How are Spanish tapas like Fight Club? Tapas in Spain are completely different from tapas in the U.S. I’ll tell you what you need to know to get the most enjoyment from your tapas.
I’ve seen some who think that tapas means Spanish food. Admittedly, I’m disappointed when I see a restaurant or bar with tapas in the name only to find out that they don’t have Spanish food.
Comparing the tapas I’ve had, a tapa in the United States is about a quarter of an appetizer at double the price.
I’d like to begin this very short episode with a story.
Once upon a time, while we were visiting my in-laws in Madrid, my wife asked me, “Honey, do you want to go shopping with us?”
I replied, “Yes!”
Spanish is easier to learn because each vowel only has one sound. In English, a has different sounds:
Short a: As in half, calf, Have to laugh.
Long a: As in crazy, brave rave. Oh, behave.
Schwa a (sounds like a letter u): again, balloon, amazing (has a schwa a sound and a long a sound)
Umlaut a (ä): Soccer, hockey, amen.
That is the only a sound in Spanish. Patatas bravas para las tapas. Spanish poets must have it so easy.
Tapas in the U.S.
Overpriced. Usually trendy, upscale places. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just know that when you go out for tapas here in the States, you’re not getting the same experience. You’re getting a nice experience. There is a tapas bar in Dallas that I love.
Tapas en España
Tapas is like a bonus snack. Remember when bars served bowls of beer nuts? They gave you a little snack. That’s kinda like tapas.
A History of Tapas
Here is the history of tapas, according to my brother-in-law. I don’t recount my brother-in-law’s history because of its authenticity, by the way. I enjoy his stories enough that I don’t concern myself with how true they are.
Listening to his stories about Spanish history is a lot like watching the news here in the states. It’s entertaining, if not informative.
Drizella: Mother! Do you realize what you just said?
Stepmother: Of course. I said, “If.”
Drizella: [realizing] Oh! “If.”
There is really no solidified history of the origin of tapas. Some of the legends are better than others. My brother-in-law’s is the best. It resonates with me.
A long time ago, in a Madrid far far away, the police were too busy dealing with drunks at night. To help cut down on drunkenness, without the absurd notion of cutting down on drinking, the king ordered that bartenders had to serve a little food with drinks.
A more accurate history, you will probably find. But you won’t find a history that resonates more with the Travel Wizard.
How to Order Tapas
That’s the beauty of tapas: You don’t order tapas.
It’s Like Culinary Fight Club
The first rule of tapas is: You don’t order tapas. The second rule of tapas is: You don’t order tapas.
So when you go into a restaurant and they have a tapas menu, it’s not tapas. It’s mini appetizers. I love appetizers of any size, but you don’t order tapas.
You order your drink. Beer, wine, whatever, and the bartender will give you a tapa. You don’t pick which tapa you get. Whatever you do, don’t ask for a specific tapa. It’s just not done that way. If you like a particular tapa, there is a way you can get it. Be patient.
Enjoy the Luxury of the Bartender Deciding For You
You don’t get to decide what tapa you get. Or, the way I see it, you don’t have to decide. To me, food is food. Sometimes I’m hungry for a certain thing, but usually, I just need fuel. I don’t want to waste time or energy looking at options, weighing them, and making a decision.
With tapas, you get right to the food. When other servers are giving you a menu that you’ll have to peruse, assuming you speak the language, assuming it’s not smudged with grease and ketchup, Spanish bartenders are giving you snacks!
You get what you get. Tapas are not a meal. A tapa is not even a shareable plate. They’re just a little bit of caloric magic on a plate. The Travel Wizard has spoken.
What Exactly Do You Get As Tapas?
It depends on where you go. If you’re in Puerta del Sol, it’s the touristy shopping district in Madrid, you probably don’t get tapas. When we were there in 2014, most of the bars there were giving bowls of potato chips. Think Lays. And, Oh, I relished those chips. When we went in 2018, most bars in Sol weren’t giving tapas any more.
In some bars in less trendy neighborhoods, you’ll get a good-sized bowl of paella, a decent-sized bocadillo, or even a few big pieces of shrimp. In the neighborhood where my brother-in-law works, I got full on tapas.
