Spanish Cuisine in a Tex-Mex Town

There’s a new kind of tortilla in Austin

El Chipirón (Photo by John Anderson)

Austinites may love tortillas, but generally they think of them as corn and flour wrappers for breakfast tacos. But a new tortilla – the Spanish omelette-like staple with onions and potatoes – is taking hold at restaurants across Austin.

Unlike the perpetually popular Tex-Mex cuisine, Spanish food drifts in and out of vogue. There are times when paella is worthy of competition and there are other moments when foodies will turn their nose up at the idea of calling simple, brined olives a worthy appetizer. But through the waves, a handful of restaurants ride the current and consistently offer a taste of the Iberian Peninsula to Central Texans. Though there are not many spots to choose from within the city, Austin nevertheless does a respectable job of offering a nuanced menu of tapas and regional specialties to discerning Central Texas foodies. Here are the four restaurants that help paint the tableau.

Unlike the perpetually popular Tex-Mex cuisine, Spanish food drifts in and out of vogue.

The Trailblazer

According to chef Daniel Olivella at Barlata, Spanish food is simple. Its flair comes from the high-quality products that are essential to every dish. The restaurant doesn't bother to tout the quality of their ingredients; Olivella figures good ingredients are not a mark of exception, they are the bare minimum requirement for a dish.

Of course, when this Barcelona native and his wife Vanessa Jerez, whose family is from Madrid, opened Barlata four years ago, it was among the first of its kind (only Malaga and Fino were open at the time), so they had the authority to define Spanish cuisine in Austin. Thankfully, the duo did not want to define so much as represent their heritage.

"There's this desire to bring part of our culture here through the wines and the food and the way we try to portray things," said Olivella. Barlata set the stage with an expansive 70-item menu. "In Austin 10 years ago maybe we would not have survived because the food expectation was not as enthusiastic as now," said Olivella. However, "people were hungry, we came at the right time," said Jerez. "I almost feel like we kind of started a trend here."

Both she and Olivella maintain that their love of sharing Spanish culture is what keeps Barlata going. Now they say you see people savoring oxtail and pigs' feet alongside patatas bravas and garlic-roasted shrimp. "You've really got to give kudos to the American foodies because they take adventures in food," said Olivella.

Keeping the balance is not, however, easy. Olivella says frankly, "We're here every day pick and shovel defending the jersey." Jerez counters that despite their efforts, their philosophy is simple. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be fast, the food is going to be great."

The Memoirist

You won't find crumpled napkins and crumbs littering the floors of Bullfight. Its aim is not to be a noisy tasca from Madrid. Although its name evokes classic Spanish iconography, this Northeast Austin eatery is Shawn Cirkiel's – the kitchen creative behind Parkside Projects – interpretation of his own memories of Spanish cuisine.

Cirkiel describes his approach to Spanish food as a clarification of expectations. "People can't really describe Spanish food," he said. As a result, the food that comes out of an Austin kitchen is not going to be exactly what you had in Seville. "For us, it's always trying to fulfill what the guest wants. You make people happy. If they're not happy, there's no point," Cirkiel explained.

He pushed back at any suggestion that his take on the cuisine was inauthentic or disingenuous. "A tapas bar in Spain is a very unique cultural experience based on fusion between a neighborhood and bar," he said. In Austin, this culture does not exist, and it is therefore impossible to truly transplant tapas since experience is as much an ingredient as any spice.

For some who have dined in Spain, Cirkiel says, it can be difficult to relinquish their expectation of what Spanish food should be. "We do an interpretation because that's all it can be. You can't re-create memories, you can't re-create the same thing – the palates are different, the people are different – but you can evoke, you can inspire, and you can have fun."

The Ambassador

After wandering over 650 miles of Spanish countryside, Boca's Patrick Armstrong knew he was in love with Spanish cuisine. "It was not just food, but what goes along with why people like good food – the culture, the camaraderie, the wine that goes with it," he explained.

Unfortunately, not even his ardent love affair with food could keep Armstrong, a half-Texan, half-Mexican, on Spanish soil. So when he returned to Austin he decided to satisfy his unabated cravings by opening a Spanish restaurant on wheels. However, he says that despite his love of Spain, he couldn't forget his Mexican roots. His solution was to fuse the two cultures together in the kitchen. "Why wouldn't you use Spanish chorizo on a breakfast taco?" he asked.

Surprisingly, through his adventures, Armstrong has discovered that "some people are confused about Spanish food. They think Spanish food is Mexican food." Although this is far from the case, this confusion plays into the concept that Armstrong has created at Boca. If there was uncertainty between the two cuisines already, he figured there was no reason not to play with people's preconceptions further. "You have that muscle memory in your brain of what things are supposed to taste like. That expectation, I can play with it now. I can reinforce the memory they already have or create a new one that's just as good. They can have two memories, why not?"

The Artist

This summer, South Austin was introduced to a new approach to Spanish cuisine with the opening of El Chipirón. After four years of preparation, and a cross-continental move from Madrid, chef Pablo Gomez finally opened his doors only to have his ideas for his restaurant be redirected by the Austin food scene. "The menu has been a struggle from the very beginning," Gomez admits. After losing a few vendors and facing the realities of American kitchen culture, Gomez decided to take a new approach. "Right now we are changing. My sous chef and [a] third are giving me all the input from an American perspective," he said.

The mix of approaches makes El Chipirón a decidedly contemporary restaurant. "The idea is to do classical Spanish recipes, classical flavors, but do them with a more modern flair in terms of techniques and presentation," he says. Luckily for him, he finds the variety of flavor between Spanish regions is such that he has "a lot of options to work with." A prime example of his lofty ideals in action is his ham and tomato bubble where he packs classic Spanish flavors into an unusual globular presentation that demands you reconsider what "simple" food is.

So why would he go through all this trouble to re-create a cuisine that is relatively unfamiliar to Austinites? Chef Gomez's reasoning was simple. "It's more fun, it's more playful," he explained.

Despite all of this, Gomez keeps one Spanish tradition unaltered. "Here we give tapas whenever someone is having an alcoholic drink," he says. Because even for him, there are some things that are too integral to Spanish cuisine to reinterpret.

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Shawn Cirkiel, Daniel Olivella, Vanessa Jerez, Patrick Armstrong, Pablo Gomez

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