As a study abroad student spending a semester in Spain, I fell in love with Spanish food cooked by my house-mothers whom I insisted that they prepared the most authentic local fare. At times I would come home to find a wonderful Paella with little crabs, or a very tasty rabbit in garlic and beer stew, or even some freshly bought blood sausage that I developed an affinity for – it was truly a six-month culinary eye-opening experience. In between the home-cooked meals, I would savor tasty bites at Tapas bars, restaurants, carnival stands, and street stalls.
Upon graduating from college in the DC area in the early 90′s, I went on a culinary mission and stumbled across La Churrería de Madrid in the busy Adams Morgan area. The first few visits were rewarded by wonderfully authentic cooking that took me back to the Iberian Peninsula. However, in time, the restaurant fell off my culinary list as the area became overcrowded with an upsurge of new restaurants and their patrons, which made parking around there close to impossible. Recently, upon happenstance, I stumbled upon this old culinary friend and I decided to pay it another visit.
On my last visit, I tentatively walked into the place that had a “Cash Only” sign plastered on its door. The restaurant looked much liked it did in previous years - a bit dark and nearly lifeless, with a soccer match playing on the large flat screen. My entrance appeared to interrupt the staff’s well-guarded solitude at the bar. I was brought upstairs where the dining room is, and I had no problems finding the choice table by the window to get some excellent window photo shots since I was the only customer at that time.
I asked the waiter if the original Spanish owners were still around since I didn’t notice them. He replied that the place had changed hands and that they had gone back to Spain to retire. At this point, some reservations about the quality of food I could expect from the kitchen started to rouse within me. Perusing the menu, few changes had been made, such as the absence of the more exotic dishes like Rabbit Stew and Blood Sausage – obviously they were catering to a more general clientele.
I decided to go the Tapas route and order a slew of small bites as my meal. I started off with the Appetizer Platter (Entremés 4X4) that consisted of creamy light Chicken Croquettes (Croquetas), pillowy soft Spanish Potato Egg Bites (Tortilla Española), meaty Beef and Olive Patties (Empanadillas), and robust Green Olives (Aceitunas). The first bite of each Tapas brought me back to my collegial days in that sunny country, and I was unexpectedly awakened by a sense of expectation and anticipation; the tapas were well-prepared and perfectly seasoned, greaseless, and they tasted like creations prepared by a true master. I asked the waiter who was in charge of the kitchen; he replied that the cook was the daughter of the previous one – this, a tradition definitely well passed on. I later learned that the restaurant was not in the hands of strangers, but the previous owner’s nieces - this indeed was reassuring to this writer.
My next dish was Mushrooms sautéed with Shallots, Garlic in Sherry sauce (Champiñones Salteados). It had a wonderful woodsy earthiness, mellowed out by sweet shallots, and rounded off by a dark boozy sauce. This was so satisfying that it could easily replace a meat course. Fortunately, there was lots of sliced bread that I used to sop up every drop of that rich tasty liquor.
A side of potatoes would not usually conjure up much excitement, but I had to order Patatas Bravas, or Angry Potatoes, as it is a Tapas standard fare and the litmus test of a good Spanish kitchen. This kitchen’s rendition did indeed pass with high marks. The wedges of potato were perfectly cooked and nearly greaseless, lightly coated with a spicy tangy sauce that makes them completely irresistible. Potato never tasted this good!
I took a stab at my table companion’s Breaded Chicken Scallopine (Milanesa de Pollo). Normally, I am not too fond of this rather quite pedestrian dish but this version did take me by surprise. The chicken was coated fairly lightly with well-seasoned breadcrumbs, and it was crispy with a bare hint of grease from the frying. More importantly, the thin slice of chicken was still moist and flavorful, which, otherwise, could be a dry stodgy mess under lesser hands – I had to take a couple more stabs at my companion’s meal with mild surprise. The accompanying black beans and rice were quite tasty but nothing exceptional.
Most times, especially after scoffing down a satisfying meal, I would resist ordering dessert . But a visit to La Churrería would not be complete without ordering the signature dessert that this “Churro stand” is known for – Churros. As a student living in Madrid, I would stumble out of the Metro station, either tired or a bit boozed-up from cheap beers, looking for a snack before walking back to my apartment. Without fail, there would always be a stand selling freshly fried churros with a side serving of lava-like hot chocolate, thick enough to stand a churro in the middle of the cup. La Churrería did not disappoint me again, and I was savoring the finger-wide, crispy outside, soft inside fried dough sticks as if I were suffering from “the munchies”.
The thick hot chocolate that came in an espresso cup was just adequate enough to fulfil all the churro-dunking. I later learned from the waiter that what makes Spanish churros unique from other versions is the high content of yucca/cassava in the dough that results in a smoother inside.
I walked out of La Churrería into the gray winter’s cold as if walking into the Spanish sun, sated and feeling fulfilled by a wonderful culinary experience while reliving youthful memories with this surprisingly delightful meal. I promised myself not to let too much time pass by again before revisiting this Spanish treasure and savoring the Paella that I used to enjoy in previous years – at $34 for two persons, it is high on my list. ¡Viva España!