(Published by South Bay Accent in February, 2014.)
Spanish-influenced appetizers have become as hot as spicy chorizo. Whether you call them tapas (Spain), picadas (Argentina), petiscos (Brazil), bocas (various Latin American countries) or just snacks, the idea of petite quantities of food served with alcoholic or other beverages has universal appeal, with more tapas spots now open in the South Bay than ever. With so many choices out there, it’s high time we selected the region’s ten tastiest tapas.
Local tapas joints include a handful dedicated to traditional Spanish tapas, while many of the newer spots widen their geographic range beyond the motherland, creating enticing nibbles reflecting Latin cuisine in reality or as interpreted by the chefs. Unlike the Spanish tapas bars that inspired the trend, most of the South Bay’s tapas restaurants include these morsels as starters on larger menus. And several offer trendy gluten-free choices, which would truly horrify any self-respecting Spaniard. Sangria may be the beverage of choice at American tapas places but in Spain (shown here), it’s a summer drink consumed on the beach — often by tourists.
Those unfamiliar with tapas shouldn’t have a snit about the price of these small plates compared to larger portions, since the kitchen does the same amount of work regardless of quantity. Think of the tapas experience as a chance to try a whole bunch of different munchables as opposed to the boredom of a heaping plate of sameness. And be sure to lubricate with some beverages as the Spanish do.
Or rather, as they don’t do, since sangria — wine fruit punch, basically — is a mainstay of U.S. tapas spots but isn’t found in Spanish tapas bars, which serve wine and beer. The original Spanish sangria is a somewhat potent summer drink often ordered by tourists on the beach but since Americans like it and it’s a major profit center for our establishments, it’s become the beverage of choice at most tapas places here.
Whatever the drink, the following most-popular tapas in the South Bay with a Spanish accent can perk up your dining pleasure. We’ll start you out with the most modern offerings and wrap things up with the most-ordered traditional choices.
Wild Mushroom Empanadas (Cascal)
The only thing wrong with these cheesy, tender bites of heaven is that just three come to an order. Oozing Manchego cheese and earthy mushrooms flavored with truffle oil, these tiny hand pies have a perfectly flaky crust and are hands down the must-order item at the popular restaurant, which has more than 30 tapas options that sometimes zoom far outside Latin cuisine — scallops roasted with shitakes in soy butter sauce is a notable example — but that’s fine with the boisterous patrons.
Like many other local tapas spots, Cascal has some traditional Spanish items like Serrano ham and stuffed dates but it’s in the fusion offerings where the kitchen shines, like spicy Moroccan lamb meatballs or braised pork belly with sherry glaze served with green apple-papaya salad.
Besides being quite handsome — soaring ceiling, Moorish arches, jewel-tone colors and burnished wood floors — Cascal is noisy, festive and huge. Despite its pan-Latin-and-beyond menu, it’s decidedly Spanish in evoking that country’s beloved pastime of eating and socializing until long after dark, fueled by copious amounts of wine.
400 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 940-9500
Ahi Tuna Tartare (Joya)
Fights have erupted over who gets the last bites of this glorious dish that features chunks of pristine raw tuna, creamy avocado with diced jicama and citrusy, spicy dressing, served as a little compressed disk intended to be scooped up with crisp, house-made taro chips. While this yummy treat is the most popular item, it gets stiff competition from a trio of sublime mini tacos piled high with fork-tender braised short rib meat that’s then drizzled with horseradish crema.
Like Cascal, Joya goes in a pan-Latin direction focused on delighting the palate rather than being strictly traditional. After all, the chef is French but he clearly knows how to execute just about anything, as seen in two dozen irresistible tapas. Just try to be unmoved by items like caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon, garlic and grapefruit zest, or Kobe beef mini-burgers with Oaxaca cheese and chipotle mayo or Dungeness crab cakes with corn, peppers and ginger-chipotle aioli.