An Important Note on Bocadillos Vs. Sandwiches
Since I mentioned bocadillo. When Spain, never ever ever order a sandwich. You will occasionally see “Sandwich” on the menu. You’ll get two slices of the lamest white bread that’s ever stuck to the roof of your mouth and a slice of ham that has to be imported from the United States. Learn this word, bocadillo. You’ll get a nice baguette-style bread with melt-in-your-mouth Jamon Serrano and probably some manchego cheese soaked in olive oil. Maybe some roasted peppers. Bocadillo.
Back to Tapas
You might get mini bocadillos. One bar gave us bowls of what seemed like a combination of pork skins and bacon. It was tiny bites of pork with fat still on it, fried and crispy. Oh mi gatos, it was delicious.
One bar gave us cheese and crackers. It was the manchego cheese soaked in olive oil. We want back to that bar a couple of times.
Other frequent tapas are the empanadas, croquettas, or slices of Spanish tortilla. A Spanish tortilla is kinda like a potato omelet made with potato, eggs, and onion. It might be the second most delicious thing you ever eat. My wife makes killer tortillas. I call them Killortillas.
Just kidding. Such nonsense would be undignified. And sully the sanctity of tortillas.
Tapas Ain’t Aways Pretty
Ensalada ruso, a potato salad is a frequent tapa.
Usually, bars will have a display case on the bar. Most of the tapas will be in it. Sometimes you see a dish made from mayonnaise and wonder how long it had sitting in that display case that day. I recommend that you be your own judge, Get out of your comfort zone, but not too funcomfortable. I can tell you that although some of the food in the cases has looked a trifle disgusting, I have never been made sick by food in Spain.
Other Ways to Serve Food
So what if you get a tapa that you love and you absolutely have to have more of it. Or what if you simply want more to eat?
This is how you order tapas. Raciones are pretty much appetizers. They are on the menu. You can order them. Usually, not always, but usually, if you enjoy a particular tapa, you can order that same dish as a racion.
It’s not included. You’ll pay for it, just like an appetizer. Unlike a tapa.
When we’d go out with a larger group, we’d order raciones, bugger dishes we could all share. I would say that tapas here are more like raciones in Spain, but the tapas here are too small to be raciones.
Many bars will also have plates you can order, usually a protein with a side or two.
Menu del Dia
Then there is the Mene del Dia. The menu of the day. This is what everybody would order when we dined with just the family. Everybody, that is, except for my wife and me. We almost ordered raciones. It drove my mother-in-law crazy. She thought we should all order from the menu of the day.
Every menu del dia gives you the choice of an entre, one or two sides, a dessert, and a drink. Some restaurants will bring the items out one at a time and others bring the main dish and sides together.
I never once complained about the amount of food they served with the menu del dia. All the restaurants served generous portions.
Prices May Vary Based on Where You Sit
You might think that getting complimentary snacks with your drink would mean your drink costs more. That is not the case. Another thing I love about Madrid is beers in bars are pretty inexpensive. In the States, it doesn’t surprise me to pay $4 to $8 for a beer. $10 in a nicer place.
We rarely paid more than 2.50€ for even for the larger sized beers. I’ll soon record an episode about drinking in Madrid, but this post is about tapas. However, the prices of drinks and food will vary based on where you sit:
- At the Bar
- At a Table
- On the Terrace
I like to belly up to a bar. Luckily for me, in some bars, food and drinks are less expensive when you sit at the bar. It makes sense. The bartender just hands it to you versus having to bring it out to you.
I also love sitting outside on a terrace. Unfortunately for me, in some bars, food and drinks are most expensive when you sit out on the terrace. It makes sense. The bartender or server has to bring the food and drink to you outside. I went to a couple of bars where servers had to cross a busy street to bring you food and drinks.
Sitting inside the bar at a table is slightly more expensive than sitting at the bar and slightly less expensive than sitting out on the terrace.
Enjoy the extra value of working with a Travel Advisor at no cost to you!
Please share it with some friends while you’re there.
Next on The Travel Wizard: Episode 08: What would you like me to talk about?
Previously on The Travel Wizard: Episode 06: Adventures By Disney Danube River Cruise.