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Bite by bite

On lively, endless days, tapas is the pastime

By Joe Ray
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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MADRID - A taxi through the heart of town goes through an amazing architectural diversity, then down into herky-jerky underground sections with sharp corners and dropouts that are like navigating an abandoned coal shaft through the city’s belly. You pass so many bars and restaurants, the idea of a tapas tour sounds both fantastic and naive.

Eating tapas — tiny, snack-like dishes that historically covered a glass of sherry to keep fruit flies out — is one of Spain’s great pastimes, and sampling a few dishes in several places over the course of a few fun hours with friends is part of the game.

At Taberna de la Daniela, I try “salmorejo,’’ Córdoba’s thick gazpacho cousin. This one is topped with grated egg and tiny cubes of “jamón,’’ cured ham, which give it a simultaneously healthy yet sinful feeling. We follow it with a quail egg and chorizo canapé, an electric jolt of spicy and silky.

Later, near the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, we have a cup of Lhardy’s signature broth, served from a silver urn and accompanied by a tiny glass of sherry. The combination is subtle but sublime, clearing my stuffy nose and making me rethink the difficulty of pairing wine with soup.

Things really hit stride when we meet Roberto Santos, former Barcelona restaurateur and Madrid native, at La Dolores, a century-old tavern known for its beer and certain tapas.

Santos is here to explain the tapas, and though his fiancée, Arantxa Uribe, gives us a kiss on the cheek when we walk in, he’s all business.

“First, take a chip,’’ Santos says in way of greeting.

“Next, put a mussel on the chip,’’ he says, skewering one of the tavern’s specialties — canned mussels in vinegar — and placing it on a fairly perfect potato chip.

“Now, pop it all in your mouth at once,’’ he says, tipping his head back. “That way, you don’t make a mess.’’

He knows how much I’m going to like it before I do.

“Maestro!’’ he says, flagging the passing waiter, “Boquerones!’’

A similar-looking plate arrives — this one with white, vinegar-soaked anchovy fillets, along with a handful of olives and “guindillas,’’ the Spanish cousin of what a Midwesterner would call “sport peppers.’’

“Spear the anchovy, take a chip, and follow with a guindilla,’’ comes the command.

The anchovies are soft and fleshy, the chip gives crunch and salt, and the pepper is a spritz of heat. Coated with vinegar, our mouths and lips pucker and we smile.

Santos gives the signal and we head a few doors down to the bullfight-themed Cervecerias Dos Gatos for a house vermouth with a blood sausage and pine nut canapé that’s earthy, slightly sweet, and gives me goosebumps.

From there, we head uphill along the calle Huertas to Casa Alberto for crackling crisp pork skin that makes my feet do their happy dance; “rabo de toro,’’ beef tail, historically made with the tail of a bull after its fight; and “callos a la Madrileña,’’ a punchy tripe dish with chickpeas and bits of chorizo. These last two dishes are “raciones,’’ larger portions good for sharing with a group.

What’s most intriguing is the specialization: something from one place, something else in another, then it’s off to somewhere else, forming an erratic hopscotch pattern around town.

“Traditionally places have a special touch with something and people start talking about it,’’ says Santos. “When people really enjoy a place, they want to have a story to tell their friends and what works in Madrid is word of mouth. People talk and talk and places become famous.’’

I notice at this point that it’s Friday at 4 and things show no sign of slowing down between lunch and dinner.

“Ha! Definitely not on Friday,’’ says Santos. “Things really pick up at about 4 because they get off early for the weekend.’’

“In other cities, people go out in the afternoon and again at night,’’ continues Uribe, “but here, they’re out all the time.’’

The next day, on my own, the tone is set at Casa Lucio by the secret service guard on the sidewalk — trademark earpiece dangling from his ear — waiting for his client to finish lunch.

Just inside, a blind man selling lottery tickets is as much a fixture as the busts above him. At the bar, under a dozen jamón hocks, there are three kinds of anchovies, two kinds of olives, boxes of canned mussels, and a big silver bowl full of ice and sherry bottles.

The barman asks if I want a drink and frowns like I’m a small-time player when I say coffee.

Floating through the arched doorways that link the dining rooms is Lucio Blázquez, 77, who owns three establishments including this bar-restaurant and the tapas bar across the street. He’s as much a Madrid fixture as the Prado and as famous as the celebrities who flock here.

After a lifetime of feeding people, he’s got a handle on the tapas draw.

“Tapas is informality, it’s fun, it’s going out and talking,’’ Blásquez says as he flips through a photo album of famous diners, all standing arm in arm with him. “You don’t sit,’’ he says, “you eat.

“Madrid and Sevilla are the most important places for tapas, but Madrid is tapas,’’ he says. “Madrileños are lighter than people in other parts of Spain — they like having fun. We take bits from around the world and make people feel welcome.’’

More ubiquitous than even the sherry on Lucio’s bar — which pairs fantastically with almost every kind of tapas — are tiny draft beers known as “canas.’’ Just having come from Barcelona, where the beer is often good, I can’t figure out what the fuss is about.

