Glorious tapas!

TURO-TURO - TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag () - August 21, 2002 - 12:00am
One of my all-time favorites is Spanish cuisine. As Filipinos, our liking and familiarity with Spanish cuisine is steeped deeply in our melting pot of a stew as a nation, having been simmered by the colonizers for over 350 years. Who isn’t familiar with caldereta, lengua estofada, bacalao, paella (hence its local variant bringhe), callos, etc.? Dining in Spain is a very affordable adventure, at least compared to its northern neighbor France. And one can try many of its delightful offerings even if dining alone, just like having yamcha in a Chinese teahouse. I’m talking about the dishes that come in little servings called tapas, that delicious bar chow.

are small dishes displayed behind glass bars where diners point which one they like, much the same way when ordering in our own turo-turo or carinderia. Those irresistible mouth-watering delicacies are no different from appetizers and, typically, are served in small glazed earthenware or cazuelitas. A trip to a tapas bar will satisfy any food adventurer but can also be a dilemma even to a connoisseur because of its unlimited choices. Do I go for smoked ham or chorizo, or perhaps seafood, or maybe the healthy vegetarian choices like cheese, almonds, olives, potatoes, tortilla española, etc.? In many a tapas bar, no matter how many drinks one might have downed, one will not be served the same tapa twice. After all, the choice is almost endless.

Where and how tapas originated is still a controversy until now. One story goes that Castilian King Alfonso X El Sabio (The Learned) who ruled over Seville, Cordoba, and Jaen in the 13th century was advised by his doctors to cut back on his calories, have several mini meals a day instead of the usual big lunches and dinners. His personal cooks made him tiny morsels that tasted so good that brought about the tapas we now enjoy. However, the Andalusians claim to have a more plausible story. As southerners, they have always loved outdoor meals with a drink or two of sherry, which of course is an Andalusian speciality. But the delicate aroma of this sweet drink attracted irritating insects. To keep the insects and pesky flies away from the drink, a small saucer or even a slice of ham is placed on top of the wineglass (tapa is the Spanish word for cover or lid.) Eventually, as legend has it, some enterprising soul had the brilliant idea of placing some complimentary tidbits of food on the saucers to boost the bar sales. Small dishes of olives, potatoes, chorizos, ham or other appetizing morsels are offered. Of course, nowadays tapas are rarely given away for free. And over a period of time, more than a thousand varieties had evolved, and every region, every city, every bar has its own specialties.

Being an integral part of the Spanish lifestyle, the tapas bar is the focal point of every community. Going for a tapeo or barhopping has become a way of life and of socializing. Before the midday (2-3 p.m.) or evening meal (10-11 p.m.), everyone heads to his or her favorite bar for a drink and a tapa or two, and of course, conversation. The bar often serves as a de facto living/dining room: a place to eat, unwind, meet friends, watch the news or soccer on TV, or have a quiet drink.

A morsel here and there to go with a glass of sherry, beer or wine, and then on to the next bar.

On the home front, this lifestyle hasn’t quite found its way into the Pinoy psyche but slowly it is fast creeping into the metropolitan scene particularly in the Malate area, Eastwood City, Tomas Morato in Quezon City, and in Makati along Jupiter Street, Rockwell Center, Glorietta and at the new Greenbelt. Although tapas are complete in themselves, here they are often taken as a prelude to the main course. Here are some of the more memorable tapas bars we’ve visited so far:

Alba Restaurante Español (Polaris St., Makati and Tomas Morato St., Q.C.)
– Señor Don Anastacio de Alba started it all when he put up the first and most fashionable Spanish restaurant in Manila back in 1952. His trademark personalized service and excellent cuisine was what endeared him to Manila’s 400 and just about everybody who was somebody in Philippine business and politics. Today, five decades later, the proverbial torch (and toque) is passed on to his son Miguel Angel and the tradition strongly lives on. Some 36 kinds of hot and cold tapas are offered. Spanish cuisine aficionados swear that Alba serves the best paella in the Philippines. Aside from its eight classic paellas, it recently launched 12 more kinds of that legendary rice dish: rabbit, pigeon, eel, crabmeat, prawns, sisig and cochinillo, duck, octopus, salmon, grilled meats, chicken and a "green" vegetarian one. And this trivia is for everybody to chew on: It was Don Anastacio who invented the popular dish Steak a la Pobre. Maravillosa!

Casa Armas (Nakpil corner Bocobo Sts., Malate) –
is long an established landmark in the Malate area. Who could beat Sr. D.Jesus Armas offering 45 kinds of savory tapas, representing all the regions of madre España? The joint has all the telltale signs of an authentic tapas bar/restaurant: The décor is typical of a traditional Spanish tavern – warm, cozy, unpretentious and welcoming; it is frequented by Spanish-speaking Filipinos and repeat customers; and like most tapas bars anywhere in the Iberian peninsula, it is smoke-filled during peak hours (the downside). Being from the wine-producing Rioja region, Señor Armas naturally has a fine selection of Rioja red wines. Popular tapas are the Jamon Serrano, Almejas en salsa verde (clams), Pulpo a la Gallega (octopus), Boquerones (Spanish kinilaw), etc. It has branched out to the upscale Podium in Ortigas Center; on Jupiter Street in Makati; and soon to open along Tomas Morato in Quezon City. Que rica!

Mil Novecientos (Adriatico St., Remedios Circle, Malate)
– From the man who single-handedly revived the lackluster Malate neighborhood back in the late ’70s with Café Adriatico comes the latest addition to Larry Cruz’s unbeatable trend-setting armada. The place used to be the mega Café Adriatico 1900, recently refurbished with a new elegant Mediterranean interior. Two visiting Spanish chefs from Valencia came for a month’s stay, rigorously trained Larry’s in-house chefs and did a complete overhaul of the menu resulting in a distinctly Spanish and Mediterranean lineup. Dishes from Marseilles, Tangiers, Beirut and Athens are well represented, and of course some 22 tapas from Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga, not to mention its eight kinds of paella. Any tapas bar worth its salt wouldn’t be without the all-time favorite classics like Jamon Serrano, Angulas Bilbaina (baby eels from Asturias), Boquerones, Tortilla Española, Calamares a la Romana, Gambas al Ajillo, Chipirones (baby squids) and they are all unabashedly offered here, and with good reason to. There are also some innovative tapas like Babe Trotters, Chicharon wrapped with anchovy, and lemongrass longganisa. Que sabrosa!

Cirkulo (Arnaiz St., Makati)
– The late Doreen Fernandez wrote this is one good representative of strong Spanish influence on Philippine dining. Credit is due to its award- winning chef J Gamboa, a third generation restaurateur (Milky Way, Azuma-ya and Tsukiji), and a product of the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in New York. Having renovated its interiors just last December 2001, Cirkulo’s menu offering has evolved to a more ingredient-focused direction with heavy Mediterranean leanings: fines de claires oysters from France, Portabella mushrooms, arugula, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, gorgonzola, foie gras, bacalao, caviar, etc. Of course, the all-time favorite dishes since their inception in 1995 are still part of the menu: the chorizos, angulas, antipasti platter, hojaldres de espinacas (very delicate spinach and blue cheese filled phyllo triangles), gambas al ajillo. The Pampango side of chef J becomes evident in his signature dish Cabeza de Cerdo, a spicy sisig made with a suckling pig’s head. Make room for the Paella Cirkulo – the rice dish from Valencia made with duck and chorizo. Estupenda!

El Cuento (Glorietta 2)
– The best part of this newest addition at the Glorietta is one can order a muestra (half a racion) of its 30 or so kinds of tapas. And if that isn’t enough, one can cross-order from its Italian neighbor Piu Pazzo (both owned by Marilou Senn of the former La Tasca) and choose from its antipasti selection. Aside from its traditional offerings, notables are Setas a la plancha con Jamon (mushrooms sautéed with Jamon Serrano), Cazuela de Cordero al Horno (roast leg of lamb), Callos a la Madrileña, Ostiones a la Gaditana (baked oysters with paprika), Almejas en Salsa de Cava (steamed clams with sparkling wine), and Croquetas de Cabrales (fried potato dumplings with blue cheese). Crossing over are the Carpaccio di Manzo (raw paper-thin slices of beef tenderloin), Antipasti di Mare (assorted seafood appetizers), and Pasticcio di Melanzane (baked eggplant with tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese). Cap the evening with a scoop or two of its gelato. Que refrescante!

– A single piece or serving

– A large portion enough for a meal or to share with friends

Media ración, muestra
– Half a ración (but larger than a tapa)

– A few morsels (usually cold or pickled) skewered on a toothpick. Named after the implements bullfighters’ assistants use to stick bulls.

– Literally mounted on a slice of crusty bread.


– About 8 ounces of draft beer in a glass (never bottled or canned).

– Double the size of a caña.

– Pale, dry sherry from Jerez. It is always served chilled. (The word sherry comes from the British attempt to pronounce Jerez.)

– A very delicate, dry, and faintly salty sherry produced exclusively in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Like fino, it is the best accompaniment to tapas, particularly with fried seafood.

– In most Spanish bars, the term vino usually means red wine. If you want white wine, ask for un blanco.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with