Sunday, December 7, 2008
TBG's Friend Eats: Spain
Over the summer, Jeff Fernandez passed along his gastrointestinal report from Israel. It was such a fun read that he offered up another one from his recent trip to Spain.
The people of Madrid (madrileños, as they refer to themselves) have an eating regimen that's unlike anything I've ever experienced. They eat a breakfast just like most others, but take a two-hour lunch period in mid-late afternoon (during which time almost everything in town closes down) and then proceed to snack throughout the evening and finally eat dinner around 10pm or later.
Of the Spanish raciones that I tried, I think my favorite was either the gambas al ajillo or the gambas a la plancha. Both are shrimp, though they're served in completely different ways. The former is a shallow ceramic bowl filled with small shrimp (think popcorn shrimp-size), sliced garlic, some dried red peppers and olive oil and then cooked over an open flame until it boils. The bowl is then served to the patron with a side of bread for soaking up the olive oil. This fucking kicked ass, seriously. I ate it at least six or seven times throughout the course of five days. The other shrimp dish is much simpler, but it's not for the squeamish. It's a platter of six to eight shrimp grilled with salt and olive oil, though once cooked, they're served alone on a plate with the heads, legs and shells still intact. You pull all of that stuff off, but not before sucking the juices out of the head. It sounds disgusting, but it's a sweet salty treat that may very well be the cure for cancer. I ate this quite a few times as well.
The lomo embuchado, a cured pork loin sliced and grilled, was delicious when served with a fried egg and some tuna salad on the side. Tuna salad here still has mayo, but that's about where the similarity ends. The concoction also boasts diced potatoes (not unlike in potato salad), green olives, carrots and sometimes peas and other vegetables.
I was a bit disappointed by the chorizo, which is one of my favorite foods when served in its Mexican-style incarnation. The Spanish version, which no doubt is the original, is served more like a hot link or Italian sausage, and tastes a lot more similar. The Spanish don't really eat a lot of spicy food, and this is about as spicy as it gets, though it doesn't really hold a candle to the spicy Mexican chorizo available in North America.
Speaking of things that differ from the Mexican variation, the tortilla española isn't even close to what you probably think it is. It is neither used to make tacos or low-carb substitute submarine sandwiches. Here, a tortilla is essentially a thick, pizza-sized omelet made with potatoes (patatas) and then sliced into smaller portions. It's a popular breakfast item, as it soaks up alcohol very well.
But the gastronomic pride of Spain is undoubtedly jamón iberico, a type of ham made from the Black Iberian Pig, which resembles Italian prosciutto. The most expensive type is made from pigs that were exclusively fed acorns, while lower grades were also able to eat hazelnuts and other similar things. I had previously seen Andrew Zimmern eating this on an episode of Bizarre Foods, where he said that one can taste the acorns in the fat of the ham. This is very true. It has a rich, earthy taste (and is plenty greasy and salty), so for those of you who cut the fat off of your meat, you probably won't dig it as much, as the fat does come with the territory. It was good, but not something for which I would pay $80/pound again. The locals eat it by the slice, and also serve it in everything from sandwiches to atop small pieces of bread or crackers as a snack. You can tell that a place serves it by looking see if they have a pig leg (with hoof still intact) either hanging in the window or sitting on a serrano stand inside.
The McDonald's I visited was just across the street from the busy Gran Vía subway station. This is just about a five-minute walk from Puerta del Sol, and another five minutes from the Plaza Mayor, both of which are huge tourist destinations (the latter is probably number one), so it's always going whether it's three in the afternoon or three in the morning. (On the other side of the street from the McDonald's, if you go south on Calle de la Montera about 200 feet, you've got a load of street prostitutes and sex shops, if that's your thing. Just saying.)
[If you want to see the actual menu items, click on the "Que Me Tomo Hoy" on the McDonald's home page. - TBG]
I didn't have it, but it's all over the place. It's a large, elliptical-shaped beef patty nestled in a ciabatta bun with lettuce, tomato and a slice of Swiss cheese. It looked good, but it was nothing exotic enough for me to go with, as they had even better things on the menu...
CBO stands for "Chicken, Bacon, Onions"... yes, they're going with the full-on English experience here, and this is quite possibly the greatest thing that I've ever tasted at a McDonald's anywhere—better than the McCountry, better than the McKebbab and even better than the limited-edition Beef Wennington (available for a limited time in Chicago in the '90s to commemorate the Chicago Bulls' end-of-the-bench center). It's about the size of the larger chicken sandwiches available at American outlets, except along with the crispy chicken breast filet comes a few slices of bacon, crispy onion strings, lettuce, cheese, tomato and what tastes sort of like a thousand-island-type sauce, except it's white. Top it all off with square-shaped, ciabatta-type sesame-seed bun and we have ourselves one of the greatest things to ever be offered at the Golden Arches. Oh yeah... and the bun also has real bacon bits on it. Better book that flight now before prices go up again.
Capricho Francés and Capricho Italiano
Capricho literally means "fancy," though in this case I reckon it's meant to be taken more as "deluxe," as in "French (or Italian) Deluxe" sandwich. I think we all remember how that went for McDonald's the last time around, but these sandwiches are better than anything from the ill-fated Arch Deluxe line. Being as I am glutton, and I wasn't sure when or if I'd be back again before I left the country, I ordered both the Capricho Francés and the Capricho Italiano. The former is a regular-sized burger patty on a ciabatta bun with lettuce, tomato and honey dijon mustard. I can't recall if it had cheese, too, but the Italiano is leaps and bounds above it in either case. It isn't just a different type of burger; it's a chicken sandwich, and quite possibly the best chicken sandwich I've ever eaten at a McDonald's. It's about the size of a McChicken, but the patty is garnished with lettuce, tomato and two (count 'em... TWO) different sauces—a zesty marinara-type sauce and a creamy tzadziki-type sauce. To make things even better, it's on split-top bun dusted with a mix of zesty Italiano herbs, with oregano being the only one that I can identify by name.
I didn't eat at Burger King, because they didn't seem to have anything that I couldn't get back at home (although if you were upset when they discontinued the Big King, they do still have that). What did, however, catch my attention was their version of the Original Chicken Sandwich. Much like the Burger Kings here, they've got the Tendercrisp, as well as the classic, long chicken-patty sandwich, which they've so aptly named... Long Chicken. I shit you not. I'm quite certain that every English-speaking person that's happened to pass by has had a laugh at the expense of Burger King over this. Seeing as it's also called that Germany and the Netherlands, both of which are home to a large amount of English speakers, they seem to be having a bit of fun with it.