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Order Smarter at Tapas Restaurants

April 2, 2014

Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.

Photo credit: StockFood 

In the nine years since opening his first restaurant, Jose Garces has stayed impressively busy building a mini-empire of more than a dozen restaurants around the country, penning a couple of cookbooks, and trouncing Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America.” Thanks to a stint in Spain, where he fell in love with the bold flavors and festive dining culture, he’s focused several of his restaurants on the country’s cuisine, including tapas restaurants Tinto in both Palm Springs and Philadelphia. We asked Garces for his guidance on navigating Spanish small plates with expert smarts. 

Don’t be scared of the octopus. ”It’s a must,” says Garces of the mollusk, usually offered by its Spanish name, pulpo, on tapas menus. “We cook it very simply…It’s delicious and a very Spanish thing that translates to all the regions in Spain.” Look for pulpo Gallego, a dish that traces its roots back to Spain’s seafood-centric coastal region of Galacia, where residents really take their octopus seriously. The octopus is poached, then sliced into coins before being sautéed with garlic, lemon, parsley, and Spanish paprika, making it tender rather than tough.

But when in doubt, go with the shrimp. If you’re looking for one truly authentic dish with a good shot at pleasing everyone in your group, try the gambas al ajillo, which are “shrimp that come to the table warm and sizzling with olive oil, garlic, and the chiles,” he says. “It’s really an experience and traditionally very Spanish.”

Ask the waiter what the heartiest dishes are.  Tapas are inherently small, leading some to worry they’ll need to stop for a burger on the way home or break the bank ordering one of everything. If those concerns sound familiar, turn to your server; he should be able to advise you on the biggest and best bang for your buck (tip: it’s usually not the carpaccio). “If you’re looking for an inexpensive but fulfilling experience, you’ve got to know what you’re getting,” says Garces. “At one of my places you could get a plate of jamon Iberico, a tortilla Espanola and something else, like bacon-wrapped dates. You can get three things and be out of there for $25 and be satisfied.”

Share.  “Tapas is all about the sharing experience,” Garces insists. And while some menu items aren’t ideal for splitting (soups, for example, can be tough), most dishes on tapas menus are actually meant to be shared. That means you’ll get the chance to try lots of different things and, since it won’t matter as much if there’s an item or two you don’t like, you can take bigger risks and try something you might normally shy away from. For sharable classics, try a plate of fried padron peppers, a bowl of mussels a la marinera, a platter of montaditos (baguette slices topped with everything from anchovies to manchego to chorizo) or an order of crispy croquetas stuffed with ham or salt cod. It varies by restaurant and patron, of course, but three or four dishes a person is usually standard, says Garces.

Don’t underestimate the cheese and olives. If the menu doesn’t specify what kind of olives they are, ask the waiter if they’re anything special; at most respectable spots, they should be. “If you are able to get really good Spanish olives – Arbequinas, Gordals, Verdeals—they’re really worth it.” Same goes for the cheese. “If you’re getting really authentic cheeses, like Cana de Cabra or Monte Enebro, those are interesting cheeses that you may not be able to get anywhere else easily.” Garces especially loves La Perla. “It’s a blue, it’s three different melts, and it’s pretty mild but it has a little musk to it. It’s one to try if you can.”

Save room for sherry: Most of us don’t have a vast collection of good sherries at home, so take advantage of the fact that you’re at a restaurant that probably does. If you don’t want to pair a glass of sherry with the savory tapas (though that’s what the Spaniards do), ask your server for one to sip along with, or in place of, dessert. Garces’s favorite? The white sherry Manzanilla. Order a glass of that, he says, “and call it a day.”

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