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10 best Madrid tapa bars

The tapeo, or eating of tapas, has a few unwritten rules. First of all, you don’t eat tapas in just one bar—you go to many. That’s part of the fun. And always you are having a little something to drink with your tapa (usually wine although OGs still order sherry and you’ll find the younger crowd sometimes going with beer). At some places you order tapas from a menu (this is becoming more the norm), but the old school way to do it is to just pick your plate of tapas off the bar. If that’s the case, you need to keep track of what you eat and confess it all when you ask for the check.

At a traditional tapa bar, such as you might find in San Sebastian, it is an insult to leave your dirty napkin on the bar; you toss it on the floor instead. But look around and see if that’s what others are doing. You don’t want to toss your greasy napkin on the floor only to get a bunch of dirty looks from your neighbors.

There are good tapa bars all over Madrid, but, for our money, the best area to tapeo is the street of Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood, which is lined from one end to the other with excellent tapa bars and restaurants. Even if you don’t have a particular destination in mind, just walk down the street and stick your head in the bar. If it’s noisy and crowded with locals, it’s probably a good place.

One last thing: We’ve written over and over about how late Madrileños dine, but this isn’t true when it comes to tapeo when the busiest times are at what we like to think of as Happy Hour—say 5 to 7 or so. In Madrid, you meet friends after work and have a small glass of wine, maybe a tortilla de patatas or some salchicha and this is all just a prelude to dinner many hours later.

Here, then, are our 10 favorite Madrid tapa bars (in no particular order) and what to sample.

1.     Casa Lucas, 30 Cava Baja. Pork loin on a confit of onions.

2.     Casa Gonzalez, 12 Calle de León. Pig’s cheek.

3.     Almendro 13, 13 Calle Almendro. Huevos rotos (fried potatoes topped with a fried egg and chunks of cured ham).

4.     Taberna Tempranillo, 38 Cava Baja. Good wine bar that serves “solo vino español.”

5.     Casa del Abuelo, 12 Calle Victoria. Shrimp with garlic.

6.     El Lacon, 8 Manuel Fernández y González. Blood sausages with eggs.

7.     Taberna de Los Lucio, 30 Cava Baja. Any of the house egg specialties.

8.     Vinoteca Barbechera, 27 Calle Principe. Solomillo with caramelized onions.

9.     Juana La Loca, 4 Plaza Puerta de Moros. Risotto with truffles.

10.  Cerveceria Santa Barbara, Plaza Santa Ana. Boquerones (white anchovies) in vinegar.

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You know how in New York people argue over who makes the best bagels and in Chicago it’s over pizza? Well, the same thing happens in Madrid when it comes to tapas. Should the patatas bravas have a soft or crunchy crust? Should the boquerones be served in vinegar or deep fried? Wine or sherry? Bread or toast? It all depends on who you ask.

The other thing is that the tapas in Barcelona are different from tapas in San Sebastian which are different from tapas in Galicia which are different from tapas in Madrid. Even in Madrid, you will find huge differences in, for instance, that most traditional of Spanish tapas, tortilla española. Some make it with onion, some with green pimientos, and others with bacon. Who’s to say which is the traditional one?

That said, here is our list of the Top 10 Traditional Spanish tapas, the ones you must try before you start getting all experimental. Tomorrow we’ll list our favorite tapa bars in Madrid.

1.     Tortilla de patatas. This has nothing to do with Mexican tortillas. Rather, it’s an omelette with fried chunks of potatoes that we prefer in a wedge with ham and cheese.

Pulpo a la gallega

2.     Gambas al ajillo. Sauteed prawns with garlic. Or try them pil-pil (with chopped chili peppers).

3.     Pulpo a la gallega. Galician-style octopus served in olive oil, lots of paprika, and sea salt.

4.     Jamon iberico. Paper-thin slices of the classic Spanish ham from Salamanca usually accompanied by toast with a tomato spread.

5.     Aceitunas. We love Campo Real olives or the big ones filled with anchovies.

6.     Bacalao. Salted cod loin sliced very thinly and served with toast and tomatoes.

Callos a la madrilena

7.     Solomillo. An old-fashioned tapa made from what we would call the fillet of beef although another traditional tapa, solomillo al whisky, is a fried pork scallop marinated in whisky and olive oil.

8.     Croquetas. One of the most common tapas, try the croquetas de espinacas y queso made with spinach and cheese.

9.     Callos a la madrileña. Okay, I’m pushing the boundaries a bit here—this is a traditional tripe dish slowly cooked in a broth with paprika, tomato sauce, and garlic. And it’s delicious.

10.   Salchicha. Simply put, these are sausages and will vary from bar to bar. We like the dried dark red spicy chorizo slowly cooked in red wine.

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The go-to box wine for making a kalimotxo in Madrid.

In talking about kalimotxo cocktails and the mass street parties in Madrid called botellónes yesterday, I failed to mention several important details. First, I learned about both from my friend Lisa Abend, a writer who has lived in Madrid for many years. She mentioned kalimotxo in a really brilliant story she recently wrote for AFAR magazine on the San Fermin festival in Pamplona (you can read the article here) in which, as part of her “Survival Guide to San Fermin,” she recommends that you “Don’t drink more than three kalimotxo in a row. Trust me.” I can second that. In fact, I’d advise that you never drink more than one kalimotxo (and be sure you’re under 30 if you do).

