The other day, while reading my mother’s copy of Reader’s Digest, I stumbled along a “funny” quote:
This shouldn’t have enraged me … but it did. Okay, perhaps “enraged” is the wrong word to use, but I was rather miffed after reading this. I even Tweeted about how this person clearly didn’t get tapas. But then I thought about it some more. This person did get tapas, except he had only had tapas in American restaurants, meaning his experience was worlds away from what real tapas are like. I guess I couldn’t blame him, though I did blame Reader’s Digest for publishing his inane comment.
The real question is—What do American restaurants do wrong when it comes to tapas? Is it even possible for them to do it right?
American restaurants serve tapas at raciones price.
In Spain there are usually a few different categories of dishes on the menu, including tapas and raciones. Tapa are individual sizes, whereas raciones are meant to be shared among 3–4 friends. In the U.S., the restaurants make you pay much more for smaller-than-raciones sizes, meaning the guy in my picture is, um, right.
Whole Foods refers to tapas as “tiny treasures of Spain.”
American restaurants hardly ever give you anything for free.
Don’t you love getting something “for free”? It’s not really free, but in many Spanish restaurants (outside of certain areas), you’ll get a free tapa when you order a drink (a beer, a glass of wine, or a soft drink). I’ve never been to a tapas restaurant in the U.S. that does this.
There is no tapeo experience.
The true Spanish tapeo experience involves walking from bar to bar to get the best thing at each particular bar. In Zamora, for example, we know the best place to get a pincho moruno (pork kabob), calamares (fried squid), and a sandwich made with pork loin and Cabrales cheese.
You go from bar to bar with a group of friends. Ponéis todos un bote, meaning you all pool your money for a kitty—you then use this money to pay at each bar instead of everyone paying for their own drinks at each place. (You must put someone in charge of this. Choose wisely.) At the end of the night, if there’s money left over, we usually just save it “for the next one.” In Spain, there is never the last round; it’s always la penúltima (next to last).
The drinks are expensive.
When I come back from Spain, I can never believe how much wine is here. You want me to pay $10 for one glass of mediocre wine?! And you’re going to serve it to me room temperature? And you’re going to fill the glass up? I know it’s not like that in nicer places, but so many places just don’t know how to serve wine. At all. In Spain, you can get a good glass of wine for €3–€4 in Madrid, and in Zamora, we pay for €1.30 for a really decent glass of Toro wine.
Beer in Spain, if not usually good, is at least cheap. There are more and more places to get craft brews, but those tend not to be your traditional tapas bars.
And stop it with all the sangría, okay? Spaniards do drink it—sometimes—but most will likely opt for a beer, wine, or even vermouth.
I know not even to get a Valencian started on paella, so I won’t go too into too much detail. But stop with the paella crimes, okay? Just stop!
So what do American tapas restaurants actually do right?
In my opinion, not a lot. They push things like sangría, they mix up Spanish with South American, and they charge way too much for way too little. However, I can say one thing: The taste of the food is good, even if there’s too little of it to really appreciate.