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Tapa the Mark 


Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
Following a screaming match between a local prostitute and a man whose occupation I never learned, my brother John was once run over by a pack of gallant Spaniards -- witnesses to the argument and in hot pursuit of the man -- in the Ramblas district of Barcelona, Spain. John -- who was at least six inches taller than any of the Spaniards -- just happened to be in their path, and stood bewildered yet immovable as bodies careened off him like basketballs against the trunk of a redwood tree. The pursuee escaped during the ensuing chaos, so the Spaniards straightened their shirt sleeves, cursed my brother, and went back to whatever they'd been doing.

As for John, he was OK, though he still looked bewildered when he walked up to me moments later. I didn't take notes (I was 15 at the time), but I think I said something to the effect of "Whoa."

That was 1985, and in retrospect, the thing that amazes me most about the week we spent in Spain is not that John got run over but that we never ate any tapas. In fact, I returned to Barcelona four years later and still didn't eat tapas (which I'd never heard of), but I've definitely made up for it since. I've had Caribbean tapas at Cha Cha Cha, French tapas at Isa, Franco-Mediterranean tapas at Chez Nous, and mezes (Greek tapas) at the Chestnut Street restaurant of the same name. Betelnut's portions are tapa-esque, and I've eaten there perhaps a dozen times. Thirsty Bear Brewing Co.'s tapas have never let me down. The tapas at Timo's were a huge factor in my decision to move to the Mission, and if you know what to order (chicken Valladolid, monkfish curry) I'd say Timo's edges out such Mission tapas emporiums as Charanga, the Picaro/ Esperpento twins, and Cha Cha Cha II.

So what to make of all these tapas places? Not only are there a lot of them in San Francisco, there are a lot of good ones. My theory is that 1) the tapa market will soon be saturated, if it isn't already, or 2) this city possesses a bottomless appetite for Spanish-style small plates. Such little dishes were originally meant to be eaten as pre-meal bar snacks, but have evolved into a tradition whereby the standard appetizer and entree are replaced by six-, eight-, or (better yet) 16-course feasts that bombard the senses with an endless variety of tastes. I'm all in favor of that kind of abundance, so my hopes were high when I took John, my sister-in-law Leslie, my nephew Nathan, and (for the hell of it) their friends Adam, Puree, Grace, and Susan to Ramblas, a Spanish joint named after the district in Barcelona. We dined on simple, classic, often flawlessly executed small plates that never cost more than $7.50 apiece.

I suppose the tastiness of Ramblas' tapas shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise, since the tapeadores behind the operation are owners Ron Silberstein and Raggi Lorentzen and chef Tony Miller, all of whom hail from Thirsty Bear. Ramblas has a similarly chic but casual feel: Bar-style tables in the front area give way to a small bar overhung by tony drop fixtures. An open kitchen looks out on larger, sit-down tables and a few booths. Restored timber columns and an abundance of red and gold tones add a warm, rustic feel. The green neon Rolling Rock sign seems an unfortunate choice, but the menu looks irresistible. In fact, we could have ordered every dish on it for $121.75, tax and tip not included.

It's probably written somewhere that tapas must be accompanied by alcoholic beverages, and if it's not, I'm writing it now. Ramblas had us covered, offering 17 wines by the glass, six tap beers from Thirsty Bear, seven Belgian beers (including the fabulous Chimay Cinq Cent), and a fairly average cinnamon-spiked sangria. After our drinks, we ordered 13 plates and came away with impressions of a kitchen that goes through rivers of olive oil and mountains of salt, the former adding a rich, moist sheen to most dishes, the latter an intense savor that occasionally proves overpowering.

We started with a time-honored nosh -- a bowl of olives -- tart picholines, fruity, slightly bitter Spanish green olives, and soft, rich kalamatas whose flesh detached from the stone with the effortlessness of slow-braised meat. Since it was a slow night (a Sunday), the kitchen was definitely ready for us, and before we knew it our table was plied with such delights as lip-smackingly savory boquerones (marinated white anchovies) touched with a hint of vinegar, followed by a salad of sweet, roasted red peppers served, unfortunately, with woodlike chips of fried garlic that tasted as pitilessly bitter as Satan's arse.

Still, the garlic was easy to avoid, and soon baskets of sliced baguette arrived, as if to guarantee that no one would walk away hungry. The jamon serrano -- thin slices of air-cured ham with a smooth, dry sheen reminiscent of Italian bresaola -- was a definite hit, as was a plate of firm, lightly salty house-cured salmon under a blanket of diced red onion and capers. A salad of romaine hearts with Spanish blue cheese and vinaigrette could have been tossed more thoroughly -- some bites screamed with flavor, others tasted like lettuce -- but offered a crisp, fresh contrast to our other plates. A salad of canned bonito and tomatoes was forgettable, while slices of manchego cheese with quince preserves made for an entirely satisfying duo, the firm cheese dissolving into a rich creaminess when chewed, playing marvelously off luscious, honey-tasting fruit.

Other than the marinated mushrooms, which we didn't order, that list represented the entire selection of cold tapas. Moving on to hot plates, we noticed that whoever was in charge of the salt was getting a bit too generous; he or she nearly ruined our plump, otherwise fabulous whole squids drenched with lemon, paprika, and olive oil. Juicy slices of grilled flank steak suffered from a slightly lesser saltiness, but, like the squid, were consumed to the last scrap. The accompanying grilled green onions weren't salted -- nor should they have been -- and added a pleasant, pungent crunchiness to the plate.

Albondigas (meatballs) arrived in an uninspiring orange sauce, and joined the bonito as a dinner plate I wouldn't order again. Thick stalks of grilled asparagus hit all the right notes, pairing a delicate, vegetable sweetness with a dose of smoke and a zesty lemon aioli. The final dish offered the most complex interplay -- blood-red grilled black sausage served over roasted red peppers and spoonable eggplant, touched with a dab of aioli -- a good, hearty, satisfying plate that could have been a light meal in itself.

Looking back on dessert, my advice would be to order the tarta de Santiago -- a pleasantly dry, earthy almond cake laced with bits of nut and a healthy dose of brown sugar -- or go elsewhere. Flan is often mediocre, and this overly sweet custard didn't even attain that level. The slogan ("Enough said!") printed under the listing for the Justine's chocolate cake was prophetic, but not in a good sense: Everyone took a bite of the flat, lightly bittersweet chocolate cake, and no one had much to say. Still, I've had worse, and the beauty of Ramblas is that you never invest too much money in one dish, making the occasional miscue quite tolerable in the midst of so many successes.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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