Pity the tapa. When America imported the concept, it became the brash, over-ambitious cousin to the appetizer, too often undone by money and material excesses.
Think of it as the Scarface of the American restaurant scene.
But that is not the case at Tapateria, the restaurant opened this fall by Dave Brackett, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who is also the owner of the delicious Pizzeria Rustica just down the street. With Rustica, Brackett tried to replicate the great Italian pizzerias he had grown to love while stationed in Europe, making sure that everything from the flour to the tomatoes were as authentic as possible. At Tapateria, he has tried to do the same with traditional Spanish tapas.
While most restaurants focusing on what they call tapas often serve dolled up, super-sized and often destructively baroque versions of what is supposed to be a simple bar food, Tapateria stays true to form, offering delectable snacks such as sweet and smoky spiced almonds or tender baby squid in a light tomato broth that taste straight out of the streets of Madrid or Sevilla.
In Spanish, tapa means lid. Legend has it these small bar snacks got their name hundreds of years ago when bartenders would put slices of bread or cured ham over sherry glasses to keep away fruit flies. The practice evolved into a culture in which Spaniards go out to tapas bars after work for small plates of simple food and drinks.
So it is at Tapateria. Brackett seems to have gone to great lengths to make the place creative but affordable. The wine list is stocked with well chosen, and well-priced wines, many bottles under $30. It also offers a pleasantly not-too-sweet blood orange sangria. The Tapas top out at $8 but average closer to $5. True, they are small snacks, and a group of four diners recently had no problem spending $75 on tapas, but for that price we sampled a dozen dishes over two pleasant hours, with none that disappointed.
Tapas here start simple with things like Marcona Almonds ($2) toasted in sugar, thyme, cumin and Spanish paprika until they are savory, sweet and perfect with drinks – a better beer nut.
From there, the tapas slowly build. You might choose from six mushroom caps ($4) filled with an intensely salty and flavorful garlic mash. Or anchovy stuffed olives ($4) that are as simple as they sound: Really good, firm green olives packed with top quality white anchovies that swim unapologetically with fishiness. The Baby calamari — each ring not much bigger than a pinky ring — ($5) come softly poached in a simple, sweet tomato broth swirled with thin straws of julienned carrots that, seriously, remind me of a bowl of squid I once had by the docks in Barcelona.
For those who fear the sea, there are safer, starchier options. A whole garlic bulb served with toasted cuts of baguette ($4) has been roasted until so soft and mild that the cloves can be squeezed and spread like a rich, creamy butter. The tortilla Espanola ($4 is an inch-thick slice of omelet baked with thin slices of potato and served with a small spinach salad. It is good and solid for those who want to lay a foundation for their wine.
Which gets to Tapateria’s one quirk. Anyone who expects appetizers to have the heft and caloric wallop of a fried onion blossom or other standard American appetizer should go elsewhere. These plates are small. They are lightly seasoned, and skip the heavy cream, butter, batter and melted cheese that are so common in restaurant food. This is light, Mediterranean fare, expertly prepared.
The advantage is that small plates can come and go while a table of friends nibbles and talks. There is no muted moment when the entrees arrive and everyone’s mouth is full. This is conversation food. The disadvantage is that you may leave hungry. It is a good idea to visit Tapateria for a drink and a snack, rather than a whole meal.
Those snacks have a lot going for them. I love the tuna salad ($4) — a simple mount of good canned tuna mixed with lemon and hints of onion, then covered with capers and served with gherkins, anchovies and a single slice of hard-boiled egg. Even better is the chorizo with figs ($6) — a bowl of pinky-sized spicy pork sausages packed with earthy Spanish paprika and tossed in gooey, sweet caramelized figs. It is sweet, savory and seemingly a new dish in this town.
But I think my favorite tapa here is the simplest of all. Tapateria has a deli case where you can buy hard-to-find Spanish cured meats by the tenth of a pound. The best are Spanish cousins of prosciutto, each with their own flavor.
Jamón Iberico is cured from black Iberian pigs who are fed wild acorns to give them a distinctive flavor that is vaguely floral. Jamón Serrano, a cheaper version, is packed in salt, then air cured for months, giving it an almost woody undertone. Both are fantastic with a glass of Spanish red.
Tapateria only edges toward fancy American tapas with one dish: Bison carpaccio. The long, narrow plate of thin-sliced, raw bison tenderloin ($8) topped with paper-thin wafers of Manchego cheese and capers, is ornately presented, and not bad, but dull compared to a good slice of jamón.
Tapateria seems to have almost everything going for it. The cozy space in a century-old brick storefront is charming. The menu is well-designed and executed. The ingredients are top notch, and so are the servers.
The only thing that might undo it is the cultural gap. Locals might mistake it for fine dining and be turned off by the simple fare. Or expect a full meal, when this is a place for snacks. Or even worse, expect some elaborate Scarface take on tapas. If so, it could turn off potential diners. But if people can see this for what it is — an authentic gem striving to introduce one of the most delightful aspects of Spanish culture — well, then, I say ... say hello to my little friend.
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (OUT OF FIVE)
(Bar snacks at their best)
Address: 2607 W. Colorado Ave
Entrees: Tapas only, $2-$8
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-close Tuesdays through Saturdays; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes