Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Foods steeped in tradition

With a month of meals in Seville under our belts, it is hard to know where to begin to talk about food. So… starting with some of the traditional dishes we encountered over and over again throughout Andalusia.

Friends from San Antonio wisely insisted we all squeeze into and belly up to the bar at El Rinconcillo. The first tavern on this spot opened in 1670, so it would be fairly impossible to find a place more flavored by its history. Although, the current owners, the De Rueda family, only have operated a tavern in this location since 1858. A platter of boquerones fritos, fried anchovies, was chalked onto the bar counter next to our beer count as the method of recording our tab. These were perfect and perfectly addictive and are an order we repeat throughout our stay in Spain.

While Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo might not be an establishment as ancient, it certainly feels that way. The restaurant is located in a 17th-century house in a former abaceria, an old-fashioned grocery store specializing in vinegars and oils, dried legumes and cod. Locals claim most tables, so visitors without reservations rarely can obtain a spot. People often order and eat elbow-to-elbow at the counter or take food to go. The ham is cured on premise, and the featured croquetas naturally are filled with either that or with cod.

In two months, I am not sure we have entered a single restaurant or bar in Andulusia without croquetas on the menu. Seriously. Usually multiple kinds. It almost feels as though there must be a law requiring them to be offered if a business wants a license to open. Seville also seemed to require featuring patatas bravas; a spicy blend of spinach and chickpeas; and salmorejo, a cold tomato soup pureed with bread to thicken it.

In restaurants, few customers contemplate the menu without relishing the requisite olives and downing a cana, a small draft beer, even when ordering wine next. Reasonably priced wine is available in all but the luxury establishments, with wine by the glass generally running $3 or less. And that cana? Rarely above $1.50.

And my favorite, despite that recent column disparaging the custom in the New York Times, sharing of any and all courses is encouraged. And you rarely end up with just one large entree, unable to sample other menu items. Numerous dishes are offered in three sizes: tapa, 1/2 racion and racion. Unlike at home, there is no waitstaff glaring at me for ordering only from the appetizer section. Enjoying an all-tapa meal is totally acceptable.

Casa Antonio “Los Caracoles” qualifies as a sexagenarian. The inside fills up with locals of about the same vintage who crave homestyle food the way it was served when they were young. The recipes are classic; the dishes good and fresh.

The chickpea stew here was made with cod, which was a bit of relief. The Mister is a bean stew fan, but the traditional fabadas, callos and pucheros served in Adalusiacan sometimes prove challenging with their hodgepodge of meats all thrown into the pot together – chicken, chorizo, blood sausage, scraps of jamon, stew meat, panceta and even tripas. But wowsers, the resulting thick broth always is flavorful.

Our first taste of tortillitas de camaron, crispy shrimp fritters, was at Los Caracoles. I assumed they might be a limited-edition Lenten special on menus, but they survived Easter throughout the region. And padron chiles. So simple and often the only non-battered vegetable (the battered one being eggplant sticks drizzled with cane “honey”) at pescaitos specializing in grilled and fried seafood.

And the spot to find the freshest seafood? The markets. While often getting jostled by people trying to get close enough to a counter to order, there is a civilized air to eating in markets in Spain. No paper plates and flimsy plastic forks, but actual pottery plates, metal utensils and glassware for beer and wine.

At the always bustling Bar La Cantina in Mercado de la Feria, keeping track of orders has been modernized from the chalk-on-the-bar system used at El Rinconcillo. A dry-erase board is employed. We feasted on fried boquerones, stuffed mussels and octopus, and then, for dessert, grilled sardines and cuttlefish.

While Mercado de la Feria remains a traditional food market, most cities in Spain now have mercados that function only as prepared food halls. Mercado Lonja del Barranco is found in a handsome, soaring-roofed riverside pavilion. While the look is clean and contemporary and the traditional foods abundant, one misses the authenticity provided by neighboring stalls offering produce, meats, cheeses and seafood. And locals. The crowd is almost all-tourist.

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Flavors to rouse the dead

Levanta muertos (awaken the dead). The spicy hot seafood soup at Cabuche hooked the Mister simply with its name, and it lived up to it. Two years ago it seemed as though Cabuche was a cloned offspring of La Biznaga, but now the restaurant has asserted its own distinctive character. Cabuche’s offerings are more diverse than its menu might indicate at first glance because of the ability to customize tacos, tostadas and tlayudas with selections from a long list of house guisados. Oh, almost forgot to mention: great margaritas and generous pours of wine are offered in the small cozy interior or patio.

We know the photo of El Olivo Gastrobar‘s arroz negro is unappealing, but look closely. Cloaked in the inky black sauce is a rich array of seafood. Wearing black definitely is recommended for consumers of this dish. Lazier than the Mister, I much prefer the plump, pre-peeled shrimp topped with jamon in a flavorful Pernod bath. These dishes are ample enough for sharing and pairing with a shared salad or tapas.

An unusual amuse bouche of what they call “fish meal” gets dropping into Zandunga Sabor Istmeno off to a good start, particularly if accompanied by a hibiscus mezcal cocktail called La Llorona. Watercress and roasted peanuts add interesting textural dimensions to Zandunga’s guacamole. The ceviche is fresh, and the pork falling-off-the-bone tender. The vegetable-starved can find a mountainous platter of simply prepared vegetables on the menu.

We had resisted the call of a French-style bakery, Boulenc, in prior years but now find ourselves huge fans. We first stopped by for loaves of incredibly good breads, and I was particularly pleased to find “chunky” peanut butter for my apples at breakfast – particularly as the ingredient list for the peanut butter reads simply “peanuts.” The pizza oven beckoned us next, but the spinach focaccia and vegetable bahn mi are among the best sandwiches anywhere. Never walk out of Boulenc without treating yourself to an affogato made with espresso poured over savory rosemary gelato.

We had trouble locating the new home of El Morocco but were rewarded with the same wonderful caramelized onions topping the couscous. The stacked eggplant, roasted sweet potato and herbed goat cheese that arrived under the title of moussaka was unexpected, but a lighter innovative approach.

The main reason to visit Mezquite is the pleasant rooftop patio. The food presentation is attractive, and I wonder if anyone has ever been able to consume the entire enormous tlayuda with cecina unassisted. Staff seemed to struggle with the logistics of the two-floor set-up, and delivering a spoonful of salsa at a time to a table of Texans meant a multitude of extra trips.

The patio is beautiful and service old-school-formal perfect at Las Quince Letras. The Mister loved his meat platter there and would gladly have returned. The pescado en papelote (foil?) left me disappointed though. Maybe next trip we will return, and I will switch my order to their famed chile en nogada.

Other featured photos are from Casa Taviche and La Popular.

Oh, and the surprise bonus on the trip: a bowl full of unexpectedly good plump shrimp with garlic and chiles snagged at the airport restaurant just prior to our always-too-soon departure from Oaxaca.

Postcard from Saluzzo, Italy: Meals from last summer

My apologies to the restaurants of Saluzzo. Although they delivered a rich sampling of the foods of the Piedmont region of Italy, the “postcards” are so slow to be delivered everything is now a jumble.

Le Quattro Stagioni d’Italia is a surprisingly large restaurant with a spacious patio always packed with locals. We found ourselves drawn to both food and patio several times. Taverna San Martino is small, cozy and intimate and regarded by many as the best in town. Osteria Nuovi Mondagli is completely unpretentious, with its magnetic draw a shaded patio perched above one of Saluzzo’s picturesque petit plazas.

Obviously, the town kept us well-fed.