As I was writing my piece on kalimotxo and botellónes (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read yesterday’s blog), I e-mailed Lisa and asked her if she thought botellónes were dying out in Madrid. She said no. “Actually, it’s stronger than ever, thanks to la crisis. No one in Spain is going to actually give up drinking; they’ll just do it in the street, with litronas and those nasty boxes of wine, instead of paying to go to a bar. Public drinking is illegal (if you’re not seated at an outdoor café, which since the smoking ban went into effect, has become a meaningless distinction as every bar in the city sets up tables on whatever meager piece of sidewalk they can find. The entire city looks like a fucking food court these days) at all hours, not just after ten. Cops show up every weekend to the botellón outside my apartment and stand in one part of the square. People who want to drink get up, walk ten meters around the corner, and resume their drinking there. It’s a very efficient system.”

Lisa’s e-mail reminded me of something else I forgot to mention yesterday: The legal drinking age in Spain is 18 and it’s illegal to drink in the streets of Madrid after 10pm. Which is pretty funny since a botellón never gets started before 11 or so. My experience has been that the police aren’t as concerned with the drinking (or the age of the drinker) as much as they are about littering and noise. So if you throw your shitty Don Simon Tetra Paks in the trash and keep your voices down, it’s generally not a problem.

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A botellon in Plaza de la Cebada in Madrid.

If you’re under 30 and visiting Madrid, there are two words you need to add to your Spanish vocabularly: kalimotxo and botellón. They’re related. Kalimotxo (the tx is pronounced ch as in much) is a street cocktail made, quite simply, from mixing equal amounts of cheap red wine and Coca-Cola. (Funniest thing I’ve ever read: The swanky food and wine magazine, Saveur, calls the drink a “red wine and cola spritzer.” Yep, and a hot dog is richly spiced and roasted meat nestled in a lightly baked bun.)

It doesn’t make any difference what kind of wine you use (although the box wine Don Simon, which comes in a Tetra Pak and costs one euro, is hugely popular) but it always calls for Coca-Cola (there’s something about the sweetness and caffeine that makes it the go-to kalimotxo mixer). Here’s how you make a kalimotxo: you get a one-liter drinking glass called minis or cachi or macetas, fill it half way up with red wine and fill the rest of it up with Coca-Cola. If you’re really sophisticated, you can add ice. Voilà! You have a kalimotxo cocktail.

You could drink a kalimotxo at home, but nobody does that in Madrid. Instead, you drink it at a botellón. The word itself means “big bottle” (in reference to the liter-sized minis) but refers to the groups of young kids (generally between 15 and 28) who gather in public places all around Madrid (and elsewhere in Spain) to share a kalimotxo or two. Three very popular places to botellón, particularly in the summer: Plaza de Espana, Plaza de Santa Ana, and Plaza de Dos de Mayo (although every neighborhood in Madrid has its own favorite botellón spot).

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The best wines of Madrid

The Vinoteca Barbechera is a good wine bar for sampling the wines of Madrd.

Wine has been produced on the plateau surrounding Madrid since the Reconquista. Christian conquerors planted vines as a sort of agrarian border, marking their progress as they gradually took the Iberian Peninsula back from the Muslim states of al-Andalus. Not all that long ago, the local stuff was sold from barrels, not bottles, and was ordered as either vino tinto or vino blanco.

These days, you’ll find even the humblest tapas bar offering lovely bottles of Madrileño wine with a Vinos de Madrid DO label on the back. A good example is Vinoteca Barbechera, a classy little bar across from the Plaza Santa Ana, known for their pincho de solomillo and a great selection of local wines. The Grego Garnacha Centenaria, a refreshing red wine from Madrid, goes perfectly with the house specialty, a tender fillet of beef. Or order a glass of Cuatro Pasos, made from mencia, which tastes very fresh and fruity – almost like a Beaujolais – with roasted apple and foie gras on crisp toast.

When it’s time to pick up a few bottles to take home with you, two of the best wine stores in Madrid are Lavinia and Bodegas de Santa Cecilia. Lavinia is organized like a library, with knowledgeable clerks happy to help you find everything from an expensive Ribera del Duero to a bargain-priced vino de Madrid. Look for Rincón, a syrah-garnacha blend that has a lovely hint of vanilla on the nose. If you’re having trouble making up your mind, there’s an elegant wine bar upstairs for sampling by the glass.

Most Madrid bodegas aren’t open to the public, but there are a few exceptions. The most welcoming is Qubél, half-an-hour south of Madrid in Pozuelo del Rey, where owner Carlos Gosálbez, a former pilot for Iberia who speaks excellent French and English, is happy to pour you his organic blends of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Also worth a visit is Cuevas del Real Cortijo de San Isidro, a historic winery near Aranjuez, founded by Carlos III in 1782. Their Madrileño wine, Homet, which is mostly tempranillo with a bit of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah mixed in, can be sampled in their recently refurbished visitor centre.

Bodegas de Santa Cecilia, Blasco de Garay, 74, 34-91-445-5283.

Cuevas del Real Cortijo de San Isidro, Cortijo de San Isidro, Aranjuez, 34-91-535-7735.

Lavinia, Calle de José Ortega y Gasset, 16, 34-91-426-0604.

Qubél, Calle Valparaiso, 9, Pozuelo del Rey, 34-91-872-5804.

Vinoteca Barbechera, Plaza Santa Ana, C/Principe, 27, 34-91-420-0478

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