On its see-and-be-seen downtown corner, Joya features modern, attractive decor, a good-looking bar and offers plenty of outdoor tables. With so many other choices on Palo Alto’s dynamic restaurant row, it says something that this Latin hotspot seems to consistently pack in the largest happy crowds.
339 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 853-9800
Fried Taro and Plantain Chips with Black Bean Hummus (Ciano’s Modern Latin Flavors)
Called totopos, this mouth-pleasing, freshly made dish carries chips and dip into another realm; feather-light, flavorful chips and a silky pool of carefully spiced hummus. This has become the restaurant’s must-order dish and is part of a creative, gorgeously plated menu at downtown Campbell’s vibrant new spot. The chef studied under renowned Mexican food expert Rick Bayless but the cuisine here travels the length and breadth of Latin America. For example: Argentinean provoleta, a bubbling skillet of provolone cheese studded with roasted peppers, grilled onions, garlic and oregano with olive tapenade. Or bolinhos, Brazilian tempura-style salt cod and yucca fritters served with a spicy pepper and herb sauce.
Ciano’s is modern, colorful and chic, with a great outdoor patio, tequila bar and techno music played a bit too loudly. But there are no complaints about the cuisine. The tapas list starts with three superb seafood items called causitas that are distantly Peruvian in inspiration, followed by eight bocaditos (small bites) and completed with four raw seafood choices. Don’t forget the “modern” in the restaurant’s name, as seen in roja, tempura-fried white fish in sweet ponzu syrup perched on potato puree colored with beet juice and spiced with chiles. Or pork carnitas paired with an orange-red pepper sauce, warm hominy salad and pickled vegetables.
280 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell; (408) 871-1939
Slow-Cooked Beef Cheeks with Romesco Sauce (Donostia)
Dark, swoon-tender, beefier than short ribs, the meat is meant to be dragged through dual pools of romesco sauce (a dreamy combo of red peppers, nuts and spices) and chickpea puree. This dish is among an irresistible handful offered at one of Los Gatos’ newest and most exciting dining spots. Meaning San Sebastian (a Northern Spanish coastal town) in the Basque language, tiny Donostia offers only Basque-style small plates and an all-Spanish wine list. The chef worked in San Sebastian for years and marries a modern mindset with Basque recipes.
Some simple skewered items called pintxos show off contrasting flavors, such as bonito belly, anchovy and an olive drizzled with oil, creating a sensation of richness, umami, acid and salt in the mouth. Among a few brochettes seared on the plancha is a juicy wand of grilled mushrooms brushed with garlic and olive oil. This 28-seat spot also makes impressive mini tortillas (in Spain, these are omelets, not wrappers). Look for many daily specials written on the board.
Launched by the owners of an Italian wine bar down the street, Donostia is petite and lovely, with textured walls and tiles that evoke the sea. Given the no-reservations policy, visiting this restaurant can promote friendly interactions as guests snag a bar seat or one of the tall tables, with the room usually filling up quickly. There might not be entrees available but patrons are raving about the desserts — a pleasant departure from Spanish tapas bars.
424 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; (408) 797-8688
Pata Negra Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (The Basin)
Sure, lots of tapas places serve Spanish ham, but nobody does it like this popular Saratoga eatery. The meat that The Basin slices to order is the real deal, made from the famous black-footed boars that feed on wild acorns. These glistening slices come with fruity Spanish olive oil, some shaved reggiano parmigiano cheese and bread slices; assemble the ultimate ham sandwich and wait for your eyes to roll back in your head.
Although this is not strictly a Spanish or tapas place, there are enough Latin-themed items on the menu to qualify. One ingenious and delicious choice is a mini paella that features toothy rice, chorizo and shrimp, all of which is stirred by servers tableside to mix the ingredients and release heady aromas. The “taste of Spain” platter includes all sorts of proteins like hams, cheeses, sausage, almonds and olives. Or travel outside Spain via one of several other small plates.
