There's more to Spanish food than paella. For little money, you can discover Spain's culinary delights in the form of tapas. But exploring tapas is a time-consuming yet rewarding endeavor, as Sertan Sanderson found out.
From the Prado Museum to the Royal Palace, the Spanish capital now attracts more than 7 million tourists yearly, according to Statista, the German online portal for statistics. But away from Madrid's main attractions and popular tourist traps there's actually a vibrant landscape of tapas bars (known also as tascas) waiting to welcome visitors right in the heart of town.
These can in some cases easily be overlooked, as they typically thrive on understatement and bask in their hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. Word of mouth is their main form of marketing — though there is also a steady number of walk-in tourists, many of whom appear a bit lost but ready for a culinary pick-me-up, as they venture into these spaces.
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Cheap and cheerful
Sidrería el Tigre is one of these places. Located halfway between the Banco de España and Chueca underground stations, this place looks like a rustic dive bar from the outside. It's the kind of place a local might recommend but is unlikely to pop up in any major travel guides. For only a few euros, you get a pint of local beer served with an assortment of tapas big enough to double up as lunch. These include slices of bread with Manchego cheese, patatas bravas, and little fried balls with Serrano ham. If you don't like beer, they're happy to swap that for a glass of wine and if you're vegetarian, there are provisions at the ready for that as well. No one needs to go hungry here.
Of course, locals don't consider tapas a meal as such — these are merely snacks served with a beverage of your liking. However, if you're not used to chowing down hundreds of calories at one go for no reason, these more than bite-sized offerings at tascas like Sidrería el Tigre can quickly become overwhelming. If you're going "de tapeo" — which basically means a pub crawl from tasca to tasca — you'd be well-advised to come with an empty stomach that borders on starvation.
A few doors down at El Respiro you get a similarly generous fare with a similarly low price-tag, which for two people still means a single-digit amount in euros. The daily special is more varied here, as is the clientele; this tapas bar prides itself with its LGBTQ clientele and offers an inclusive space where tapas can be enjoyed by one and all.
Tapas - or pinchos?
With your stomachs now lined, you can take a leisurely walk into the heart of the nearby Cortez district. At Taberna del Chato you get to enjoy a more upscale tapas experience. Your freebie dish upon arrival might involve several Spanish cheeses on bread or feature an assortment of nuts and olives depending on the day, served with whatever wines may appeal to you from their abundant menu.
And for just a few euros per dish, you can order such delicacies such tuna tartare, steamed mussels or Basque sausage, served in delightful little glasses. The menu also features an assortment of pinchos (also spelled pintxos), which are also an essential part of the tapas experience.
The main difference between tapas and pinchos is the fact that the latter are served on toothpicks or little skewers. The pincho tradition is more typical, however, of the Basque-speaking northeast of the country. Nowadays, the term is interpreted so loosely that tiny burgers on a skewer are also often regarded as part of this tradition.
'Let them eat prawns'
In the Cortez area, nearly every other storefront is a tasca. The deeper you dive into these streets the more touristy the area gets. However even here, there are still numerous eateries that are mainly frequented by locals. As a rule of of thumb, if you are being accosted on the street by a restaurant-employee trying to coax you into the establishment, it means that they are primarily after your tourist-dollar rather than serving the best of Spanish cuisine.
When you do happen upon an authentic tapas bar, you'll see locals chatter and natter over a half dozen of plates packed full with the freshest ingredients. Their Spanish omelettes shine bright as apricots, the scent of garlic shrimp fills the air and the grilled octopus sizzles audibly from meters away.
One such place is La Casa Del Abuelo, which spreads over several adjacent locations in this part of central Madrid so it's difficult to miss. Despite being part of the city's pulse for over a century now, the La Casa Del Abuelo restaurants look timeless and even stylish, specializing in seafood-related tapas in particular (though a full menu is available). Their garlic prawns (surprisingly best washed down with their sweet red wine) are somewhat of a local legend, and reportedly came into being when during the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939) there was a severe shortage of bread but no scarcity of seafood.
The original owner of La Casa Del Abuelo according to legend decided that the famished public during the war was going to enjoy the best prawns at discount prices at his restaurant even if they couldn't get to have their daily bread. That man is the Abuelo referred to in the name of this eatery, which simply translates as "grandpa", and his popular pricing idea continues to this day.
Exploring the world in a dish
The pub tour — or tapeo — is far from over at this point. There is still much more to learn about Spanish culture through its cuisine. At the nearby Taberna Malaspina, your food will be served along with a history lesson. While choosing your free culinary delight from the bar such as the padrón peppers, you'll notice colorful wall decorations dedicated to the memory of Alejandro Malespina, an 18th-century naval officer who traveled around the world under the Spanish flag. His expeditions helped map much of the Americas, and he was also one of the first visionaries of his time to suggest bringing an end to colonialism — for which he lost his rank and even had to go to prison.
While some tascas like La Casa del Abuelo are steeped in history, others are new additions to Madrid's culinary scene
Perhaps it's more than apt then that his legacy lives on in this lively restaurant, where locals and visitors meet to exchange ideas, where the freshest vegetables from around the world are used in the kitchen, where the wine flows freely and generously, and where animated discussions on contemporary issues are held at the overcrowded tables, making you wish you spoke fluent Spanish.
This is Madrid at its most cosmopolitan; in fact, this feels like it could be any modern city in the world — if it wasn't for the language spoken and the delicious tapas spread across the tables.
And that's also exactly why this is unlike any other place in the world: be it history, culture or cuisine, Madrid's highlights all come in bite-sized portions, delivering small, digestible insights and epiphanies as you meander from tasca to tasca at your own pace, learning a little bit more as you move along.
It is therefore safe to say that when it comes to tapas, it appears that you truly are what you eat.