Spain

3 Days in Madrid

A word of advice:  Lakasa!  That’s it.  Just one word as promised.  Thats the most important takeaway from this post, and if its the only takeaway, my job is kinda done here.  In other words, if you only giving this post your valuable morning bathroom break, just go straight to the Lakasa section and read the rest if you have more time.  There are other important tips here, including where not to eat, and where we planned to eat but didnt eat.  So maybe make it a longer bathroom or a work vaping break, to read the rest.

Talking about “takeaway”, my biggest struggle in Spain was requesting Coffee To Go in Spanish.  I know this is not exactly a coffee to go culture, but I needed it on occasion especially while driving.  I had to do it especially in the North where English was almost non existent.  “Para Llevar, Para Llevar, Para Llevar”.  I practiced, and listened and practiced some more.  I went from “Pull the Lever Please!” to “Para Levar” to “Para Yevar” and they would continue to nod and smile and serve it in a small coffee mug on a plate to stay.  Wife sometimes would come back from shopping to see me sipping on the coffee cup going, “couldnt pull the lever again, couldn’t you?”.  Nope!

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The most surprising thing about Madrid’s food scene was the large amount of American chains scattered all over the center.  There were moments when I was looking for something interesting to eat, and it was easier to find a Burger King then a local shop of some sorts.  But the site that surprised me the most was my first International “Five Guys”.  Turns out, there are 4 more outside the center.  Well done Guys!  All 5 of you.

Here’s a rundown of the places we ate.  You can read between the lines

El Paraguas – This was strongly recommended by our host and I can see why.  A room, make it rooms, including an outdoor patio, packed with locals, including families and grandpas who lunch.  All on a Friday afternoon.  And you need to dress up a notch for this one.  The cuisine is Asturian but the menu reads like a bible.  Madrid doesnt really have its own regional cuisine.  It draws its inspirations from all over Spain, especially the north (I can be corrected here).  The standout here was a mystery dish.  “Cocochas de Merluza con Yema de Huevo” on the Spanish menu translated to “Hake’s Barbel in green sauce and egg yolk” on the English menu.  Confusing because Barbel is a another fish, and Cocochas is the second chin or jaw of a fish which we had in Getaria some time later and it looked nothing like this.  Whatever it was, it was excellent. and I would go back just for this.IMG_8467

Cervecería Cervantes – This is where you will have that “We are finally in Spain” moment.  Surrounded by locals, and eating things we couldn’t get enough of the rest of the trip.  We came for the Galician Octopus which was good indeed, but we totally devoured the shrimp in garlic and Padron peppers.  And we started hearing angels singing when we tried the fried calamari.  Even though the singing was mostly in latin, I understood most of it… “Remember all that fried Calamari you’ve been eating in New York all your life? Lalalalalalala!  Its crap!  This is what it supposed to taste like”

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Lakasa (bottom)- Madrid is loaded with some incredible talent doing elevated traditional dishes and Avant-garde.  But its hard for me to imagine many better experiences in this price range.  This was flawless from start to finish.  From the house white to the waiter eerily popping a little device on the table where little wet wipes peep out one by one, much to our delight.  It doesnt take much to amuse us.  silky smooth Cecina (cured cow meat) from Astorga.  A mind blowing grilled Hake (better than the Alfonsino special).  Dried rice with pigeon, a house specialty, was a standout.  One of the better cooked steaks of a Spain trip loaded with great meats.  Clams in garlic, and fried eggs with truffles we couldnt get enough of.  One of the best meals we ever had in Spain

La Casa del Abuelo – Shrimp and Garlic!  We’ve been obsessing and dreaming about the shrimp in Garlic months prior to the trip.  Portugal did this to us!  Ramiro in Lisbon if I can point fingers.  In Madrid all indications pointed to the undisputed Shrimp and Garlic champ, La Casa del Abuelo.  Not to be confused with Abuela (grandma) on the same street.  You want Grandpa’s cooking, not Grandma in this case.  Really enjoyed the crustaceans here. They were plump and flavorful albeit on the softer side.  We also enjoyed the large Fideo with squid and its ink.

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Ochenta Grados – This was the only place open on Sunday night that was walking distance from our apartment.  We were surprised at how many close on Sundays here (some open for lunch).  Ochenta Grados felt like a place more for teen girls so it was sort of perfect because I came with two of those.  But at the same time it was cheap, inventive fun, and shockingly good value.  Clever “Tapas” like plates around 4 euros each.  We pretty much tried the entire menu for 70 euros.  A marginal endorsement for the foodies out there

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San Miguel Market – This is the one I dont quite get.  What exactly is the attraction here?  Is it the concept or the food?  Coming from the land of food markets (NYC) this was shockingly disappointing.  We settled initially on some overpriced, mediocre toasts with cheese.  Then we circled a few more times and nothing stood out.  Extremely crowded and expensive for Spain (11 euros for a small portion of fried calamari).  The whole thing felt like a giant tourist trap.  I cant imagine many locals go here.

A word on Tapas – One thing I learned in Madrid is that Tapas is more of a way of life, rather than a concept or simply small plates.  Its a social gathering where you move from place to place eating and drinking what the establishments specialize in, while standing.   Tapas is a lifestyle, that is not meant to be forced, and therefore difficult for visitors to mimic.  When you are spending a full day sightseeing, your planned Tapas crawl may not fit as you’ll be craving a seat and a drink somewhere relaxing instead.  But if you must, Calle del Dr. Castelo near Retiro park is loaded with some popular eateries like Laredo, La Castela, Castelados, and La Raquetista

Other places I wanted to visit but didnt have a chance:  La Manduca de Azagra, AskuaBarra, Glass Mar

 

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10 Tips for Asturias

IMG_8939Heard of Asturias?  The forgotten Spanish region of Asturias is an absolute stunner and a culinary paradise.  We came primarily to get a glimpse of the magnificent Picos de Europa, but turns out it’s so much more than that.

10.  Check the Covadonga Webcam.   Before going up to the lakes of Covadonga, check the webcam.  It may be clear down below, but heavy fog on top.  Ideally stay in or near Cangas de Onis for at least 3 days and go up on a sunny day.  Webcam:  http://webcamsdeasturias.com/webcam.php?id=159

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9.  Sunday is Fungus Day at Cangas de Onís.  Its not a big market, but a very important one, in front of the main church in Cangas de Onís.  This is where you can taste the funky local Cabrales cheese among many other products.  And if you speak Spanish, maybe make a friend and get invited to see a cave where Cabrales is aged.

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8.  Read up and look for “Indianos”.  Back in the day Spaniards who lived close to the sea in the north, sailed to South America to seek better fortune.  At the turn of the 20th century, feeling homesick, many of those who accumulated wealth came back.  And to show their legacy, they built these lavish colorful homes (“Indianos”).  They would even typically have palm trees as a symbol of their previous tropical homes.  You can visit the chief Indiano at Colombres (Indiano Archive Foundation) and see them in Ribadesella and pretty much all over.

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7.  Visit a Sidreria or 5.  This is perhaps obvious to some, but its importance needs to be stressed.  We travel for “Different”.  And your visit will be incomplete if you dont spend the proper time practically bathing in cider in a cider house.  Read about the proper way to drink it, its not just about the pouring.  Visit Plaza De Requejo in Mieres.  Check out Sidrería Carroceu in Ribadesella (try shrimp in garlic, and mussels topped with tomato sauce, a local specialty)

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6.  Try a Cachopo.  This item can be criminally overlooked when researching this region.  The Asturias answer to, ok, there’s nothing quite like this out there.  Two mammoth fried veal fillets sandwiching ham, cheese, and anything else they opt to stuff in there.  And one the best places to try it is Chigre El Antoju Sidrería in Llanes

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5.  Take your time at Sanctuary of Covadonga.  Dont confuse this for just a church hence a quick attraction.  You may need to walk a little from your parking spot.  You’ll want to take pictures of it every time you look from every angle.  You must visit the Holy Cave across where you may get the best shot of the church.  And most importantly, dont even think about missing this.

