Pepe Hillo – Sevilla, Spain

If you find yourself wandering around the Arenal district of Sevilla, near the legendary Plaza de Toros, and are in need of refreshment, there’s only one place to go:  Pepe Hillo.  This traditional tapas tavern has a mid-twentieth century inspired-décor with tons of old bric-a-brac, newspapers, and – yep – mounted noggins of famous fighting bulls that make you feel like Joselito himself is going to tap you on the shoulder any minute.  This is the kind of establishment that Spain’s meteoric rise in the period immediately after joining the Eurozone, and its population’s rush to embrace a future whose glaringly bright promise never quite arrived, placed on the endangered list.  Old men are serving you and old men are sitting nearby nursing their late afternoon or lunch drinks, though quick with that wit topped with feigned arrogance that the Spaniards of Andalucia are so famous for.

If your Spanish is up to the task, you can get a decent amount of banter out of the comically cranky barkeeps.  If not, you’ll still manage to lay your hands on fine examples of Andalucian tapas.  Pulpo (exquisite octopus, grilled or fried), anchoas (anchovies like nothing you’ve tasted), various tortillas (a type of omelet, primarily of egg and potato), gazpacho, cola de toro (succulent stewed bull’s tail), and all manner of lovely jamóns

Salmorejo Pepe
Salmorejooo Cordobeeeees!!

famously cured in the nearby mountains.  But the real star of the show, their virtuoso performance that you can scarcely find anywhere else, and, for my money, one of the most refreshing Summer treats around, is the amazing Salmorejo Cordobés.

Just what is this salmorejo, you might ask?  A shorthand might be gazpacho’s rich cousin.  Whereas a gazpacho might be made primarily of tomatoes and present almost like a refreshing vegetable drink, a salmorejo should be a rich, creamy, emulsified cold soup only capable of being taken via a bowl and spoon.  Boiled egg, Serrano or Ibérico jamón, and only the finest olive oil forms the holy trinity of delicious garnishes on the top.  I’ve had it with olive oil preserved tuna in place of the jamón, but only once.  I will go so far as to suggest that you not only order this rare and delicious beauty, but that you have it before ordering anything else just in case your taste buds drive you to order a second helping before moving to other portions of the menu.

As with many places in Spain, if you’re squeamish about bullfighting or a strict vegetarian, this may not be the place for you.  As with many of my most favorite spots, a friendly local told me about this place and I’m damn glad I engaged the chap.  You don’t have to be a fan of  tauromaquia to enjoy a stop in Pepe Hillo, but a sense of joie de vivre and an adventurous appetite will serve you well.

Pepe Hillo, Calle Adriano 24, 41001 Sevilla, Spain

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Domus Pensi – Terra Alta, Spain

Somehow both fresh and leathery on the nose.  Ripe red and black fruits on the front end, flowing quickly into tannin-laden leather notes and a faint hint of violets.  This is a young one, but a beauty.  All those powerful notes, but still somehow manages to hold a medium body, feeling fresh and clean in the mouth.  It went equally well with heavy Italian sausage as it did with lighter Portuguese seafood paté.

  • Rating: Impressive
  • Name: Domus Pensi 2013
  • Winery: Altavins Viticultors SL
  • Region: Terra Alta
  • Country: Spain
  • Varietals: 45% Cabernet, 30% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 10% Merlot
  • Price: ~$25
  • Where to Buy: Total Wine

El Club del Vino, Malaga, Spain

Sometimes you just get lucky.  I happened upon this place with only an hour or so to go in my visit to Malaga, having given up on having any singular food or drink experience to speak of.  (Yes, I tried to go to El Pimpi, Oleo, and several other places that were either closed or just meh.)  I noticed the promising signage and decided to take a swing.

The owner, Bernardo, is quick with conversation and background knowledge on his stock.  As with Nuno and his crew at Castelo in Lisbon, Bernardo communicates a deep-seated passion for the wines he offers, making a point to note that he sells nothing that he doesn’t first enjoy personally.  There’s no script here; Bernardo can riff on any of the wines, giving fascinating background on the vineyards, wine makers, and character of each bottle.  Like most Argentinians I know, Bernardo and his spot have a certain style and aesthetic that I struggle to describe as sleek traditional:  wood, leather, and metal come together in a no-nonsense design with clean lines and, like the menu, reminiscent of a time when simple was good.

If you want a good bottle, a copa of sweet respite from the Andalusian heat, or to fill up on down-home Argentinian bites (and bife!), this is the place to visit.

El Club del Vino, Calle Pedro de Toledo 2 Local B, Malaga, Spain

Bar Nestor, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain

I heard about this place from a friend who had recently passed through San Sebastián.  It had been a good twelve years since I’d been through the gorgeous Basque fishing town and its horseshoe bay.  But the food I remembered well.  Years ago I had my local spot where I would get a late breakfast of mussels and cava, before going to sleep for a bit out on the beach.  Sublime.

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Chuleta de buey

At Bar Nestor questions are kept to a blessed minimum, and the answer is always “sí!”  Do you want chuleta?  Of course.  Do you want tomatoes?  That’s not a real question.  Will you have peppers?  You’re no fool.  The only real question to ponder is what wine you will choose, and they do have a selection.  One thing to keep in mind for those inclined to order a bottle:  in English we might use the words “powerful” or “strong” to refer to a big-flavored or robust wine.  In the Spanish wine lingo of Spain, the word “fuerte” (i.e. strong or powerful) actually refers to the tannins.  A fuerte wine will have a lot of tannin.  I learned this the hard way by expecting a powerful and robust red to accompany my chuleta, but ending up with a wine so tannic that it felt like sucking on tree bark.  Please be advised.

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Perfection.

The first thing you will see is the most gorgeous hunk of meat you have ever laid eyes on.  Amazing, sea salt-coated slabs of chuleta de buey (a bone-in local grass-fed ribsteak), steaming and spitting on their flatiron grills.  They don’t ask you what temperature to cook it.  They already know what’s best:  sizzling medium rare, with an emphasis on the rare.  Whatever alchemy Nestor has wrought; the incantations you will never learn.  Just be happy he lets you enjoy the fruits of his magical labors.  The tomatoes come crudely sliced into uneven hunks, coated with olive oil, and generously heaped with more sea salt.  The peppers are fried and deliver only light heat every seventh pepper, or so the local grandmothers will tell you.

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Tomates!

Nestor won’t discuss opening another restaurant or expanding the one he has.  Believe me, I tried.  He laughed heartily at the suggestion that he open a spot in Washington or New York, waiving his finger and shaking his head all the while.  Whatever else you do while visiting San Sebastián, do yourself a huge favor and just go here.  The staff is magnificently friendly (particularly for Spanish speakers) and you will not be met with a bewildering array of choices:  just an amazing steak, cooked perfectly.  Get the tomatoes and, if you’re hungry enough, get the peppers.  You can thank me later.

Address: Bar Nestor, Pescadería no. 11, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain