Much of what makes Madrid the capitol city appears to have remained constant. The July heat, cañas flowing into the streets, people destined for tapas, a reward for an urban culture working more and more hours than in the recent past. The plazas continue to serve as the backbone of the city. People pause throughout the day to sit with friends and talk, shaded by the marriage of old and new buildings, some adorned with street signs and shuttered windows, other edifices showing an old world wear and tear that the tourists find charming.
But there is a subtle change in the population diversity, with a noticeable stream of Latin American immigrants filling into the roles of the working class, citizenship less daunting than the U.S., working through the trend of youth apathy, contributing to unemployment and a declining construction industry.
My stay in Madrid could be likened to living in Jackson Heights in relation to Manhattan, at Villa de Vallecas, way south on the blue line of the metro. This barrio is proof positive of the immigrant wave, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Peruvians, Hondurans, etc. coexisting with native Spanish, and of course the Chinese, who have cornered the market in the alimentacion stores department.
But that is the beauty of any city metro, each stop can take you world’s away from the last place, yet still be in the same place, overall.
I didn’t mind the 35 minute trek to the Gran Via daily, save for at night when the metro stopped (24 hours in New York), having to take an expensive cab ride back (the euro, ouch) or wait it out until six in the morning when the trains were running again. Given that on certain nights the partying goes on until eight a.m., this is not a problem.
One would think that with the incoming people brings the food, but I found no Latino expression of cuisine anywhere. Even the Chinese restaurants that exist offered no semblance of Chinese palate. All of it is unedible. Even the so called sushi parlors that have started to spring up are to be avoided at all costs.
No, Spanish tapas remains strong, and homages to specific cuisines, such as Galician, Basque or Catalan, are still kings of the hill. The Spanish are fascinated with the hamburger, but alas, they should stick to what they do best.
The first day I headed over to Casa Mingo for lunch, the specialty being a rotisserie chicken and some house cider. I hadn’t been since 1998, and decided to test the evolution of my taste buds. The chicken was crisp and juicy, but not fantastic. The cider was bottled and refreshing, but they’ve got nothing on the Basque stuff. I shared some blue cheese with a neighboring table, and chatted up an Irish fellow about the merits of Dublin, which are many, and the yearn for a pint of plain (Guinness).
Then walkabout, which is the best way to see any town, and of course tapas. I sampled as much jamon as I could. Most of the ham was tough, a bit on the jerky side, and not enjoyable. Who was hiding the good ham? At Plaza Santa Ana, I tried some jamon at Cinco Jotas, a national chain with a good reputation. The best part of the meal was the oozing torta del casar cheese and the morcon, a part of the ham not sold everywhere. But no real deal pata negra. I sell better stuff in NYC. Off to some cocktail bars like Del Diego and La Bardemcilla, where a civilized Sidecar is actually served.
Wine bars existed but were sparse and disappointing. The selections reflected a new world palate, and wine service was abysmal. Besides, it was too hot to drink red wine under the Madrid supernova.
The next day I opted for paella at La Barraca, after a long stint at El Prado, even though everyone knows the best paella hails from Valencia and that most of the Madrid versions are veritable tourist bear traps. But I heard good things about La Barraca, and treated myself to a plate of croquetas de jamon, arroz negro and seafood paella, all of which were actually quite good. Washed down with a bottle of Blanc Pescador. After a friendly chat with two American ladies, we set off to the Matisse exhibit at the Thyssen Reina Sofia, leaving me desperate for a siesta. I threaded the seafood theme with a Galician spot at Metro Tribunal, Ribeiro do Mino, which for a Wednesday night was jammed with regulars with mounds of seafood platters called marisquerias, filled with Dungeness crab, shrimp, prawns, langoustines, and goose barnacles. The plate took me over an hour an a half to plow through. The name of the restaurant would be a good omen for things to come. Dizzy from a seafood extravaganza, I filled the rest of my night with cañas, uncertain of when I would be able to eat again.
The girls arrived, meaning my lady friends and their respective entourage, and that meant real partying as their sub 28 ages dictate. At one point we were in Tribunal again, where there is a proliferation of aggressive Chinese salespeople, offering beers and bocadillos from cardboard stands. While inspecting an empty box, a Spanish woman yelled out to me, “Oye Chino, tienes Mahou?” I pretended to look for it, and replied “I’m sold out!” Apparently my ambiguous looks passed me for a Chinaman. It took a while to peel my friends off the floor from laughter.
More tapas at Metro La Latina, specifically on the strip Calle Cava Baja, headed by the famous Casa Luzio and its new taverna, where rotos (shredded eggs on fries) became popularized, along with a better set of wine bars. Innovative tapas at Txakoli, and good selection of wines at Tempranillo, where incidentally I finally stumbled upon a great plate of ham. The owner sliced it from the legs hanging on the wall, and a gorgeous plate of purple cecina (air-dried and salted meat from the hind legs of a cow or horse) to boot. Wines are served in three ounce pours, a perfect size for sampling. Emerging from such a dizzying tapas run, my body ached for a siesta.
Sure as a bull’s horns, the that night I was invited out near Metro Cuzco, by a hospitable gentleman named Antonio, who has an appetite for Cuban cigars and fine food. We had sterling clams and prawns, followed by the glory of Galicia, pulpo gallego (octopus), and other fish fancies in sea salt. A couple of bottle of Marques de Riscal sauvignon blanc from Rueda was the accompaniment, followed by a balcony vista, aged rum, and more cigars. All in all, a civilized evening. The next day we were heading to Alicante for beach time, and in desperate need of some beauty rest (it was a mere 2 am).
Alicante, located just in the south east, was a whole other whirling dervish.