The environment is friendly and cozy, whether seated in the noisy main room or on the heater-warmed patio under an old oak tree. The Basin might not be reminiscent of Spain, but it excels in Latin hospitality.
14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 867-1906
Cajun Shrimp (Cha Cha Cha Cuba)
What’s not to like about juicy shellfish enhanced with a creamy, tangy, spicy sauce that leaves a nice scorch in the mouth? This is the must-order dish at the San Mateo location of the popular San Francisco Cuban-Caribbean restaurant known for its lively, jumping environment. Several of the approximately 19 tapas here turn up the heat, such as a spicy jerk chicken with rice that’s big enough for an entree. Then there’s the croquetas de cangrejo, snow crab croquettes with spicy cilantro aioli. Meanwhile, Cuban-style chicken wings pack some heat.
The two-story dining room is done in bright colors with a decorating scheme like someone’s Cuban grandmother nailed the contents of her storage locker to the walls. But the noisy, fun atmosphere is contagious, fueled by plenty of potent sangria. Guests trying to avoid burning their mouth will find adequate mild tapas options, like yucca fries, mussels in saffron broth and fried plantains with black bean sauce. Called tostones, these sweet fruit patties are basic Cuban comfort food.
Deal seekers have spread the word about the weekday happy hour that features half-priced sangria and tapas for just $5 each.
112 S B St., San Mateo; (650) 347-2900
Albondigas with Spiced Sofrito (Zambra Tapas Bar)
Very Spanish, these moist meatballs of ground lamb and beef are flavorful and nicely paired with a lightly spiced sofrito — an essential Spanish sauce of tomatoes, garlic, onions and peppers with olive oil. Zambra heads in a somewhat more traditional direction, as seen in choice like gambas ajillo, garlicky shrimp with herbs, sherry and lots of olive oil, or moules frites, with the shellfish cooked in a spicy tomato broth with chorizo and paired with thin fries, which are even tastier dipped into the broth.
About 18 tapas are available in this dark, swanky restaurant, where a striking backlit bar is the centerpiece and flamenco music often plays. To set the mood, patrons start out with a complimentary plate of spicy fried chickpeas and can then dive into such Spanish mainstays as platatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce), empanada, grilled dates, fried calamari, Spanish ham and ceviche as well as a few more modern choices like sesame-crusted tombo tuna and Kobe beef sliders. Like Cha Cha Cha Cuba to the south, this is a good place for bargain hunters during happy hour, with $5 tapas and cheaper drinks available.
248 Lorton Ave., Burlingame; (650) 344-5655
Patatas Bravas (La Catalana)
Who knew fried potatoes could be so good? It must be the special “brava” sauce from the owner-chef — a Barcelona native — that kicks up this dish into must-order territory. There are lots of traditional choices here and no mention of gluten-free cuisine. Besides the usual olives, sausages and sautéed shrimp, this small San Jose spot in a strip mall dares to be authentic with offerings such as sardines in tomato sauce, anchovies in olive oil and fried smelts. Most items come with a slice of bread.
Those less adventurous gravitate to dishes like chicken with romesco sauce, short ribs marinated in red wine, meatballs, sautéed mushrooms and stuffed red peppers. Those branching out from tapas should be aware that paella is taken seriously here. La Catalana’s focus on authenticity is also seen in its heavily red color scheme and a TV tuned into European soccer games. When Spanish teams are playing, be sure to cheer them on.
3720 North First St., San Jose; (408) 324-1321
Pimentos de Piquillo (Picasso’s)
Who can resist sweet red peppers stuffed with seafood and smothered in a hedonistic, creamy lobster sauce with a few pine nuts for crunch? This might be the most popular item but this downtown Spanish eatery has other stars such as various croquettes that emerge from the fryer crisp and hot, paired with super-garlicky aioli. The kitchen doesn’t hold back the garlic in other dishes like sautéed shrimp, sautéed clams and sautéed scallops, all with heady hits of Spanish sherry.
