Metaphorically speaking, it was our guts that lead us to Madrid instead of Barcelona. That worked out pretty well for us, so it is only fitting that once there, we continued to let our stomachs guide us, and in doing so, did our level best to eat our way through the city.
We knew next to nothing about Spanish food (other than a few buzz words like “tortilla” and “paella”) prior to our visit, but came with open minds (and growling stomachs!), ready for some hands-on learning. Our intention on this visit to Madrid was to take advantage of tapas and small portions as much as possible so that we could try little bits of lots of things. Having had our fill of overpriced meals elsewhere, we were really looking forward to seeing how well (and how much) we could stretch our food budget… and our stomachs.
Here are the highlights (& a few lowlights) of what (& where) we ate during our five days in Madrid:
After doing a little bit of research into local street food, I knew exactly what I wanted our first taste of Madrid to be and just where to get it. So, after dropping off our bags at our awesome apartment in the hyper-local Trafalgar neighborhood, Tony & I made a beeline for the city’s center, the Plaza Mayor. Most tourists head here to eat overpriced meals looking out onto the square, but those in the know do as the locals do and head to the side streets where there are tons of little restaurants and bars selling the city’s most popular snack, the bocadillo de calamares (aka fried squid sandwich). Practically every restaurant bordering the exterior of the Plaza Mayor serves up these babies (we found this map helpful), but we got our fix at Cerveceria La Campana. At just €2,70 (~$3US), they are a really filling and satisfying meal for very little money. Although the sandwiches are traditionally served unadorned, we asked the guy behind the bar if we could have some salsa roja (mildly spicy tomato sauce) to squirt on ours. Based on the slightly confused look we got from him, clearly the local mentality is that you don’t need much to make a heaping pile of freshly fried squid taste good, but we felt the little bit of spice made the sandwich even better. Sure, most of the locals looked at us like we were kind of crazy, but we also caught a few creeping up afterwards to do the same to theirs! Alongside a caña (small glass of beer) and a free dish of olives, this was an excellent meal to welcome us to Madrid!
Next up on our Spanish food hit list was some of the lauded local pork products. Having read about the near-magical properties of prized Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico), we made our way to the aptly named, Museo del Jamón, to taste some. Iberian ham makes up just 8% of Spain’s annual ham production and has only recently become available in the United States where its rarity means it sells for upwards of $52/lb! Because of Museo del Jamón’s affordable lunch specials, we were able to order a platter of Iberian ham and a plate of pâté and Manchego cheese. The ham was dense, not unlike a jerky (likely due to the lengthy 24-month ageing process), but also silky and buttery on the palate. It didn’t quite melt in our mouths, but it wasn’t far from it. The flavor was quite strong rather than delicate, something I would simply describe as concentrated porkiness (a piggy punch to the mouth?).
The ham was good, but I think the real winner of the meal was the jug of tinto de verano that we ordered. Most people come to Spain and automatically assume it will be sangria all around, but we had been warned that as far as wine punches go, sangria is strictly quaffed by tourists. Instead, locals will order tinto de verano, which is much less effort to make and therefore a fraction of the cost of sangria, but no less delicious. It’s fruity, it’s bubbly, it tastes like summer in a glass. We ordered this all around Madrid, and would frequently buy a bottle of premixed tinto from the supermarket at the end of the day so we could sip it at our leisure on our balcony. We kind of drank it like soda, which, maybe explains why our feelings towards Madrid are so warm and fuzzy… Nothing like a light buzz to make us affectionate! 😀
The last “must-eat” item on our Madrid food list was an authentic Spanish tortilla. Unlike their Mexican counterparts, tortillas in Spain refer to what is essentially a thick egg omelet (think of a crustless quiche or a frittata and you’ve pretty much got it), that can be served either hot or cold, and can either be quite firm or rather runny. Traditionally tortillas include thin slices of potato in them, but our AirBnB hosts recommended a nearby restaurant that made a variation that used zucchini (calabacín) instead and, in their humble opinion, was the best tortilla in the city. We went and ordered a huge honking slice of tortilla de calabacín and then went and ate it in front of fountain in a neighboring plaza.
What is there to say about Spanish tortilla except that it’s pretty much exactly what you would expect of room temperature eggs and zucchini. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really very thrilling or especially delicious either; personally, I would take quiche over this any day of the week. Why this is one of Spain’s most famous dishes, I cannot say, as it was one of the most disappointing things we tried. Maybe it’s better in one of its other incarnations? (Warm? Runny? Potato-laden?)
For most, Spanish tortilla most properly seems like it would be a breakfast dish, but it’s more often consumed for lunch or as a tapa in Madrid. Instead, locals turn to sweeter fare to start their day, and so did we. Heading to famed local establishment Chocolatería San Ginés which is open 24 hours a day, we split an order of the unofficial breakfast of Madrid: Churros con Chocolate. Long sticks of slightly sweet dough are deep fried and then eaten alongside a mug of thick hot chocolate. Rather than sipping the chocolate, you instead dip pieces of your churro into the slightly bitter dark chocolate (which is really a tarlike syrup). It’s utterly decadent, not unlike having dessert for breakfast, and without caution can teach you the truth of “too much of a good thing”. We so enjoyed our split order that the next time we went out for churros, we each ordered our own portion. What a mistake! It’s such a rich dish that neither of us could finish a full serving on our own and then felt greasy like we had rubbed a carnival on our faces and were vaguely queasy for the next few hours. Consider yourselves warned: with churros con chocolate, moderation is key!
Our piggishness with the churros was our tipping point with food in Madrid. Everything we ate was SO good, but it was also SO rich. We wanted to keep trying everything and stuffing our faces, but we worried our cholesterol levels wouldn’t be able to take it and we might wind up limping to Lisbon with gout if we kept up our decadent ways. So, we decided we’d do one massive food bender in a self-guided tapas crawl and then go a bit easier on our pancreases.
Quick internet research might suggest that you should head to Mercado San Miguel to kick off any tapas tastings in Madrid, but Tony & I disagree. Although San Miguel market is very swanky and slick and filled with many beautiful food stalls, we found it quite touristy and really overpriced compared to most of Madrid’s restaurants. We certainly enjoyed wandering around gazing at all the mouth-watering displays, but ultimately it was a feast for our eyes and nothing more.
Instead, we kicked things off at the nearby Meson del Champiñon, where we stuck with their specialty and ordered the stuffed mushroom caps. Brimming with garlic, butter, and a nugget of chorizo sausage, these little calorie-bombs were every bit as good as you would expect.
We then wandered (slowly) over to one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, La Latina, which is packed with hip and happening tapas bars. We popped into La Perejila because of how cute and quirky it was and ordered up two cañas and toast slathered in blood sausage and pine nuts, and then lightly drizzled with creamy cheese and spicy pepper sauces. The food was tasty and the joint was jumping!
Regretfully, after just two stops, our stomachs were close to bursting so we decided to wind up our tapas crawl with a stop at Taberna Almendro 13. I’m so glad that we persevered and saved a little space, because the dish we ordered here was probably my favorite discovery in Madrid. Famed for their huevos rotos, we ordered up a plate of crispy homemade potato chips that were covered in soft-cooked eggs and crispy morsels of ham. So, so good; on a return visit to Madrid, this dish would probably be the first one that I would seek out! Perhaps it’s not surprising I loved this since, as a Canadian, I kind of think of this as Spain’s poutine.
I know it seems like three tapas split between two people would not be an overindulgence, but in many places we were really being served raciones, which are larger portions rather than just a few mouthfuls. AND because we ordered drinks at every restaurant, our bellies were being filled with beer as well as the complimentary tapas (generally olives, but sometimes sausage, and nuts) that accompany every drink order. I’ve heard that in some cities in Spain you can easily make a meal out of the tapas (or pinxto/pincho) that you get, but Madrid seems a bit miserly on that front as the tapas were generally more like the free snacks bars are sometimes required to give out in North America. And sometimes, as in the case where we were served mini microwaved hotdogs (the worst thing we ate in Madrid!), they can be downright odious!
Following our big night out, we self-catered the majority of our meals as it must be said that as delicious as Spanish food is, it can also be very rich and heavy too. We found ourselves craving vegetables and the fresh, lighter flavors of Asian cuisine… something we probably could have indulged in, since Madrid has a limited number of foreign eateries, though perhaps not so many as you would expect from a capital city. Our AirBnB hosts actually told us that they generally head to Barcelona when they feel the need for the beach and Vietnamese food, so that should tell you something about the state of foreign food in Madrid.
During our visit, it looked like the city’s first Vietnamese restaurant had recently opened up, but we were worried that we would likely find it disappointing and decided to skip it. That was probably for the best, and we limited our final two restaurant adventures to cuisine slightly more in Spain’s wheelhouse.
Based on this recommendation, we headed to La Tona for Andalusian food (and their fantastic Thursday lunch special) because—like many great food nations—different parts of Spain have different specialties and iconic dishes. Since we wouldn’t have time for a trip down to Seville as we had originally hoped, we figured this was the next best thing. We ordered patatas bravas (crispy fried potato chunks dressed with a spicy, tangy tomato sauce), tortillitas de gambas (chick pea fritters with bits of shrimp in them), and a torta serranito (sandwich filled with Serrano ham, beef steak, and grilled green peppers). Everything was excellent and, once again, we had more food than we could reasonably finish. My favorite was probably the tortillitas de gambas, which actually reminded me a bit of Thai fish cakes (but without the curry/herb flavors)!
Then, on the recommendation of our hosts, we checked out San Wich, a Chilean burger shop that is beloved by Madrileños. I ordered the grilled chicken burger (called the Valadora and topped with melon chutney, grilled zucchini, tomatoes and leafy greens) because it sounded vaguely healthy, while Tony ordered the Chacarero which featured thinly sliced steak, covered with green beans (?!), tomato, mayo and a spicy salsa on the side. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say these were the best burgers in the world (or even the best burgers we had ever had), the food was fresh and tasty, and we were grateful that it was much lighter than the traditional Spanish cooking we had been sampling!
Not every dish we tried in Madrid was a winner, but I’m happy to report that the overwhelming majority of the food we sampled was delicious and enjoyable. We may have overdone it on decadent dishes slightly, but we had so much fun trying all the new, novel creations that it was hard to exercise restraint… and we still only dipped a toe in the deep waters that make up Spanish cuisine. You could probably spend a year in Madrid and hit up a different restaurant or tapas bar and try a new dish every night. I’m confident we left the city five days later several pounds heavier—than when we arrived and certainly far more satisfied than we felt after eating our way through other European capitals like Paris or Rome.
And for all the people who dismiss Madrid as having nothing to do? Hopefully this post disproves that notion pretty handily. Spend your time eating all that you can and I’m fairly certain you won’t be disappointed… or have the motivation to do much else!
Now it’s your turn: If you’ve been to Spain, what is your favorite dish that you’ve tried? If you haven’t, which of these dishes would you most want to try?