When eating out, it might mean revisiting familiar dishes and finding comfort at a beloved burger joint, a cozy Italian restaurant, or a deli. But it can also be a source of adventure, an opportunity to diversify and try something new from a cultural and culinary point of view. Spanish tapas are a great example of this, a convivial concept where the notion of small plates shared among friends is as essential as the food itself.
Although the idea of bites to share offers the best opportunity to branch out and try a number of different things, there are still some tips to follow and dishes to avoid in order to ensure maximum authenticity, of flavor and overall experience. Just as there are things to avoid at barbecues, wine bars and brunches, tapas restaurants have their own taboos, regardless of the size of the plates.
Similar to Thai and Indian restaurants (and really, restaurants of any genre), authenticity is paramount when it comes to successfully executing tapas. So said Oscar Cabezasexecutive chef of the California-based Telefèric Barcelona, who emphasizes the importance of Spanish tradition.
“Tapas is not just a shared dish format, but involves traditional Spanish preparation,” he says. “I would avoid ordering dishes that don’t follow these traditions, like flatbread.” Instead, he suggests keeping an eye out for tapas that specialize in more authentic dishes, like Catalan “coca,” which he says is Spain’s version of pizza. Another example: Go for Spanish escabeche over cebiche or ceviche, as it’s called in other countries. These nuances are valuable clues that a tapas place is doing it right.
Praising the culinary exploration and adventure inherent in tapas, David Viana is another chef who suggests sticking to the more traditional dishes and avoiding Americanized or overplayed offerings, like mac and cheese. Chef/owner of Heirloom Kitchen in New Jersey and future Lita, an Iberian restaurant inspired by his Portuguese grandmother, he knows a thing or two about tapas traditions and what to avoid.
“Tapas are a fun, diverse and adventurous way to eat,” he says. “The tapas culture is designed for you to try a lot of things. However, as a seasoned tapas enthusiast, I have learned to avoid certain things.” Such things include pan con tomate, which despite its classic Spanish roots, is often misguided in the United States. “Maybe the tomatoes aren’t ripe enough, or maybe they lack a sweetness more common in Iberian varieties,” he thinks. “But more often than not it’s soggy, bland tomato bread. You might as well opt for pizza instead.”
Another no-no, according to Viana, are the truffle fries. “I don’t hate truffle oil as much as my fellow chefs. Used in the right dish, in the right amount, it can be delicious. But adding more oil to fries fresh out of the deep fryer is a party foul. A fries is perfect as is.”
Then there’s the lobster mac & cheese. As Viana explains, “Do I like lobster? Yes. Do I like mac and cheese? Oh yes. and contains overcooked, rubbery lobster that is usually barely there.”
In addition to dishes to avoid, tapas places are famous for their ritualistic tradition. The concept of sharing is at the heart of this tradition. That is why Derik Afarochef of Brooklyn’s Asian tapas spot, Sama Street, emphasizes the importance of this.
“The best part about tapas and small plates is being able to order and try multiple dishes between your group of friends and family,” he says. “That’s why it’s disappointing, to put it mildly, to see guests ordering food just for themselves, with no intention of sharing.”
Bland tomatoes and sacrilegious flatbreads aside, not sharing simply detracts from the overall tapas experience, which is communal in nature and essential to the culture. As Afaro sums it up, “We create some of our most lasting memories around food, so why not share those memories with those you love?”
Matt Kirouac is a food and travel writer and culinary school graduate with a passion for national parks, all things Disney and road trip restaurants. Learn more about Matt
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