a lit­tle goes a long way

TA­PAS AROUND TOWN

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - — Molly Boyle

SNACK AND BE SEEN

“In its orig­i­nal form,” writes Anya von Bremzen in The New Span­ish Ta­ble, “the tapa (from the word tapar, to cover) was a free slice of cheese or jamón that topped a glass of sherry, thus pro­tect­ing the drink from flies and dust.” Over the past two cen­turies, the prac­tice has spread from a con­ve­nience for stage­coach driv­ers in An­dalucía to a na­tional ob­ses­sion that ta­pas ex­pert Juan Car­los Alonso “de­scribes as drink­ing, eat­ing, chat­ting, strolling, greet­ing, see­ing, be­ing seen” — it’s as much a way of life as a way of din­ing in Spain.

¡Chispa!, the ta­pas bar at El Mesón Restau­rant (213 Wash­ing­ton Ave., 505-983-6756), has been of­fer­ing Santa Feans a taste of that life­style for more than 15 years. The room is rus­tic, with a mata­dor’s suit of lights tucked into a cor­ner by the stage and a set of posters by Julio Romero de Torres — whose work a friend who had vis­ited his mu­seum in Cór­doba de­scribed as haunted by women, fla­menco, and death — on the op­po­site wall.

The list of wines by the glass and the bot­tle, and sher­ries, from very dry to very sweet, is ex­ten­sive and well priced. Al­though ta­pas orig­i­nated in the sherry-pro­duc­ing re­gion of An­dalucía, we opted for a split of sparkling Span­ish cava and a glass of a crisp, young al­bar­iño — both equally fine pair­ings with a range of ta­pas.

There are more than two dozen ta­pas on the reg­u­lar menu, each la­beled with its re­gion of ori­gin. On a re­cent visit, we started with a dish of mixed olives and a plate of jamón ser­rano, a tra­di­tional cured Span­ish ham. We had been hop­ing for a taste of the hard-to-find jamón iberico — the moun­tain ham made from the famed Ibe­rian acorn-fed black pigs — but a new leg had just ar­rived and was not yet ready to serve. But the less ex­otic ser­rano did not dis­ap­point. Stacked on olive oil-dipped bread or on the end of a fork, the pa­per-thin slices were firm, dry, and some­what sweet.

A small plate of beren­jena frita — lightly fried wedges of eg­g­plant driz­zled with cane syrup and sprin­kled with saf­fron — fol­lowed. Eg­g­plant can be a sponge for olive oil, but these per­fectly cooked slabs were nei­ther soggy nor greasy, just melt­ing softly within their thin crust. A bowl of mus­sels cooked in wine, tomato, and gar­lic from the nightly spe­cials list came next — an­other sim­ple dish per­fectly ex­e­cuted, not an over­cooked or un­opened bi­valve in the sym­met­ri­cally ar­ranged bowl.

We ended the evening with patatas dos sal­sas, twice­fried red pota­toes served with a spicy, smoky red chile sauce and smooth roasted gar­lic aioli. Dipped first in the chile and then in the aioli, washed down with the last of the wine, the crispy lit­tle wedges were the per­fect end­ing to a most en­joy­able — and de­li­cious — evening. But as good as it is, El Mesón isn’t just about the food. With live en­ter­tain­ment ev­ery night, ¡Chispa! is also a per­fect place to chat, stroll be­tween the ta­bles, see and be seen — the very def­i­ni­tion of a clas­sic ta­pas bar. — Pa­tri­cia West-Barker

A TAPESTRY OF TA­PAS

The art on a restau­rant wall has prob­a­bly never in­flu­enced your or­der, but at Taberna (125 Lin­coln Ave., Suite 117, 505-988-7102) — the laid-back baby sis­ter of James Camp­bell Caruso’s pop­u­lar La Boca — a tapestry by Braldt Bralds de­pict­ing a larg­erthan-life tin of sar­dines may have your mouth wa­ter­ing for some small Mediter­ranean fish be­fore you even take your seat. You won’t be left want­ing, ei­ther. It’s not sar­dines but an­chovies, or bo­querones, that top the list of Camp­bell Caruso’s stel­lar col­lec­tion of clas­sic ta­pas (which the menu rightly la­bels “Un­touch­ables”).

Know­ing that some­times one shouldn’t mess with per­fec­tion, the kitchen dresses the lovely sil­ver-white fishies sim­ply, with olive oil and le­mon zest.

Taberna’s ta­pas menu, which over­laps slightly with La Boca’s, runs the gamut from al­monds, olives, cheeses, and hams (both ser­rano and ibérico) to ruggedly charred ar­ti­chokes bril­liantly com­ple­mented by goat cheese, mint, and orange zest. A dust­ing of rice flour and a quick fry lends Brus­sels a del­i­cate crisp­ness; their veg­e­tal funk is nicely off­set by the ad­dic­tively pep­per-sweet and al­mond-rich romesco.

The chichar­rónes An­daluz were so good we or­dered them twice: nuggets of crisp-fried pork belly served in a tall pa­per-cone-lined glass. That le­mon wedge is there for a rea­son — to give the porky dice a spritz — and don’t ne­glect the zesty harissa, the ex­cess of which I hoarded for bread-dunk­ing later. An­chovies reap­pear in the mo­jama — some­thing akin to An­dalucían sashimi — a spray of bright pink house-cured ahi tuna, but­tery green av­o­cado, salty bo­querones, rib­bons of red and yel­low jalapeño, and crunchy tan rounds of toasted bread — with a small porce­lain cup of sea­weed salad at one end.

