Me: I’m very sleep deprived and need just one good night’s sleep.
Madrid: We’re the city that never sleeps and neither will you!
Bright and early on Wednesday morning (but definitely neither bright-eyed nor bushy tailed), I made my way over to London Gatwick for my flight (with Norwegian, once again) to Spain. I was on my way to eat the best tapas in Madrid.
A tip I learned the hard way for traveling on “low budget” airlines in Europe: All liquids have to be under 100 ml AND fit in a sandwich bag. Not a gallon-sized bag like the one I showed up with. Oops. Thank goodness the security woman took pity on the confused American traveling alone and let me through.
Another tip: when booking an Airbnb, print very detailed directions on how to get to said Airbnb. I loved my host and my room, but wandering through Madrid trying to find the place without my directions on hand wasn’t my brightest or best moment. Lesson learned!
By the time I got to the apartment, I only had a few hours before it was time for my scheduled Madrid Food Tour – Tapas, Tavernas, & History. Just enough time for me to shower, fling the contents of my suitcase all around my room, ask my host for directions, and be off on my merry way.
At precisely 6:30 pm, I made my way over to Plaza Isabel II, where I met the tour group and guide. I had no idea what to expect from a food tour, to be honest, but I can say that I was not disappointed. Our British tour guide, Luke, came to Madrid after falling in love with the city, and his passion and enthusiasm for food and Spanish culture made the tour that much more special (tasting some of the best tapas in Madrid didn’t hurt either)!
Our first stop was the popular Taberna Real. Although it was emptier on the inside when we walked in, the outside area was teeming with Madrileños. Since I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol, I had some modified menu items at a few of the places. Here, we tried several traditional tapas: marinated olives, homemade potato chips, pa amb tomàquet (Catalan tomato toast) and tosta de atún con pimientos rojos (tuna toast with red peppers). We were off to a good start.
Fun fact: tapas in Spain refer to the small food bites that you get for free when you order alcoholic drinks. The more drinks you order, the “nicer” the tapas become. The idea originated long ago when a waiter covered the king’s wine glass with a piece of ham to keep bugs away. He liked the idea so much that he implemented the idea of serving a free “tapa” (or “top” in English) with all alcoholic drinks in Spain. And thus, the tapa is born! Tapas are not always free (it depends on the city), and portion sizes can vary significantly.
We also learned another interesting fact: in Madrid, once you finish with an olive (or with your smaller trash in general), you toss the pit on the floor in front of the bar. The dirtier the bar, the more popular it is. Back in the day, competing bars used to send employees to steal trash from Taberna Real to make their bars seem more popular. Sneaky, sneaky.
On our way to the next stop, we walked by the Palacio Real and Plaza de la Villa, where we learned about the tumultuous and incestuous history of the Spanish royal family. Talk about drama! Luke was full of knowledge and fun tidbits about the city and its history, and he did a great job of covering both food and culture.
Our second stop was Bodegas Ricla, a small mom-and-pop shop which I would have never thought to visit. Luke is friends with the owners and workers there, and this bar had a particular focus on wine, as it used to make wine by the barrel back in the day. We started with boquerones en vinagre (white anchovies in vinegar), which were deliciously citrusy and significantly less fishy than the standard brown anchovies – almost like a ceviche! All the ingredients were purchased from the market that day, and this was clearly evidenced by the fresh taste, making it some of the best tapas in Madrid. Accompanying the fish was grape juice for me, tostas de cabrales (toast with extremely smelly blue cheese that is cooked and watered down with wine), and albondigas (beef meatballs)! I was really excited that the albondigas were beef, as that is such a rarity (they often contain pork), and I later found out they’re a secret menu item. The shop owner buys a very limited amount of beef at the market, so you have to know about it and ask for them. I definitely felt like a bit of an insider after that, and they are the best tapas in Madrid if you ask me.
At this point, my stomach was doing a happy dance as we followed Luke to our next stop, Meson del Champiñon – house of mushrooms. On the way, we passed both Mercado San Miguel (a slightly overpriced foodie market) and the world’s oldest restaurant, Sobrino de Botin (insider tip: apparently it’s expensive with mediocre food, not the place to find the best tapas in Madrid). The mushrooms we ate were to die for. I’m quite ambivalent towards mushrooms and don’t generally understand the fuss, but these were just bursting with flavorful spices, herbs, and butter. Perfection. Luke was in the middle of telling us that this restaurant was featured on a famous Korean and Japanese food show for having some of the best tapas in Madrid when a group of Korean tourists flooded the bar – the timing couldn’t have been better.
Next, we passed through the famous Plaza Mayor for a short history lesson and a warning – never eat at a restaurant here! Not only is the food terrible, but it’s also ridiculously overpriced. Instead, we walked on over to El Abuelo, a small bar specializing in gambónes al ajillo (shrimp with garlic). This, my friends, is sizzling shrimp with caramelized garlic, drowned in an herby olive oil. It tastes just as amazing as it sounds.
For our last stop, we walked through the beautifully lit Plaza de Santa Ana over to the restaurant where we were having a sit-down dinner. Yes, we had dinner after all that eating. Totally got our money’s worth!
The restaurant, Casa Toni, had a table ready for us upstairs. Suddenly, just as we were starting to get food, one of the men on the tour spilled his entire glass of red wine on me and the girl next to me. D’oh! Luckily I managed to get the wine out of my clothes, but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to take good food pictures! I did link recipes and wiki articles for visuals though!
We ate a huge variety of food, including patatas bravas (fried potatoes), spiced tomatoes, a shrimp and pepper omelet and lamb sweetbreads. Can I just say that I’ve never had sweetbreads before, and was extremely impressed by their amazing deliciousness? For dessert we had secret cookies baked by cloistered nuns. Pretty impressive and exclusive, and a perfect end to a bliss-inducing tour. We all left the group just a little more in love with Madrid and its food and culture than before. Our group was small and tight-knit by the end of the night, and Luke was a knowledgeable and passionate tour guide.
If you ever find yourself in Madrid and want to treat yourself, check out Madrid Food Tours at http://madridfoodtour.com/.
Stay tuned to read more about what I actually did in Madrid besides eating!
TLDR: a short summary of what I did and where I ate the best tapas in Madrid for those too lazy to read the whole post.
I treated myself to my first ever food tour with Madrid Food Tours. Since I don’t drink or eat pork, my menu is slightly modified. If you go on a tour with them, you’ll be treated to plenty of wine at each stop as well plenty of jamón. Check out what I ate below!
- Marinated olives, homemade potato chips, pa amb tomàquet (Catalan tomato toast) and tosta de atún con pimientos rojos (tuna toast with red peppers) at Taberna Real
- Mosto (grape juice made with wine grapes), boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), tostas de cabrales (toast with cooked blue cheese), and albondigas (meatballs) at Bodegas Ricla
- Herbed mushrooms at Meson del Champiñon
- Gambónes al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) at El Abuelo
- Tapas – patatas bravas (fried potatoes), spiced tomatoes, a shrimp and pepper omelet and lamb sweetbreads – at Casa Toni
- Secret cookies baked by cloistered nuns
Where I stayed:
- At this Airbnb in Malasaña, a very trendy hipster neighborhood. Sign up for Airbnb and get a $20 credit here.