Tune in to Tapas

Little Spanish Bar Snacks

Louie's 106

106 E. Sixth St., 476-2010
Mon.-Thu. 10:15am-10pm; Fri. 10:15am-11pm;
Sat. 5:15pm-11pm; Sun 5:15pm-9:30pm

The single best piece of advice I ever received about Spain came from my third cousin Maria, who told me "When in doubt, head for the nearest bar."

The subject at hand was food, and Maria -- my stepfather's second cousin's daughter (you do the math) -- had spent a few years studying in Madrid and eating her way around the country, and not necessarily in that order. She loved to talk about Spain's history and natural beauty, but conversations always came back to food -- bar food in particular. "For coffee in the morning, go to any bar. If
you need a snack, go to a bar. And around 8pm, go to a bar for tapas -- they'reGod'slittle appetizers. You'll enjoy it. Trust me."

So the first day in Madrid, I found a neighborhood bar. Somewhere between a standard liquor bar and a French café, the trusty Spanish taverna provides thick coffee in the morning, sandwiches during siesta time, and a little beer (caña) just about any time. Around 8pm, though, busy attendants stack the bars with platters of bite-size foods --tiny marinated fish, thin slices of cured ham, cold salads of every description -- on which customers graze freely while drinking glasses of early evening wine.

The term tapas covers a lot of ground, referring more to a culinary form and a time of day rather than one specific dish. Spanish eating patterns revolve around the early afternoon siesta, a three-hour rest period that starts around 1:30pm and contains the day's heaviest meal. Following siesta, most Spaniards work until 8:30pm, and when their siesta-extended workday ends, they gather at narrow zinc-plated bars enjoying tapas as the plates stack up. When it's time to settle the bill, the bartender simply tabulates the amount based on the number of empty plates in front of you, and you're off.

The little bites don't constitute a full meal, but instead stimulate the appetite for dinner, which is served around 10:30pm -- late by non-Spanish standards. Taken at their traditional time, tapas bridge the gap between meals while providing opportunities for relaxation and conversation before returning home.

Variations on the tapas theme are almost infinite and reflect the diversity of Spain's regional cuisines. The Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal fisheries provide tapas bars throughout the country with an amazing variety of seafood options. In addition to native shellfish (mussels, clams and scallops served in simple tomato or wine sauces), intrepid tapatistas can munch on miniature pulpo (octopus) prepared en su tinta -- a sauce of its own ink. Smaller fish -- anchovies, sardines, and their cousin the smelt -- end up on tapas plates prepared just about every way imaginable. Bars in San Sebastian, port capital of Spanish Basque territory, specialize in pinchos -- perfectly grilled skewers of freshly caught shrimp and tuna. Mediterranean squid boats provide the whole country with calamare for salads, sautés, or quick deep-frying.

The inland regions, with their fertile farms and livestock areas, contribute countless non-aquatic specialties to the world of tapas. Simple combinations of bread and tart tomato, drizzled with olive oil, often sit beside bowls of green manzanilla olives from nearby orchards. Most tavernas serve the national pork specialty, jamon serrano, on sandwiches (bocadillos) or in thin slices. The salty smoked ham shows up on menus everywhere, often cut from the whole shank as you order. Ordering a tortilla in Spain gets you a firm egg-and-potato omelette similar to an Italian fritatta rather than the familiar flatbread we've come to know here.

Whatever the primary ingredients, tapas are served in portions just large enough to tease your taste buds. Dry sherries from the south of Spain are traditionally served as accompaniment, but glasses of local wine show up on the bar just as often. And always, the specific wine or choice of tapa is far less important than a leisurely pace of consumption.

Riding on the American trend toward lighter eating, upscale tapas bars have sprung up in most major American cities, and Austin is no exception. Aficionados can get their tapas fix at Louie's 106, a good place to sample traditional flavors one small plate at a time. Located on Sixth Street just off Congress, Louie's has been open for three years serving a neo-Mediterranean menu along with a deep wine and liquor list. Their tapas menu contains nearly 30 different types of tapas which can be ordered at the bar or sitting at one of their white-clothed tables.

Standing at the bar tends to feel more natural and less formal, but space can be limited, especially as the plates begin to pile up. If you have the option, stop in well before the dinner rush for maximum acreage. Light eaters will find that a couple of tapas can make a good change of pace for lunch. It's the perfect chance to decompress, Spanish-style.

Average tapas prices at Louie's run between $2-3 per plate, with some of the more complex dishes (such as the fried soft shell crab) inching toward the $6 mark. A couple of tapas with a glass of sherry or beer will set the average eater back about 10 bucks -- which isn't bad as quasi-fancy food experiences go. And the tapas menu is split almost equally between hot and cold dishes, which is especially nice during Austin's relentless summer heat. Slices of crusty house bread are a great base for the white asparagus salad marinated in a sweet red bell pepper vinaigrette. Italian proscuitto makes a suitable substitute for the elusive jamón, especially when teamed with sweet cantaloupe chunks. Marinated artichoke hearts and kalamata olives fill out the simpler end of the cold tapa spectrum, and soup lovers have the option of a cool Gazpacho Andaluz with crabmeat and avocado.

The "hot" section of the tapas menu offers traditional Spanish seafood dishes along with entries from other culinary traditions. The grilled sardine on hot bruschetta enhances the fish's naturally intense flavor with a fragrant garlic lemon butter. The smoked shrimp pizelle teams the featured crustacean with a pungent asiago cheese and makes for a full-flavored quesadilla variation. Calamari fans can try their tentacled favorite fried with a chile/garlic dipping sauce or sautéed with olive oil, lemon, and garlic. But, as always, exercise caution when ordering the fickle squid -- the sauteed version was a bit tough during our visit.

Louie's bar, in addition to being a good tapas table, features a range of different sherries at a reasonable price of $4, as well as a deep selection of ports, premium liquors, and coffee drinks. While the dining room's atmosphere is generally formal, it seems a downright comfortable when you're at the bar eating tapas and passing the time. It's not a neighborhood joint in Barcelona, but it'll do in a pinch. After a while, the tapas will take over and you'll face the evening with a more relaxed outlook. You'll enjoy it. Trust me. n

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