Picasso’s offers more than two dozen tapas that mainly reflect traditional recipes. One odd inclusion with an Italian bent is buffalo mozzarella with tomato and cilantro marinade, while Italy also shows up in crab cakes with basil sauce. Simple and delicious are sautéed mushrooms with chopped red pepper and a hint of spice.
This longtime local restaurant is small, simple and mainly decorated with art posters from its namesake. The tile floors and canned music make Picasso’s a bit noisy but the restaurant, which has changed hands but not changed the menu much, has a dedicated following.
62 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose; (408) 298-4400
Dátiles Endiablados; Deviled Dates (Iberia)
This traditional dish is definitely the most popular tapa at this Menlo Park restaurant, which long predates the recent rise in popularity of Spanish food. The dried fruit is paired with chorizo and wrapped in bacon and gets universal high marks from guests. The snack is on a long list of traditional tapas but don’t expect to consume these items in the dining room in the evening; tapas are served in the bar and at lunch in the restaurant only. Be aware that a mandatory 19% tip is added to all bills regardless of server expertise.
Launched years ago by a Spaniard, Iberia might have many tapas listed but not all are actually available regularly. Those that are include mainstays such as patatas bravas, meatballs, croquettes, Spanish omelets, meats and the like. However, the menu includes a few more modern choices like scallop sashimi with squid ink vinaigrette and lime and tuna tataki salad with avocado, tomato and cilantro.
Given the fact that tapas are served in the bar, it’s a good thing that’s where the atmosphere is livelier. In general, guests frequently complain about rude or absent service at Iberia so it’s best to grab some booze, be patient and enjoy the bar’s warming fireplace.
1026 Alma St., Menlo Park; (650) 325-8981
The Story Behind Tapas
Although Latin tapas seem to be a growth industry in the South Bay, the small-plates notion is realized all over, as seen in cicchetti (Italy), zakushi (Russia), anju (Korea) and mezze (Middle East). This concept has helped fuel the proliferation of Japanese izakayas — bars offering little bites — far beyond Tokyo and has jumpstarted a small-plates menu trend that continues full throttle across the nation and beyond.
Think about it; aren’t the tasting menus so popular today just a consecutive assortment of small plates? Whether as Chinese dim sum, French hors d’oeuvres or Hawaiian pupus, the attraction of munching on a few mouthfuls each in a changing array of dishes speaks to just about anyone. Thus variety-seeking diners should be grateful that Spanish king Alfonso the Wise decreed in the 13th century that all taverns must offer small snacks with the wine they served after he recovered from an illness by doing likewise.
At least, that’s one of many prevailing rumors about the origin of Spain’s renowned tapas. Getting equal credit is a story about how bars in the Andalusia province in Spain’s far south started covering glasses between sips with slices of meat or bread to prevent fruit flies from diving into the sherry. Indeed, the verb tapar means “to cover.” What’s undeniable, however, is that serving bites of salty food will encourage patrons to drink more.
Spanish tapas bars are lively places that fill the void between lunch and the traditionally late dinner that can easily start after 9 p.m. Thus Spaniards will hop into tapas bars after work for a bite and a tipple to keep them going. Tapas can literally be any type of food — from nuts, olives and assorted cheeses to roasted meats and stews — so long as the dish is served on a small plate accompanied by alcohol. However, the most famous Spanish tapas include luscious potato omelets (tortilla de patatas), fried potatoes with aioli (patatas bravas), salt cod fritters (buñuelos de bacalao) and prawns sautéed in olive oil with garlic, pepper and parsley (gambas al ajillo).
Since Spaniards won’t drink without eating something — a wise approach — tapas have long been an institution in that Southern European nation. Specific iterations of tapas dishes have been stamped with the personalities of thousands of bar owners who want to keep their patrons somewhat sober while the bar makes a few extra euros from these tasty little plates.