Austin doesn’t have enough Spanish food. Sure, there are a couple of tapas restaurants, but even though Austin is known as a foodie city, authentic Spanish cuisine seems to be a needle in the haystack of Tex-Mex, BBQ and kimchi fries. If there are any restaurateurs reading this post, heed my cry! Please make Spanish tapas the new ramen.
I’ve grown to love authentic Spanish cuisine, and Barlata Tapas Bar on South Lamar is one of the best places in Austin to enjoy the regional variations in Spanish wines and cuisine, if not the only place. Among their warm, inviting decor you can enjoy small-vineyard Spanish wines, paellas, jamón ibérico and tapas inspired by regional staples such as morcilla (blood sausage) and white beans reminiscent of fabada stew from Asturias.
Spanish Cuisine 101
I fell in love with Spanish food when I was living in Mexico City because two of my business English students were from Spain. I gave them private classes in their home three days a week, and every morning we had incredibly strong coffee and delicious, freshly baked bread toasted and topped with olive oil. Yes, olive oil for breakfast. It took me a while to get over wanting butter with my toast, but soon I developed an even greater appreciation for olive oil, especially from Spanish olives.
One of my students was so passionate about his native cuisine that we once dedicated an entire English class to the process of making a Spanish tortilla. The Spanish tortilla for him was a discipline of its own. Each potato is to be perfectly sliced, cooked in Spanish olive oil, mixed carefully with layers of salt, beaten eggs and lightly fried chopped onion. (If you haven’t had a Spanish tortilla, order it when you get to Barlata.)
Very simple ingredients composed exactly right – this is a common theme in Spanish cooking. For many Spaniards, high quality basic ingredients are of the utmost importance, namely olive oil, tomatoes and garlic.
Drinks and Sherry
Once you step into the warm and lively atmosphere at Barlata, you’ll want to have a drink while you wait for a table. Reservations are recommended on weekends, but thankfully they have extra space now, due to their new patio seating.
Their drink selection includes sangria, of course, and a large variety of Spanish wines. In fact, they sell exclusively Spanish wines and some are from small Spanish vineyards that only produce a couple hundred bottles a year.
They also have a great selection of sherries, 15 different kinds, including amontillado, palo cortado, olorosco seco, oloroso and Pedro Ximenez. If you enjoy wines, and haven’t tried many sherries, I would highly suggest a sherry flight to become familiar with the different varieties ranging from dry to dark and sweet with a hint of raisins. They also make some great signature cocktails.
Once you order, your server will bring you bread with delicious Spanish olive oil, mixed with crushed thyme and some of Barlata’s house-cured olives.
Jamón serrano is a Spanish staple, and another must-have in a Spanish restaurant. Barlata has jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. What’s the difference, you ask? Jamón ibérico is the finer product, aged for around 24 months, coming from a particular breed of black-hooved Spanish pigs (pata negra). Some of these pigs graze on acorns which gives the meat a special flavor. This type of jamón ibérico (de bellota) is aged for up to three years and is the most expensive.
Definitely try Barlata’s cheese plate with a side of jamón ibérico. The cheese plate consists of five different Spanish cheeses, ranging from soft to firm, and membrillo, a type of fruit paste that comes from quince and has the consistency of a fruit roll-up, except it’s cut into slices or pieces.
Latas, Tapas and Paellas
On Barlata’s menu, you’ll find dishes with roots in several different Spanish regions, as well as a couple of odes to Austin mixed in, such as the brisket canelones and Arros Austin with pork belly.
The Barlata menu is divided into latas (cans), small plates and larger entrees. A popular way to prepare and serve tapas is out of the cans themselves because a lot of high quality seafood in Spain (like mussels and sardines) actually comes in cans. Barlata’s latas (hence the name bar-lata) do not come from cans, however. Everything is made from scratch.
If you’re new to Spanish food, you should start with the patatas bravas (pictured above). The patatas bravas are usually the first go-to on a tapas menu, so Barlata has to make a strong first impression. The patatas bravas at this restaurant will make you want to keep going back for more. They are perfectly crispy on the outside, covered with a zesty tomato sauce and a bit of garlic aioli.
My favorite tapas are gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and pulpo gallego (Galician-style octopus). Both usually consist of a generous portion of olive oil, garlic and paprika. Unfortunately, my one disappointment at Barlata so far has been the octopus. It isn’t as tender as it could be, and I’ve tried it a few times. The flavor is great, though.
If you’re really hungry or visit with a large group, try one of the paellas. Barlata makes nine different paellas and rice dishes that are part of the regular menu, including a black rice dish made with squid, clams and squid ink.
@natalien_n wants to know:
Do you like Spanish food? Who wants to see more regional Spanish food in Austin?