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A great eating tradition

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Tapas & raciones
By C. Gavilanes

While most people have heard of tapas, and they're available in most Spanish bars, it's not always clear to everyone how to go about finding and ordering them. Part of the problem is that the word tapas usually doesn't appear on menus or billboards, and that many bars don't adhere to the real tradition of tapas. The word tapas comes from the Spanish verb 'tapar' (which means to cover). A tapa was meant as a free snack to be placed on top of a drink to keep flies and other what-nots out. While many bars in Madrid provide a tapa with a glass of beer or wine (which in some cases is delicious and in others hardly worth eating), it's by no means the norm. More typically, going out for tapas implies ordering a plate of food called a ración, if it is to be shared among a few people, or a perhaps a canapé, which is something on a small piece of bread. Also common in tapas bars are bocadillos (or bocatas) which are sandwiches made with a bread roll or baguette.

Just about any manner of Spanish food comes in the form of tapas, and as such it's a very good way to go about trying the huge variety of Spanish dishes. Don't worry if you don't understand the menu, most tapas bars have their goods on display at the bar so you can simply point at what looks appealing to you.

If you haven't already done so, you may wish to consult our list of translations of Spanish foods, or the list of untranslatable words and expressions, used rather liberally throughout the following.

If there are no tables on the terrace, sit inside and wait. Eventually a waiter will come up and ask what you want to drink. The key to successful interaction is simplicity. If you want to drink a beer, just say “caña.” If you want wine, order the “vino de la casa.” At some bars, you can choose your drinks from the pricelists chalked on the wall. If you want cocktails, most waiters will understand the English version. But truly, if you dont speak Spanish, it helps 1) to order simply, and 2) to not be picky. Regardless of your political affiliations, an American might feel as if he or she were walking on ideological eggshells in Lavapies. The less one appears as the typical “ugly American,” the more it seems to smooth out interactions on all levels of communication.
While the atmosphere of Lavapies is upbeat, jovial, and inviting, one must recognize that being American in this neighborhood can be difficult. Acting with a relaxed class and grace will only improve diplomacy!

El Txoko
(Taberna Vasca)
Jovellanos, 3
Tel. 91 532 34 43
Metro: Sevilla
This outstanding little bar/restaurant is an excellent choice for those who wish to sample the Basque food, considered by many to be Spain's equivalent of the French haute cuisine. We liked everything we tried here, and we tried a lot. To give a few examples: baked onions stuffed with fresh goat's cheese and jamón, blood pudding served with baked apple, perhaps the best anchovies we have ever tried, coated in virgin olive oil and Txacolí (a basque white wine), cod souffle... to mention a few possibilities.

The atmosphere is friendly if a bit cramped, and don't be misled by the entrance; the bar is in the basement of a Basque cultural building.

For those who want more than tapas the restaurant serves the same food, for an excellent price. Oh and incidently the desserts were also superb, sherbert in vodka, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate figs... (dinner from 18-25 euro, inc. wine and dessert).
La Castela
(antes La Tercia).
Doctor Castelo, 22.
Tels: 91 573 55 90
91 574 00 15
Metro: Ibiza
Just east of the Retiro park, this area probably won't be in a tourist itinerary, but if you make it to the 'far side' of the park (meaning the side opposite the Prado Museum) we recommend going that little bit further to get to this bar.

Fairly modern, but with plenty of traditional dishes we tried and liked: the croquetas, (excellent) usually with seafood, but occasionally with chicken. Scrambled eggs with white beans and blood pudding (among others).

Casa Manolo
Jovellanos, 7
Metro: Sevilla
Opposite the entrance to the Teatro de la Zarzuela, this traditional bar advertises the following speciality: Croquetas. So that's what we tried. And these really were special, in fact they were so good, we didn't get around to trying anything else. Highly recommended. Fairly authentic space too.
La Llama
General Ibáñez Ibero, semiesq.
Reina Victoria, 37
Tel: 91 553 53 23
If you find yourself in the Cuatro Caminos area (we can't think of too many reasons why a tourist would go there, except if you are leaving from or arriving at the Continental Auto bus station, or if you want to browse around some of the cheaper shops in this zone) you might want to drop into this locale.

Let me begin by saying this is one place which upholds what seems to be the diminishing custom of providing real (i.e. free) tapas with a drink. What's more they come in quite generous portions. I managed to try a delicious stewed meat with chips (french fries), grilled cuttlefish, a dish of wild mushrooms and ham and a sort of roasted pepper salad. I will also mention, if only because of their enormous size (I didn't actually try them), the bocadillo de calamares.

La Escondida
Puerta Cerrada 6
Tel. 91 365 91 9
Metro: Tirso de Molina/ La Latina
Zone: La Latina
Map: D14
Just behind the Plaza Mayor, this small bar (in contrast to others listed here) is manifestly not pijo. The background music is usually some sort of blues or jazz, or at the very least in good taste, and the management spends more time serving the clientele than keeping the floors clean. Perhaps due to its size, it's almost always crowded enough that you get to share your conversation with your nearest neighbour, but then I suppose cotillear is as fundamental to bars as drinking. Unfortunately the prices are not in keeping with the bohemian atmosphere, i.e. not cheap.

So, what to try: The cheeses are excellent, especially the Torta al Casar, a special soft sheep's milk cheese from the province of Extremadura. These comes as generous portions on what otherwise is an uninteresting bit of bread. The cured meats are also a house speciality, they are all worth trying, so a random pick here isn't a bad suggestion. If that doesn't appeal to you, you can point at the item of interest. They also have a decent, if not particularly extensive, wine selection, and of course beer is also available.

Manuela Malasaña, 15
Tel: 91 594 27 33
Metro: Bilbao /Tribunal
Zone: Malasaña
Map: F-1
One of the growing number of worthwhile eateries to sample in Malasaña. Excellent tapas include jamón ibérico tapas (the bread is toasted and coated with tomato), roast peppers stuffed with cod, a diverse assortment of cheeses, and other foods from the northern Spanish region of El Bierzo.

While a good tapas bar, the Albur is even more highly recommended as a place to have lunch. A delicious 3-course meal, including wine, costs 10 euro. Furthemore, it´s open sundays and holidays.