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4.  Follow the Oviedo Escultura trail.  Oviedo and its unique statues is a free open air museum.  Well at least on a Sunday when you can park for free.  You’ll see a statue with a story in every park, square, or in front of important monuments including one of Woody Allen (Much of Vicky Cristina Barcelona was filmed in Oviedo).  But the most famous of the bunch is a little girl wearing a red dress sitting on a bench in the park.  Read about Mafalda to see why she’s larger than life 

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3.  Have a leisurely lunch at El Molín de Mingo.  In Asturias, you have these 7 feet chickens roaming around answering to the name Pitu.  Pitu de Caleya is one of the many delicious local specialties and this is where you try it.  Packed places this hidden are packed for a reason.  Always busy therefore reservations are essential, and sometimes only open on weekends.  A little easier to get to via Arriondas as opposed to Cangas de Onis

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2.  Mix it up at Casa Marcial and Guernica.  The location and setting of Marcial is worth the schlep alone to this two Michelin in the mountains.  The fixed menu options will allow you to mix crafty ingredient driven starters (like the best mussel you’ll ever have) with elevated local specialties like Fabada and Pitu de Caleya.  For seafood head to Luanco for the great rice dishes of Guernica

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1.  Read Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding.  A full chapter on Asturias, Basque and other regions you may come across.

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Jose Maria {Segovia} – The Suckling King

Jose Maria in ActionSegovia, the perfect tourist town.  How often do you come across places with such sheer beauty and plenty of unique attractions to boot.  Its rich history plays an important global role, and its essentially one giant lesson in Spanish history.  Which is why its best viewed with a guide.  Its monuments are not only important and UNESCOd for good reason, but they are a feast to the eyes.  The aqueduct alone is worthy of the train ticket from Madrid, even if you’ve seen such aqueducts before.  And then you have the Cochinillo (Suckling Pig).

No one knows how it all started, but everyone knows who popularized it.  In the 1930’s Don Candido started carving Cochinillo with a plate while everyone else watched with Love Eye Emojis followed by Cash Eye Emojis.  Today Meson de Candido is still going strong, while many others all over Segovia are now doing the same thing.  And gastrofreaks from all over flock here not for the Aqueduct or the castles, but for the baby pig.  The whole scene is a little disturbing in a way.  Baby pigs featured on window displays, sometimes provocatively, akin to the red light district in Amsterdam.  I figured if my kids ever become vegan, this would be the reason.

But if Don Candido put the Cochinillo on the map, Jose Maria put it on the Google Map.  Today, Jose Maria is the Taj Mahal of the pig pilgrimage and you can feel it when you are 50 feet away from the 5 room restaurant.  It doesn take much Google searching to see videos of Mr Maria plate carving that thing while proudly wearing his medal.  In 2002 Maria, who owns his own breeding farm, founded PROCOSE, an association devoted to the promotion of the Suckling Pig of Segovia.  He converted the pig into a cultural icon.

The mural behind us serves as a reminder for all the plates Jose Maria used to break in the past.  But it wasn’t clear whether it was accidental or did he throw them Greek style when he was done.  But today the carving is so theatrical that everything including time pauses for that 10 seconds.  He cuts and plates it with the plate.  The flesh maintains much of the juiciness.  The skin is crispier than crisp but still chewy.  And its all rather simple.  You expect something more complicated from such fame, but its really just a suckling pig simply seasoned with salt and pepper.  The reason it works so well, is the quality of the main ingredient.  These guys got this thing down to a science.  From the weight of the pig, to the timing of the kill and what it had for breakfast days 4 to 6.

But there were other surprises contributing to this most memorable meal, starting with the Iberico meat and cheese platter.  While we liked the Jamon and Chorizo alright, it was the dryer more textured Lomo (cured tenderloin) that won.  And then came the Judiones, some of the most massive, creamiest white beans you will ever eat.  Part of a stew of course, a relative of the Asturian Fabada we couldnt get enough.

And I dont normally get excited or even remember house wines, but this house red had the Aroma and complexity of a pungent full bodied aged red.  Even Mrs Z couldnt help herself and had a glass too many.  After the meal while we were walking, she suddenly paused, and turned to me frantically “Did you find the Chorizo?!?”  Translation (after 25 years of marriage):  We didnt have dessert.  Did you find a nice Churros place?

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This is Getaria

IMG_6219Getaria is a tiny fishing village in Basque Country, about 30 minute drive from San Sebastian.  Torbotville, (a town in Pennsylvania) perhaps a more appropriate name due to the widely available fish that became the new symbol of Getaria.  This was the tail end of a 16 day road trip from Madrid, where we spent 6 nights using Getaria as our Basque base.  Some of these pictures came practically from the back yard of our accommodation, Gaintza, a local Txikoli (young but potent local dry white) producer.  Staying in the middle of a vineyard, with a 5 minute walk to the beach, an old town, and world class seafood was not exactly what I imagined.  I will have more on Getaria and its very unique food scene when I get a chance.  Click on any image below to browse through all

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