It seems like we’ve been to Madrid five hundred times. We’ve probably spent that many days there and eaten meals and tapas in at least half that many Madrid restaurants and bars. And at least half of those were very good. So, when it comes to a Madrid food tour, we feel like we've already done it.
There’s the Asturian place near Sol, and the calamares place in Plaza Mayor. And the octopus place at Opera, which is right near the place where we usually go for a cheap cognac after dinner. And, there’s Botín, where Hemingway ate, and the pimientos de padron place with the bull fight pictures on the wall, and the place that serves olives the size of apples next to your plate of six different cured meats. And there’s the place with the razor clams and very cold beer. And Mercado San Miguel, where we once bought our groceries and where you can now get imaginative tapas and a glass of cold fino sherry amidst bustling Madrileños and tourists. And, the place for the best chocolate and churros. I can walk to any of those places blindfolded.
So, we thought we knew Madrid food. And we do, I suppose, up to a point.
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But not as well as Lauren Aloise, an American woman, who, along with her Spanish husband Alejandro, has made an study of the best tapas in Madrid (and, recently Barcelona, Sevilla, San Sebastian, Malaga, and more, too.) And, the best news is she’s made a business out of leading clueless visitors to Spain on a gastronomic journey they’d never, ever, be able to find on their own. Trust me, we’ve made a habit of looking all these years and we’d only been to one of the five she’d picked for us.
I always appreciate the advice of an expert, so I contacted Lauren our last time in Madrid and suggested we get together. I was hoping maybe to just do a little tapa hopping and find some new places with her and Alejandro. “Of course,” she said. “But why don’t you take a tour before we get together?” It took me about two seconds to “reluctantly” agree to stuff my face yet again. I’m coy like that.
The tour, unsurprisingly, is called Madrid Food Tour. And you can find it-and the other cities' tours–at Devour Spain.
We met Kelly, the young woman who led our tour in the middle of a hot afternoon in the Plaza de Opera, which we know well from having lived only three blocks away for a couple of years in an earlier lifetime. It was only 5 p.m., which meant that we’d be the only people in Madrid eating at that hour. But, we’d planned around that and skipped lunch. And other than feeling a little bit more of a tourist than I like, it was just fine.
Kelly, was personable, gregarious, a wonderful talker, and, even better, she’d been living in Spain for five years since she graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Spanish history. So, lucky for us, she knew a lot more about Madrid than just the addresses of the bars we were headed to. She also happens to be from Minneapolis, so there was another reason to like her.
Consequently, we got real historical perspective on Madrid, and who ate where, and which bars were around during the Spanish Civil War, and moreover, which ones were Republican bars and which ones were Francoist, and this was the one where Hemingway used to get hammered when he was in Madrid covering the war. And they have absinthe at that one. And, by the way, Cervantes is buried here. And all that stuff that made the evening just so much more than fantastic food.
Which brings me to the food.
I’m only going to name three of the six places we went for a couple of reasons. One is that I want you to use Lauren’s tour to find the others. And the other is that after about the fourth glass of beer, wine, vermouth, and fortified wine (which was on top of the couple of beers we’d had while killing time until 5) I’m not exactly sure my memory is entirely reliable.
So, here goes. The first place we stopped was one that Kris and I are very familiar with. It’s called Taberna Real, and it’s right on the corner where Arenal Street meets the Plaza de Opera (also known as Plaza Isabel II, just to be confusing.) Like I said, we used to live in the neighborhood, and when we come to Madrid we almost always stop at Taberna Real, sit at one of the outside tables where they considerately mist you with cool water when the temperature is ridiculously hot (which is to say anytime in the summer in Spain.) We have a beer or tinto de verano (red table wine mixed either with sweetened soda or lemon drink, served over ice) and the olives, which are always great.
But this time we went inside, and dived into that most Spanish of all foods, Jamon Bellota 5J. Specifically, it’s Jamón ibérico de bellota, by Joselito. Now many of you have had Jamon Serrano, that cured meat that hangs in most Spanish bars and that they carve off in very thin slices, and if you’re lucky, give you a little taste with your drink. That’s good stuff, but this is something else. The Jamon Bellota 5J, is the very essence of Spanish ham. It comes from only a couple of places, and from very special pigs who spend their entire lives eating acorns almost exclusively. This makes a ham that is intricately marbled with fat in tiny little lines throughout the meat, instead of the broad white stripes you normally get with standard Jamon Serrano.
