic bowls and bullfighting posters. Not as sleek as Café Ba-ba-reeba or Mercat a la Planxa, but definitely more intimate than Café Ibérico.

The Spanish wine list is extensive, with even lesser-known DOs like Jumilla and Toro represented. Margaret chose a fruity Rueda, but I stuck with a beer and ordered a 1906 (Spanish restaurants may not know Spanish food, but Meson Sabika had my two favorite Spanish beer brands, Estrella Galicia and Alhambra!).

While safe, the menu plays up Spanish favorites by making them a bit more American-palate friendly. Many of the meat dishes had cheese or roasted vegetables with them, bocaditos came with garden salads and not one dish contained a weird animal part. We settled on papas bravas to share, which came covered with shredded manchego cheese and chopped parsley. Not the most Spanish dish, but definitely tasty.

We each decided on an individual entrée – skirt steak with roasted potatoes and cabrales cheese for my sister, eggplant and roasted red peppers sliders for me. After so many brats and beers and processed food, it tasted like home.

While Spanish restaurants stateside might not embrace the eat-as-many-small-plates-as-you-like and we’re-family-let’s-share mentality that I love about Spanish food traditions, the menu does have a lot of different choices for even the most wary about Spanish food (let’s put it this way – my mother thinks it’s an appropriate for a big party venue) and makes it pretty easy to share a few things and still get your own plate. 

But, ouch, the bill! A meal like this back in Spain might have run us 20€ without a tip, but I ponied up $50 after tax and tip for the two of us. And no free olives?!

Have you been to any tapas bars or Spanish restaurants in your home country? What it your opinion on their food, prices and portions?

In case you go: Mesón Sabika is located on Aurora Avenue in downtown Naperville. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Saturdays, dinner only. Their menu is available on their website.

Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

Tapa Thursdays: La Dalia

I have the secret to getting a table at some of Seville’s hottest dining spots.

Go during a big football match. Really.

I have to admit that I was a bit disheartened when I wound up at La Dalia at 10pm midweek. There was no buzzing chatter or the cacophony of cutlery banging against plates. In fact, the only other people in the restaurant were the two members of the wait staff.

But at least I got a table right away.

La Dalia has received pretty good reviews of late, as the small bar is close to the Alameda and is yet another gastro pub offering spins on Spanish favorites. What I liked about the menu is that it (mostly) strayed from typical offerings in fusion and gastro places – no risotto here, but wild boar, an offering of cheeses and baked fish fashioned with chutneys and beans.

By the time H showed up, I was pretty decided on the few dishes I’d like to try, though many didn’t come in tapas form. We settled on duck and apple croquetas, morcilla de arroz with pisto and a fried quail egg, and a mini ox hamburger with foie gras for each of us, plus our requisite beers.

The croquetas and morcilla came first, and I was already making a mental note to come back and try more. But the hamburgerseso, sí, a gastrobar staple, was topped with cheddar cheese, which effectively killed the flavor of a well-cooked meat.

In lieu of one last tapa, we decided on dessert. In hindsight, we should have chosen another dish. The apple pie was doused in strawberry sauce, which cut the entire flavor of the apple and cake, and the brownie was dry. 

La Dalia wasn’t a total washout, but I won’t be running back there any time soon. I didn’t think the staff was especially friendly, either, but they could have just been bummed that they were missing the big game.

Los detalles: Calle Trajano, 44, right off the Alameda. Tuesday to Saturday 1:30 to 4:00 and 9:00 to 11:30. Closed Sunday and Monday dinner.

Tapa Thursdays: Nazca

We stumbled on Nazca one afternoon when our friend Scott was visiting from Madrid. I’d heard talk of the place – a Japanese and Peruvian fusion restaurant – for ages, and we quite literally stumbled there after spending a sweltering afternoon at the river catching up. Named after the Peruvian Nazca lines, the restaurant is just one of Seville’s gastro pub hotspots these days.

We arrived early enough (around 9pm) to snag a high table with bar stools in a bar that mixes industrial with international with a dash of Spanish (in the tiled floor of course). They were a bit unsteady, which made it difficult to share food once we’d ordered, but the food made up for it.  The menu is a mix of the nigiri and maki you’d expect to find at a Japanese restaurant, along with South American inspired meat dishes.

We settled on niguri topped with presa ibérica, a fresh chopped salad with chicken fingers (my life in Spain is complete!) and potato towers topped with a cherry tomato and some sort of cream sauce. Along with olives and picos, Nazca sets the table with chopsticks and Kikoman’s soy sauce.

Still hungry, we saw a waiter rush by with a hunk of meet. Hayley simply pointed and we soon had the dish at our table, which came with a deep-fried sort of croqueta, a slew of grilled and seasoned vegetables and a creamy, peppery sauce with rock salt.

Hayley says she went back the following week with her visiting parents and literally ordered everything on the menu. Don’t blame her – the food was really good and the presentation was incredible. I probably wouldn’t order the presa nigiri again, but stick to a ceviche or maki. From all accounts, the fish dishes stand out at Nazca.

Los detalles: Nazca is located on Calle Baños at number 32, just west of Plaza de la Gavidia. Open about 1:40 to 5 and 8:30 to midnight or so. They’re closed all day Tuesday and for lunch on Wednesdays. Expect to pay 12€ or more a head, particularly if you order wine.

Tapa Thursdays: Banderillas

Just as soon as it came, spring has left.

In other words, it’s already too hot to sleep.

My diet changes with the weather – just as soon as I’ve put away my heavy sweater, I stop eating lentejas. With my summer wardrobe comes gazpacho, salad, caracoles, fried fish and banderillas with my beer.

Where it comes from:

What it is: A banderillas is a snack that takes its name from the barbed sticks used in bullfighting (and, according to Google images, also the name of corn dogs). Pickled vegetables are stuck onto toothpicks and eaten in one bite. These vegetables can include gherkin pickles, red peppers, cebolletas, guindilla peppers and olives, and sometimes include anchovies or even chunks of cheese, depending on preferences.

Goes great with: Beer and a warm, sunny day! Just don’t drink them with wine – the banderillas are briny with a kick from the pepper and therefore kill the taste of a robust tinto.

Where to get them in Seville: The banderilla is great for parties, and you can buy pre-made jars at the supermarket or make them yourself at home. As something to matar el hambre after work, I’ll grab a tapa from La Melva (Cardenal Ilundain and Manuel Siurot) or any other old man bar.

What are your favorite bar snacks? Do you like banderillas?

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...