YOU MAY HAVE HAD tapas’-sized plates — a few portions of sharables maybe twice as large as a grocery store sample size. A meal where the point is not the food, but the telepathy of total sharing, conversation, and interactions around the table (you definitely haven’t eaten tapas alone). But that doesn’t mean it’s tapas. Having fallen prey to false advertising myself, here’s a quick and guide for figuring out if you’re actually eating tapas–or if it’s just 7-course meal of appetizers.
Check your surroundings.
Are you in Spain? No? Sorry, not tapas.
The chef may be Spanish. “A serious scholar of Iberian cooking turns out timeworn originals,” the review will say. Tables may be elevated, and you may be seated on a barstool next to a stranger, eating jamón serrano. Sorry bro, you’re in SoHo, where you’re supposed to leave 20% and they have more than one kind of beer on tap. Not to mention the fact that your croquetas are twice as small and cost twice as much as those sold in a real tapas bar. And those olives didn’t come from the bartender’s uncle’s sister’s neighbor’s garden. It might look, feel, taste, and even be Spanish, but if you’re not in la madre patria, you’re not eating tapas.
This is where things get confusing. For even if you are in Spain, you might be up north in the Basque Country, where they eat pintxos (peen-chos) and everything feels clean and remodeled and and they don’t have the little metal gutters below the bar where you can throw your napkins on the ground.
But if you just whacked your nose against a cured, hanging pig’s leg that’s dripping oil into a cone cup, you’re off to a good start.
Look around. Who is with you?
The Clientele: It’s always a welcome sign when there’s a short elderly woman demanding a quick morning beer on her way to the market. There should be at least a couple old men wearing flat caps in or around the entrance, wearing knit sweaters regardless of the weather outside. They should walk with their hands behind their backs at all times.
If you’re at a tapas bar, everyone must be yelling at all times, squawking about football, politics, or family. No one should be seeking another’s permission to share the food. If you find anyone suffering awkward moments of silence, that’s not a good sign–even if it really is a tapas place.
The Waiter: If he tells you his name, tries to convince you that he will be ‘taking care of you tonight’, or greets you with a question or anything other than a curt Digame, you are not eating tapas. If he comes to check on you, offers you dessert, or gives the slightest shit about whether you enjoyed the food, you are not eating tapas. The harder it is to summon the check, the more likely it is that you’re eating tapas.
The Others: Permanently smiling accordion performers playing the same song over and over again. The roaming hollow bodies of the lottery ticket salesmen. Senegalese guys selling bracelets, sunglasses, watches or bootleg CDs from 2002. These and any others who float in and out of the establishment are usually good indicators that you’re at a tapas place, or at least in a country where people don’t freak out at solicitors.
The Hostess: There shouldn’t be one.
Observe the menu.
No one should get their own menu, and if there is one at all, it should be small, one page, pictureless, and at best, laminated. If it contains multiple pages, binding, side options, combo meals, or colorful inserts, you’re either at Cafe y Te or not eating tapas.
If the menu items are anything but a la carte, hyphenated, or contain more than two words (garlic-cilantro chili-braised duck sliders or Kobe beef carpaccio, for instance), much less any description of what the hell it is, no es tapas.
If a tapas place has pictures of the food, they will be on backlit, fluorescent signage and appear to have been taken in the 1980s.
Beer selection: minimal. Wine selection: vast. Jamón selection: the vaster the better.
Some tapas places won’t have tapas. They’ll only serve raciones or media raciones, larger portions of the same stuff because it doesn’t make sense to cook a single serving of fried anchovies or patatas bravas. Do not discount a place merely because it does not serve tapas.
Try the food.
As the first delectable bite reaches your distinguished palate, seek out notes of exotic seasonings and spices, flavor combinations that redefine your understanding of taste. Having obtained gastronomic nirvana, realize you are about as far from tapas as you can possibly be.
If, on the other hand, you get a plate of plain, fried calamari that’s tougher than beef jerky and taste is irrelevant in the face of your effort to cut and chew it, there may yet be hope that you’re eating tapas. To be sure, ask the waiter if he has any dipping sauces. If he brings back a cup of way too much mayonnaise, and later overcharges you for it, you’re definitely eating tapas.
Pay for it.
This method of evaluation works particularly good in groups. If you’re with one or more people, request that the bill be separated. If the waiter is happy to fulfill the request, what you just ate was most certainly not tapas. If, however, the waiter looks at you as though you just cursed every one of his maternal ancestors, it’s possible that you’ve been eating tapas.
If you’re hoping that you just ate tapas, you’ll want to receive a small wicker basket for passing around to collect everyone’s money. Throw in what you owe to the nearest round number; you shouldn’t be using anything smaller than one euro coins. If you feel like you ended up paying for someone else’s meal, all the better are your chances that this was actually tapas, and not just some a well-reviewed Spanish restaurant in Chelsea.
Get introspective for a minute: Are you extremely full? You shouldn’t be. Got a to-go box? Well, they don’t have those at a tapas place, so…
What time is it? If it’s almost midnight, your group has suddenly doubled in size, and your mouth is aching for something fried and a cleansing caña, then get ready for the next spot across the street, and repeat.