Driving the southern rim of Spain’s Huelva province is like a road trip through the American heartland, only about 2,400 miles shorter. A patchwork of industry and farms, Huelva on the Gulf of Cadiz has none of Marbella’s or Malaga’s elan, but it does have unassuming restaurant-tapas bars that make great pit stops. If necessity finds you on A49 as it did me, check these two places out:
The best time to eat at El Toruño is any time except in May. Then, a million cowboy-costumed faithful descend on the El Rocio fairground for Andalucia’s most popular pilgrimage.
The homes of the brotherhoods were boarded up and the marl roads eerily silent when we arrived at the white-washed restaurant-hotel. Like all buildings in El Rocio, a hitching post in front accommodates horseback riders. Inside, the beamed-ceilinged dining rooms are painted in bright southwestern colors, their tables filled with hearty, working class tapas eaters. We sat next to a party of coppersmiths from Seville who sang flamenco songs after their meal. Our table overlooked flocks of feeding pink flamingos -- El Rocia abuts the marshes of Donana National Park.
El Toruño’s embutidos plate comes loaded with the region’s cured meats: ham, cured pork loin, blood sausage and chorizo. Local hunters provide the game for the pate de perdiz, partridge pate. The El Rocío Rubio features the local mullet. Boquerones (anchovies) are native to the area, and the frito variado (mixed fried fish) offers whatever’s caught that day. The generous plates of mushroom omelettes and steak and potatoes will satisfy comfort food lovers.
Shop for flamenco dance outfits in the village after your meal, or try on a sombrero Cordobés.
Along with the pilgrimmage, Huelva's other claim to fame is Christopher Columbus, who spent time here looking for financial backers and crew. Ten busses a day run from the provincial capital (also named Huelva) to the main sites at La Rábida, Palos de la Frontera and Moguer. The Monastery of Rábida is where Columbus stayed before his final, successful meeting with Queen Isabela.
At the Wharf of the Caravels, the wait can be as long as for a Disney attraction to board the replicas of Columbus’s flotilla. Much of the charm of this former fishing village on the Piedras River has been overdeveloped, except for a patch of golden beach where you'll find pit stop number two -- La Patera -- with its umbrella-shaded tables in the sand.
La Patera serves food as divine as the rest of the area is ordinary. The spicy pulpo (octpus) with hot peppers, and the tuna back with almonds drenched in olive oil, are musts. A catch of the day you’ll not often see are the coquinas – tiny clams – taken straight from the river bed yards away and steamed with garlic. Another delicacy: Cuttlefish eggs. Although it was overkill, we had the scallops, also native to the river.
The meal was so unexpectedly happy that we walked inside and asked to meet the chef. She came out shyly, surprised to be made much of. The rest of the clientele nodded approvingly and lightly clapped their hands.
Plaza del Acebuchal
El Rocío, Huelva
959 44 24 22
El Rompido - Cartaya
959 399 320