It’s all in the pour.

Back at La Dolores I watch barman Andrès Rivas and manager Oscar Arañda demonstrate the local version of the perfect pour.

Rivas fills the glass, almost foam-free, and sets it on the bar with a clack!

“That gets rid of the big bubbles — the ones that sting,’’ explains Arañda, pointing to the last few lolling toward the surface. Then he gives the tap a half turn, bringing up the percentage of tiny-bubbled suds in the glass and pushing the excess off the top with a spatula.

This isn’t lipstick on a pig. It’s a completely different animal, filled with Guinness-style microscopic bubbles. Poured right, lines of suds mark each sip on the inside of the glass. At La Dolores, everyone, from the two old ladies catching up by the window to the woman grabbing a quick lunch to all the guys at the bar are having one.

On my last day in town I seek out the new at Arzábal, a tavern-restaurant where I shoehorn into the bar for a plate of tiny fried artichokes and follow it up with Basque “kokotxas,’’ wedges of cod flesh hidden where the chin would be if a fish had a chin, bathed in a green olive oil, hot pepper, and garlic sauce known as “pil-pil.’’

Later, at Taberna Laredo, there are steak and green pepper dishes going by that nearly sway me from what I really want to get: “revuelto de erizo,’’ a sort of scrambled egg with sea urchin dish that gets a textural boost from the egg and slivers of al dente vegetables.

At night, I head to the Chamberi neighborhood to Cerveceria Fide and El Doble, two bars that are snapshots of bygone decades.

At Fide, locals reconnect over beer and little plates of fresh seafood. Here, flat Galician oysters are ordered by the half-dozen, but thinking I’ve got a lot of eating to do, I finagle an order for just two. The idea lasts as long as it takes to swallow one, at which point I flag the barman for the other four.

Down the street, I step into the bustling, brightly-lighted El Doble, a seafood specialist, with many of their best coming from open tins proudly displayed under glass at the bar. It’s my last night in town, so with my beer, I get mussels and chips like I had with Santos and do as he instructed, popping the whole thing into my mouth. These are every bit as fantastic. The last small bites, the last few sips are little guarantees I’ll come back for more.

Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.

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If You Go

Where to eat
Tapas enough to fill your belly and a drink or two run about $13-$19 at all of the places below unless otherwise noted. Many establishments also offer “raciones’’ larger portions good for sharing with a group. Be on the lookout for classics like “gambas’’ (shrimp), “bacalao’’ (salt cod), sausages, “pimentons de padrón’’ (salty, sautéed green peppers where one in 10 is hot), cheeses, sometimes cured or preserved in olive oil, calamari, olives, and meatballs.
Casa Alberto
C/ Huertas 18, Madrid
011-34-91-429-93-56
Escargot, bull tail, spicy tripe, and vermouth on tap.
Taberna de la Daniela
Calle del General Pardiñas 21
011-34-915-752-329
Try the “salmorejo.’’
Cervecerias Dos Gatos
C/ Jesús 2
011-34-914-293-067
Don’t miss: house vermouth, sausage with pine nut canapé.
Arzábal
Doctor Castelo 2
011-34-915-572-691
www.arzabal.com
New, trendy, Basque, beautiful.
Casa Lucio
Cava Baja 35
011-34-91-365-32-52
www.casalucio.es (in Spanish)
Looking for an old classic and a superstar? This is the place. The tiny bar in front serves a good, though limited, menu. Order jamón and prices will skyrocket, but you won’t care. Also a good sit-down option. Get the aged Manchego cheese.
La Dolores
Plaza de Jesus 4
011-34-914-292-243
Perfect beer, mussels, anchovies pickled in vinegar, and potato chips that can’t have been made more than a mile away.
Taberna Laredo
C/Menorca 14
011-34-91-573-30-61
New, old, throbbing with customers on a busy day, and with a fantastic wine list. “Revuelto de erizo,’’ $23.
Cerveceria Fide
C/ Ponzano 8
011-34-914-46-58-33
A trip back a few decades in a stand-up bar, with tiled walls, marble bars, and perfect oysters.
Cerveceria El Doble
C/ José Abascal 16
011-34-91-591-94-62
My kiss goodbye with a mussel on a chip.
Where to stay
Room Mate Hotels
011-34-913-995-777
www.room-matehotels.com
A hip option for the younger set with four locations in town. Rates from $127.
Hotel Puerta America
Avenida de América 41
011-34-917-445-400
www.hoteles-silken.com/hotel- puerta-america-madrid/en/
An asthete’s dream with 12 floors designed by as many architectural firms. Weekend doubles from $178, weekdays from $216.
AC Santo Mauro
Zurbano 36
011-34-913-085-477
www.ac-hotels.com/144-ac_ santo_mauro.html
A former duke’s residence and a tiny Madrid classic; rates run from $254-$1,460. Watch for early-bird specials.