Can you pronounce this correctly?
No, of course you can’t. Neither can I.
And it portends magic when combined with another word.
As in Euskal Etxea Taberna.
A bar/restaurant in Barcelona, in El Born.
If I could live in a restaurant, this would be my home. I would establish a comfy spot up front, near the bar, and I would reside there, taking calls on the house phone, writing on a laptop, sketching and holding court.
At the tapas bar. The pintxos bar, to be precise.
Pintxos —Basque tapas.
And here, at Euskal Etxea Taberna, pintxos reign, with more to choose from than you can sample in a sitting.
Find a plate, scour the double-decker display bar, select the pintxo that interests you. Order a cold beer or glass of wine and indulge — either standing at the bar or seated at one of the tiny tables set around the edge of the small space. Each pintxo comes with a toothpick in it (“pintxo,” I am told, translates as “sword point” or “spear point”). Keep the toothpicks and, at the end of the night, present them to the cashier and you get a bill. They trust you.
As in, easy to overindulge.
Kathy and I did it a couple times in a recent visit to this wonderful city.
But not without suffering, first.
There are a couple ways to travel. One is the tour. This minimizes the chances for problems; everything is taken care of — travel, food, sites. On a tour, you are packed into a bus or a boat with a bunch of geriatric Americans and you are shepherded, usually very quickly, to and through “the highlights.” You pay for it; your mind is put to rest. It is a sissy’s way to travel.
The problem: your time is strictly regulated. There is a schedule; there are few chances to stray from the determined path and almost no opportunities to let coincidence, disruption or distress lead to lengthy, unexpected and often magical moments.
The other mode is to make travel and lodging reservations on your own; you book into an affordable place in a town or city (no telling how good the establishment will be) and you wing it while you are there. When you are done with one place, you fly, drive or take a train to another place and start over. Where you go, what you see, when you do things, is entirely up to you.
The advantage is clear: you manage your day. You can meander, take in noted features at will, eat where and when you want. Instead of riding for endless hours in a tour bus in a seat behind a former government employee with gastric problems and a charter membership in the Tea Party, you walk or take the metro, anonymous, among strangers. The flexibility allows for the unexpected to play a major role in your experience.
And, it allows distress and dismay to play an equally important role.
We arrived in Barcelona from Madrid, where we walked ten or so miles each day for several hot days, making our way through the old part of the city, searching at the end of the Madrid visit for any kind of fruit or vegetable (or a suitable medical supplement) to remedy the consequence of a meat-centric diet on a fat guy. The search (for the second item) succeeds and the fat guy spends several hours the last night in Madrid in a room at a quaint hostal, on the cusp of relief while watching televised semi truck races from Istanbul.
The next day, we travelled by high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona, arriving in early evening. After checking in at our hotel, we set off in search of a pharmacy in order to secure bandages for our damaged feet.
It is at the pharmacy that coincidence strikes in a positive way — in a way not possible on a tour.
The pharmacist’s name is Alexander. He is a delightful, friendly young man who speaks a version of English and, in the course of our conversation about distorted phalanges, I ask my question: “Where would you go tonight if you wanted to enjoy a great meal?”
Alexander does not hesitate.
He tells of a tapas bar and restaurant. He waxes poetic about the fare. He claims it is the best in all of Barcelona. He produces a crude map on the back of a sales slip. The map has rectangles, ovals and arrows — every shape a map needs. The shapes are accompanied by a number of lines, some straight, some curving. He scrawls some barely legible names next to a couple of the lines.
He then proceeds to tell us how to interpret the map: go straight down this street until you hit the wide boulevard. Take a left and go to the huge arch. Go to the right of the arch and find Commerc; take it past the Museum of Chocolate and look to your right down each street until you see the back end of a very old church. Go down that street, go around the church, take the first right, and you’re there.
We apply the bandages and we’re off. The sun is setting and, sure enough, we find the wide boulevard: three lanes of one-way traffic on each side of a treed promenade. At the end of the promenade, glowing reddish gold in the waning light is a huge arch, Landmark 1 — Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, built in 1888, connecting to the Park of the Ciutadella.
Sure enough, with a bit of patience, we find Commerc and we follow it for several blocks as dark closes in. Bingo, just as Alexander said, there is the Museum of Chocolate.
I try to hustle Kathy past the building, to no avail.
“Oooh, look. Chocolate.”
She is glued, nose first, to the glass in front of the displays.
“Darn. It’s a shame they’re closed.”
“Look, there’s a bust of Picasso, carved from a block of chocolate.”
“Darn, it’s a shame they’re closed.”
“And there’s the Washington Monument. Imagine that: a Catalan tribute to America. In chocolate! Looks just like the real thing, only it’s small and dark brown.”
“Well, it’s a shame it’s so late. And they’re closed.”
I have to walk away to get her to move from the window. I have a hunch we will return.
We continue down Commerc, peering down each side street as we go and, finally, down a narrow, cobbled street, we see the round wall of the back of a church.
Down the narrow lane past the church: Euskal Etxea Taberna.
The joint is packed. It is 9:30 p.m. and the action is just beginning. Most of the patrons are young Barcelonans, 25 to 35, dressed to display whatever assets are worthy of notice. The taps are flowing, the bottles tipping, the food abundant and delicious.
Nearly all the pintxo toppings at this bar are bedded on a thin-sliced oval of crusty bread. I quickly realize the bread is a mere platform and focus my attention on the toppings: spicy thin sausages, stuffed squid, octopus, tuna, salmon with egg and mayonnaise, mackerel, cheeses whipped with other ingredients into perfect domes, incredible Iberico ham, fried anchovies with garlic, piquillo peppers crammed full of creamy bacalao, croquetas, prawns, blood sausage, tortilla — at least 30 choices, each a perfect little sculpture. In addition, black-clad waiters rush from the kitchen bearing trays of hot pintxos, and they quickly learn to make a beeline to me. I am in a feeding frenzy; I’ll try anything. More pintxos, more beer. More, more.
At the end of the evening, a mound of toothpicks resembling a stack of logs at a lumber mill sits on my plate next to a partially gnawed hunk of bread. I am slumped in a corner of the room, lapsing into a coma, watching young Spanish girls flirt with snappy Spanish lads, loud music washing over me like waves on the nearby beach.
It is at that moment or, since my memory is clouded by overindulgence, it might have been the next night, when we returned to Euskal Etxea Taberna, that I decided to whip up a couple variations on the pintxo theme as an appetizer once I got home. The second night at Euskal Etxea Taberna, I got a complete look at what the taberna offered; I wore a garish Hawaiian shirt to make me easier for the waiters to spot.
Many options we enjoyed in Barcelona and elsewhere are impossible to make, lacking as we do a source for things like fresh octopus and mackerel here in Siberia With a View.
What I can find at our local market are bread, smoked salmon, anchovy and tuna. I can also find piquillo peppers. And toothpicks.
So, I intend to make a cream cheese-filled smoked salmon roll with anchovy, and a tuna-stuffed piquillo pepper. Both will go quite nicely with either a cocktail, beer or wine. Or all three, given my lack of control.
I’ll get a baguette-like loaf of bread and cut it on the diagonal into thin slices. I might toast the bread, I might not. I’m not going to eat it, so I don’t care.
For the salmon: I’ll take a slice of smoked salmon, lay it out flat, put a couple small balls of cream cheese on the slice, then roll it up. I’ll rinse and roll a high-quality anchovy fillet, skewer it with a toothpick, then drive the toothpick through the salmon roll and pin the combo to a piece of bread. Simple. I could just as easily take a piece of the salmon, roll it without the cheese, top it with a slice of hard-cooked egg, a flutter of grated, hard-cooked egg and a small wad of seasoned mayonnaise and pin the stack to bread.
For the peppers, I’ll buy a jar or can of piquillo peppers and make sure I handle them carefully in order to keep them intact. I’ll make a simple tuna mix with drained olive oil-packed tuna, finely minced white onion or shallot, mayonnaise and lemon juice. I’ll gently stuff the peppers before nailing them to a slab of carbohydrate with a toothpick.
I might try to make ham or bacalao croquetas, but the summer weather makes frying a less-than-desirable option. I might also do a piquillo stuffed with bacalao — absent true bacalao. Salt cod is tough to come by here, so I’d steam a hunk of cod, add a bit of salt, cool it and flake it. It would go, along with some cooked, very finely minced shallot, into a stiff bechamel and, when cooled, the mix would be put into the peppers.
These are kindergarten pintxos, and anything more extravagant will have to wait until I make a trip to Denver with an ice chest.
Until then, these will have to do.
Now all I need are some provocatively-dressed, young Spaniards and the pintxo party is on.