Its taste is smooth and intense at the same time, and tender and sweet and all those other adjectives you can think of when your mouth is very happy.
Believe it or not, this ham can go for up to €500 per kilogram, which is about $253 per pound, if you’re thinking in US terms–which I prefer not to do when I’m eating this stuff, because it can just get in the way of the enjoyment. So don’t.
Just take it small bite by small bit and savor it. And wash it down with the signature drink of the Taberna Real, which is a sweet red “Miro” vermouth that Taberna Real has on tap. If you’ve never had the Spanish version of vermouth, you need to give it a try. It’s sweet, but not too sweet, and redolent of magical herbs.
We moved on from there to a relatively new place on a street called Cava Baja, which is also well known to us, because it used to be lined with lots of bars and restaurants. It still is, but they’re different than the ones that used to be there. And, for the most part, this is a good thing. Let’s just say we stopped into one that served up delicious tapas that tended toward more of the modern Spanish cuisine: a new take on Salmorejo, the typical Córdoban tomato soup, and a cracker with a fish mousse were the highlights for me. But there was more, including smoked cured beef and peppers stuffed with a lovely light cheese. These were matched with an interesting selection of Spanish wines from their long list of possibilities.
In fact, a wine list is a relatively new thing in most Spanish bars. Before, your choice basically amounted to red or white. Now, the better places can have as many at 10 or 20 wines by the glass. That’s the case here. So, if you’re one of those who knows his wine, or wants to learn about the best of what Spain has to offer, you need to search for this place.
OK, one hint: its name starts with C. That’s all you get.
From there, up the street a bit to the famous eat street of Madrid, Calle de Cuchilleros. Now Cuchilleros is home to perhaps the most famous restaurant in Madrid, El Sobrino del Botín, which specializes in roast lamb and suckling pig. It really is good, and I advise that you try it for a serious dose of overeating and history. Hemingway used to eat there. Really.
But we passed it by for a place we’d never been to, the Mesón del Champigñón, or the House of the Mushroom. As the name suggests, there are mushrooms on the menu. I’m not sure if there’s much else. But there doesn’t have to be. The mushrooms are grilled in oil with a tiny bit of chorizo sausage in the cap and served hot off the grill with two toothpicks stuck in each one. You pick up the mushroom by the toothpicks, drop it in your mouth, and toss the toothpicks on the floor. That’s the deal. Wash them down with a cold tinto de verano. Rinse and repeat.
We’re not done yet. Now it’s another old and very typical Madrid bar that specializes in two things: gambas al ajillo, which are tiny shrimps cooked in olive oil with lots of garlic and hot red pepper. This time, you wash them down with a fortified wine that’s made in house. Not sure here of the exact methodology for the wine, but it is strong and bulls right through the tang left in your mouth from the hot and spicy shrimp. The combination, as the Spanish would say, is impresionante. You can figure out the exact translation for yourself, but let’s just say “it leaves a mark” is not far off.
Finally, you move on to a place where you finally get to sit down, and they take a drink order, which by this time should probably be non-alcoholic, and start bringing plate after plate of food. We got some of most everything on the well rounded Spanish tapas menu, including most memorably, fried pigs ears. Not my favorite, but you can’t really say you’ve eaten in Spain until you’ve tried one. This plate parade goes on until everyone on the tour begs them to stop, and then it continues with some dessert. Nothing says enough like too much, I like to say.
This ended the tour. But, it being Spain and all, and because Kelly was all about serving her charges, she led those of us who were still standing, and, believe me, some of those who were still standing were only doing so with a little help, to a famous Sherry bar called La Venencia.
Not that the other places we’d been weren’t authentic Madrid–because they clearly were, but this place was authentic Madrid in the sense that it probably hadn’t changed much since Hemingway hung out here in the 1930s. It’s gloriously shabby, with rickety tables, tippy chairs, and cheap sherry drawn straight from the casks that line the wall. You get an unmarked bottle for about €8, and a plate of bites of bread and cheese to soak it up with for a couple euros more.
It’s loud, crowded, and definitely not for your less adventurous tourists. But, if you’re doing the Madrid Food Tour, you’ve already shown that you have a taste for the unusual and authentic. You’ll fit right in here, too.