A tidbit from my host mom, which I roughly translated from her rapidly flowing Spanish opinions: “If the restaurant does not serve complimentary tapas with your drinks, you might as well eat at McDonalds.”
The cultural Spanish phenomenon of ordering tapas, which are multiple small dishes with a beer or wine, has gained popularity worldwide and is frequently found on menus under “algo para picar,” or literally “something to pick at.” Tapas range form simple green olives to elaborate open-faced sandwich style pinchos; the idea of authentic tapas is, however, irrevocably tied to Spanish drinking culture.
Every Thursday, on my walk seven minute walk from the metro to my house, I pass by an Asian buffet-style restaurant enthusiastically advertising its €13.95 sushi platter, complete with a purple and gold spinning light display. If you manage to persevere through a possible epileptic fit without having to cross to the other side of the street, through the window you will see a mother and her son, estimated age about 13, enjoying an almost-end-of-the-week celebration lunch. The mother, with a glass of red wine, and the son with a caña of Mahou, the native beer of choice, are most likely discussing his most recent spelling quiz.
Thus, when my host mom forbade me from returning to a bar where I told her I had found tapas for cheap, I was unsure which response would serve me best—the simultaneous importance and nonchalance with which the Spaniards consider their cerveza and vino somewhat terrifies me. Turns out, she was not at all joking. Instead of allowing me “offend her further” with my Americanized, capitalistic mentality, she wrote down an address. There, I could ease myself into the true essence of tapas.
When my friend and I entered El Tigre, a chain restaurant with three downtown locations all walking distance of each other, I realized my host mom had sent me to a restaurant that was almost authentically Spanish. With one foot solidly at the heart of Madrileño culture and the other hinting at the efficiency of American chains, the bar was packed with locals and tourists alike.
Clusters of people were stacked up back to back in the rectangular space. Some stood bunched around rotund barrels masquerading as proper high tables, while others leaned on the countertop running the perimeter of the room, and others simply roamed, plates and beer in hand, not doing much of anything except chewing thoughtfully, and the only chairs to be had were the operational kegs shoved underneath the counter on which we sat.
It was when the waiter brought out the famed €5 mega mojitos we had ordered that we made our mistake. Forgetting for a moment that this was not an Applebee’s back in Townsville, Illinois and inwardly applauding ourselves for being so budget conscious, we kindly replied “no tapas for now,” to the inquiring waiter. Receiving an odd look and shoulder shrug, we ignorantly went on sipping our drinks and marvelling at the amount of food being left on people’s plates. It was not until our Spanish classmate finally showed up, about half an hour late (as we had predicted) and ordered a drink and a normal fried tapas plate, were we outraged to find that he had paid the same price as us and gotten tapas.
Receiving the same quizzical look the waiter had bestowed upon us, he turned to the bar and repeated something in Spanish too garbled for us to parse. A few seconds later the same bartender who had at first questioned our choice to opt out of the fried goodness came back around with a bemused smile and two plates of croquetas, patatas and bocadillos. He was gone before we even found our credit cards.