Try tapas for a taste of Spain

Jessica Young

Tapas has been the buzzword of ethnic cuisine of late.

This form of dining is characterized by small portions of appetizer-esque dishes. Dishes are cooked with olive oil rather than butter, resulting in a healthier, more Mediterranean-tasting fare. Garlic is often a main ingredient.

The concept for tapas originated in southern Spain. The Spanish word derives from the verb “to cover” and literally means “top” or “lid.”

“In the old days, the popular drink of the age was sherry. Historically, laborers would go from one sherry bar to another after a long day’s work,” said Hossein Jamali, owner of Tapas Valencia in Bloomingdale, Ill., and Meson Sabika in Naperville, Ill. “Before air conditioning, the heat required them (to leave the windows open), and the fruit flies were attracted to the sweetness of the sherry.

“Tavern owners would put a piece of bread over the rim of the glass to serve as a lid, and patrons started munching on it,” he said.

The practical measure, meant to prevent insects or impurities from falling into the cup between sips, also helped customers soak up the alcohol they consumed.

“Pretty soon, that was paired with a little chunk of cheese... and then a slice of ham... and maybe some potato salad on top,” Jamali said. “It got to the point where proprietors would compete and try to differentiate themselves by developing a reputation for a specialty — the best beef or the best ham.”

While the menu has evolved, Jamali said the smaller portion sizes have survived.

In terms of beverages, sangria — a drink made from wine or champagne mixed and fortified with other liquors and fresh fruit — is a staple.

“While a lot of people immediately default to sangria, it’s really meant to accompany sherry, but most don’t have much of a knowledge of this,” said Eddie Miguel, general manager of Emilio’s Tapas La Rioja in Wheaton, Ill.

He recommends Dry Fino Sherries like Laina, La Jitano and Tio Pepe.

“Those should start up your palate, and the dryness gets you salivating and charged up for a nice cold dish,” Miguel said.

The Rioja region is a huge producer of popular tapas-friendly wines, but Miguel prefers libations from the “underdog” region of Duero, which is top-of-the-line in his mind.

Socializing and sharing is the name of the game at tapas restaurants. The dining style has barhopping roots, so the ambiance is casual, and eating off the same plate is expected. The idea is to order many small dishes, pass them around, dole out small helpings and combine the tastings for a full meal.

“You typically go out to dinner and get a soup, salad, entree and dessert, and that’s all you get to try,” Miguel said. “At a tapas place, you’re going to get a bite of six or seven different things with a variety of flavors for pretty much the same price. It’s more fun than being stuck with your one pasta or chicken dish.”

As far as ordering goes, it’s best to do it in waves rather than choosing all of the dishes from the get-go. And Jamali and Miguel suggest sampling both the cold and hot menus to get a nice mixture.

Additionally, most establishments offer olives and nuts as complements to the main dishes, so make sure to partake in these time-honored sides for an authentic experience.

Suburban Life

Tapas recommendations

From Emilio Gervilla, owner of the Emilio’s chain in Illinois, and Eddie Miguel, general manager of the Emilio’s Tapas La Rioja Wheaton, Ill., restaurant:

- Patatas con alioli: famous garlic potato salad

“It’s a very simple dish,” Gervilla said. “Every table orders one, and I love it myself.”

- Canelon frio de atun: cannelloni filled with tuna, asparagus, basil, tomato and white wine vinaigrette

- Patatas bravas: Spanish-style potatoes served in spicy tomato sauce

- Plato de jamon Serrano: ham and Manchego cheese with olives, toast points and extra virgin olive oil

“It’s cold, cured ham — a very special choice,” Gervilla said. “You can’t go without trying it — it’s a hidden gem.”

- Cordero al pastor: grilled marinated leg of lamb with garlic potatoes, onions and red wine sauce

Other recommendations from Hossein Jamali, owner of Tapas Valencia in Bloomingdale, Ill., and Meson Sabika in Naperville, Ill.

- Tortilla Española: Spanish omelet of potatoes and onions served with mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette

- Patatas con alioli: Famous robust garlic potato salad

“It’s 100 percent vegetarian, and it’s our signature dish,” Jamali said.

- Berenjena con queso: Grilled eggplant filled with roasted red peppers, fennel and Spanish onions with asparagus spears topped with imported goat cheese and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette

- Cordero al pastor: Grilled marinated lamb loin medallions served with portobello mushrooms and caramelized red onions with a red pepper rosemary wine sauce

- Queso de cabra: Oven-baked goat cheese with tomato basil sauce and garlic bread

“This is wildly popular,” Jamali said.