Taberna of­fers an al­lur­ing se­lec­tion of Span­ish, French, Ital­ian, and Amer­i­can wines — the 2014 Fil­l­aboa “Monte Alto” al­bar­iño is a de­light, with its round fruit flavors and salty min­er­al­ity — and a hand­ful of beers. What may grab your at­ten­tion, though, is the mul­ti­course sherry pair­ing menu. The gaz­pa­cho pan­zanella — with toma­toes, red onion, and cu­cum­ber — is the per­fect sum­mer­time kitchen-sink salad, served with the light-topaz Bode­gas Toro Al­balá “Elec­trico” Fino del La­gar. A richly nutty Bode­gas Lus­tau Los Ar­cos Amon­til­lado draws out the rich­ness and fla­vor ar­ray in two fat craw­fish-stuffed piquillo pep­pers on romesco cream and pars­ley oil. The pan-roasted beef ten­der­loin with chard, kale, peas, crunchy daikon, and demiglace is heartier fare, per­haps best suited for cooler weather; the pair­ing with Lus­tau’s “Don Nuño” Dry Oloroso was pitch per­fect, though — rich, slightly bit­ter, and dryly sweet.

The staff is friendly but pro­fes­sional, with ju­nior mem­bers ef­fi­ciently stop­ping by to of­fer more bread and wa­ter. Taberna hosts live mu­sic many nights, and un­like many other venues in town, they get the am­pli­fi­ca­tion and vol­ume right. You’ll have a choice of seat­ing op­tions: at the sturdy bar, in the main din­ing area, at a com­mu­nity ta­ble along­side a dra­matic stacked-stone wall, or in the charm­ing sunken court­yard. Seats dis­ap­pear quickly, es­pe­cially on busy week­ends, so ar­rive early, take what­ever’s avail­able, or be pre­pared to wait. Taberna is worth it.

— Lau­rel Glad­den

SHOE­BOX ALCHEMY

“Some­where in the city of New York there are four or five still-un­known ob­jects that be­long to­gether. Once to­gether they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cor­nell’s premise, his meta­physics, and his re­li­gion,” writes Charles Simic on artist Joseph Cor­nell’s in­tri­cate boxed as­sem­blages of seem­ingly un­re­lated items. At La Boca (72 W. Marcy St., 505-982-3433), the crown jewel of Santa Fe ta­pas bars, James Camp­bell Caruso’s wizardry also lies in his abil­ity to jux­ta­pose dif­fer­ent el­e­ments that play well to­gether.

The 11-year-old restau­rant’s shoe­box store­front could eas­ily be mistaken for a Man­hat­tan café, with its cramped quar­ters, abutting ta­bles, and bad acous­tics. Here, the best-laid plans for a tête-àtête in­evitably end with the con­ver­sa­tional vol­ume turned up to 11, as the clink­ing of wine glasses and the thrill in com­par­ing the won­ders of in­nu­mer­able small plates elicit a cer­tain gai­ety. The short bar of­fers a cozy perch un­der a chalk­board of spe­cials, where I was re­cently gifted with a ster­ling Bellini be­fore or­der­ing a wa­ter­melon salad with crackly jamón ser­rano, minced kala­mata olives, lacy mi­cro­greens, feta, and a light sherry vine­gar syrup. The sum­mery ar­range­ment mar­ried sweet and tart and salty flavors with prac­ticed aban­don.

From there, we lit on the doll-size but well-stuffed blood sausage and shrimp tacos along­side a slip­pery mango-cu­cum­ber salad and pi­men­tón agridulce, which could’ve been served at a sea­side taberna in San Se­bastián. The next whirl of flavors took us to Morocco, as the charred, ten­der Talus Wind Ranch lamb skewer was pre­sented with a smear of smoky harissa and pearled Is­raeli cous­cous. La Boca’s wine list criss­crosses Europe but has a heavy Span­ish ac­cent — a fel­low bar pa­tron, search­ing in vain for a Nero d’Avola, had to con­tent him­self with the bar­tender’s steer­ing him to­ward the 2013 Torres Al­tos Ibéri­cos Ri­oja, which he said was fan­tas­tic, any­way, and got at the heart of what he wanted from the Nero.

Some stand­outs on the menu are time-hon­ored clas­sics, like the foamy cri­m­ini mush­room br­uschetta topped with a cloud of creamy fried egg, shaved Reg­gian­ito, and a kiss of truf­fle oil — or the beloved gâteau Basque dessert of vanilla cream tart and crème fraîche, which is be­jew­eled with brandied cher­ries and pairs smash­ingly with a glass of the Kopke Porto 2007.

Spic­ing from the kitchen here can, on oc­ca­sion, come off as heavy-handed, as with a re­cent sam­pling of the car­rot gar­banzo hum­mus. Served with warm pars­ley but­ter, chunky es­cabeche, and black sesame-stud­ded crack­ers, the hum­mus had a sweet fore­taste be­fore its fla­vor was hand­ily over­taken by cumin. It was a rare miss on a menu that seems to be cre­atively up­dated on ev­ery visit and al­ways ed­u­ca­tional, re­veal­ing the smart and ob­ses­sive mas­ter be­hind the cur­tain. Santa Fe may have sev­eral cards up its sleeve, ta­pas-wise, but for my money, La Boca con­sis­tently plays the best hand.

The chichar­rónes An­daluz were so good we or­dered them twice: nuggets of crisp-fried pork belly served in a tall pa­per-cone-lined glass.

Braldt Bralds:

Sar­dines, wo­ven tapestry; be­low, La Boca and Taberna’s sherry pair­ing menu

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