Part 1: Following The Pintxos Trail
Part 2: San Sebastian Foodie Favorites & A Great, Big Steak
My Bin’s and my first meal in Barcelona is at Cerveceria Catalana, a restaurant that’s insanely popular with locals and foreigners alike; especially favored by visiting Filipinos to Barcelona, it’s largely due to the overwhelmingly warm and accommodating nature of the restaurant staff, most of whom are Filipino.
Fatigue, starvation and greed collude to make us order what feels like half of the menu, dishes I’d read about and “must-tries,” as heartily recommended by our server.
From left and clockwise above, pan con tomate, the easiest Spanish tapa to make (and love!) Sweet tomatoes are grated onto garlic-rubbed breads and lashed with olive oil and salt. Blistered pimientos de padron (green peppers) satisfy consistently … and then explosively when an errant pepper turns out mighty hot. A platter of lobster paella, briny and pleasurable. To drink it all down, some refreshing white sangria (not seen in photo), its fruity overtones cascading over the cool of the ice cubes.
“We must have Iberico,” my Bin whispers. Out comes a plate of it, strips of red lined with fat, glistening under the lights above. They slip and slither in our mouths, stringy, fatty pleasures trailing a wake of porcine lust.
Cerveceria Catalana is famous for several dishes, but perhaps none more famous than the “huevos cabreaos,” (quotes theirs). Common all over Spain, it’s also known as huevos estrellados, crashed/angry eggs. I have to laugh at how pertly the yolks are positioned over the potatoes, then when pierced, how suggestively they souse the fries with their golden glory.
Our server makes quick work of cutting into the eggs: purposeful over-under motions and expert flicks of the wrists as we watch the fluid flow.
Nothing could be simpler than eggs and potatoes but there’s something special about it – “what is that sauce, ketchup?” My Bin asks – that brings satisfied smiles. We are still smiling even after we finish the decidedly spiritual experience of inhaling this simple succulence. An online reviewer described this dish as imperdivel! – unmissable, so good that it should not be missed. I can’t agree more.
Walking off our meal along Passeig de Gracia, a major street in the Eixample district in central Barcelona. Voguish and trendy, it’s got lots of stores and restaurants.
Another view of this fashionable street with its equally fashionable, ornate lamps.
Above, pedestrian thoroughfare Rambla Catalunya in the evening.
For my Bin, the design buff, it’s a pleasure to walk through the various neighborhoods and marvel at the examples of Modernista architecture.
Modernism, a contrasting style of architecture and art, was born in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century. A form to express Catalan nationalism, its luminaries include above all, Antoni Gaudi, whose imprint is heavily seen throughout this beautiful city. I know nothing about architecture but I can’t help but be enchanted by the supreme talent and originality of Gaudi’s works seen below.
Gaudi’s Casa Mila or La Pedrera (“The Stone Quarry”) is the architect’s final work before devoting himself completely to the Sagrada Familia. The eight-floor apartment block was built between 1906-1910. The structure has no straight walls and its sculptured chimneys and ducts are so intimidating that they’re called espantabruixes (witch-scarers).
Inside Gaudi’s Palau Guell, off the historic avenue of La Rambla. Like I said, I’m not really a culture vulture, but I’m so taken with Gaudi that I actually pay to go inside this building, the former home of the artist’s wealthy patron, Eusebi Guell.
I climb out to the roof too, can I tell you, though I’m deathly afraid of heights; all for the intention to see and be transfixed by the spire-like roof chimneys dotted with mosaic tiles.
There’s a pull to see the Sagrada Familia so off we go. It’s here where the lines are the longest, and frankly, where it feels the most touristy. My Bin and I are more than happy however, to stare up awe-struck at this extraordinary church, trying to understand the vision that guided it.
Beside another Gaudi creation, Casa Batllo, is Chocolate Amattler, a chocolate store that’s more modern than the other chocolaterias that I visit in this city.
With interiors that would seem to be more at home in Brooklyn, NY, instead of Barcelona, Spain, it’s more of a café-bakery…
… with an adjoining retail section.
The drool-inducing chocolate spout. A server holds little spoons under this and gives each of us a taste of chocolate delirium. Mmm!
While the pastries are ordinary, I can’t recommend the hot chocolate enough. Calibrated for pleasure, each cup is a concoction of sweet and heat with a swoon-inducing scent of cocoa in sync with steam. I sigh and inhale deeply repeatedly.
When you come here, don’t forget to buy a few chocolate bars with the green packaging. This is the divine hot chocolate served in those dainty pink cups.
At another time, chocolate of another persuasion, this time, ten times thick! At Pastelerías Mauri, they’ve been doing things the traditional way since 1929.
A mind-boggling, waist-thickening array of pastries cram the display…
…and such is the same with the confectioneries fronting it.
As you can see, the chocolate caliente (hot chocolate) is pudding-thick. Scorching hot, it’s bitter with a somewhat earthy note. I like it but it’s different from the hot chocolate you’ll get in say, Dulcinea or Terry’s Selection, both Spanish outposts in Manila.
The hot beverage is a wonderful foil to the suave sweetness of the tocino del cielo (wonderfully eggy) and napoleones (flaky and filled with cream).
At dusk, Barcelona loosens up and the lights come on. On Passeig de Gracia, the imposing Generali building and the colored fountain in front of it make for a picture-worthy stop.
Nearby is Casa Batllo with its stunning façade, the balconies of which remind me of opera glasses. The roof, with its scaly arches, is often likened to a dragon’s back.
Though we don’t get to go because of the pressing crowds on both times we try, consider coming to El Nacional. Housed under one roof are four diverse culinary concepts, each one in its own zone of influence. Huge windows, soaring ceilings, and towering pillars make for an impressive venue. If you get to go, let me know!
I spend a lot of time on Portal de l’Angel Avenue, perhaps my favorite shopping street. A major pedestrian thoroughfare teeming with shops, it’s a stone’s throw away from Barri Gòtic (Gothic quarter), and Plaça Catalunya, the city center.
Rising up in the Barri Gòtic neighborhood is the imposing Barcelona (La Seu) Cathedral. Regarded as a distinguished example of Catalan Gothic architecture, the 14th century structure’s overarching spires grace the skyline over Barcelona’s Gothic quarter.
Sexy and sexier jamon
Moniberic, a chain that specializes in high quality hams is where I remember my friend, Joey’s, email. Having lived in Barcelona for a few years, she writes: “…there is also (of course!) jamon iberico. Those with the “de bellota” label are the best because those are the piggies that fattened themselves on acorns.”
It’s what I’m thinking about as I gaze at the range of reds and deep pinks punctuated by streaks of velvety fat. They’re more aggressive in color than the prosciutto I eat in Italy. Some of the ham legs are under cover of black or red wrapping, assumedly a sign of escalating quality; the big yellow euro signs proclaim as much. My mouth begins to water uncontrollably.
Behind the counter, two men work silently, skillfully, their knives like small scythes slicing through meat. The fat of the hams glint under the pinkish lights, titillating, taunting: you know you want me.
In the picture above, we’re given a sample of the most expensive jamon, €19.90/100 grams. And then we try a slightly less expensive ham, I remember not which. But what we do remember is the pricier pig has exquisite flavor and subtle succulence; the “cheaper” ham however, is more feral in flavor and deeply complex. We immediately buy some of that ham to take home.
On another day, another ham store.
The man behind the counter at Reserva Iberica is a flirt, no doubt about it. At one point as I stutter in my elementary Spanish, he looks up from slicing hams and with dark eyes glinting, he replies in Spanish-accented English, “Whatever the question is, the answer is yes.” I honestly forget what I’m supposed to ask him.
Regardless of banter, it’s he – whom I dub Mr. Debonair – who furthers my education in the Spanish specialty that is jamon. Reserve Iberica is an exclusive store that sells hams made only from acorn-fed black Iberico pigs. The store is sleek, well-stocked, and awash in aromas of salt and meat, slightly floral, all-out come-hither. It’s like being under a spell.
Mr. Debonair has me try jamon from the hind leg; it’s a tandem of tough-tender, stringiness streaking through striations of fat; very masculine, very sexy.
Then Mr. Debonair slices strips of jamon from the foreleg. More tender with fat dissolving almost immediately into oil on tongue; a flood of flavor rushing to meet me of acorns, salt, herbs. My teeth tease, exploring more, wanting more until all that’s left of the ham is the memory of its incomparable texture.
Not wanting to let this moment go, I order a plate of the second jamon along with some cava and some Manchego. The cava tastes like a sigh, the alcoholic warmth dousing my desires for more and more jamon. My mind calms down. As I leave the store, I wonder how something as seemingly simple as ham can be as sensual as it is cerebral.
Carrer de Mallorca, 236, 08008 Barcelona, Spain