I tasted my life’s first tapas in Spain four decades ago – I loved them then, and I love them now. In the interim, tapas have been the “next big thing” in food several times, without ever actually becoming the next big thing. Yet the basic concept – tasting small plates of many foods instead of one big plate of one thing – has worked its way into our ideas about eating. Yes, even here in Texas. Especially at the 13-year-old Austin tapas destination called Malaga.
With Central Market chef-instructor Nancy Marr at my side – she who makes even me look like I know what I’m doing when I teach cooking classes there – we settled in for a long night of radio, eating, drinking and visits from Malaga executive chef Alejandro Duran. Born in Spain to a Spanish mother but dragged through many regions of Mexico as a kid by his Mexican-agriculture official father, Duran seems the best of both Old World and New. And the tapas he served Nancy and me did too.
This metal tower, usually reserved in fancy seafood houses for those $75 shellfish samplers, here delivers my oldest and most favorite traditional tapa along with, as though to underline my point, something the chef probably thought up day before yesterday. Without a Mexican tortilla in sight, the tortilla Catalan (his version of tortilla espanola) is an omelet by way of a frittata. An egg thing, in other words. The bottom dish offers fire-roasted Spanish piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh goat cheese and capers.
Thankfully tending toward the mild side, goat cheese is a favorite for just about any use at Malaga, including contained in these fried cakes served atop some wonderful sweet red onion marmalade and then drizzled with honey. Atop that is something of a surprise, a few crumbles of dried lavender – like the cheese itself, nothing too overpowering. Duran has a real flair for combinations done with equal parts surprise and restraint.
You know your half-remembered high school Spanish is in over its head when the menu promises calcots y setas a la parilla, beyond guessing that something is going on the grill. The dish is actually a symphony of different tastes and especially textures: grilled asparagus, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, fire-roasted piquillos and spring onions, all done up with toasted Marcona almonds, Cabrales bleu cheese and a bit of Romesco vinaigrette for dipping.
I am definitely one of those guys, as I explained to Nancy with some trepidation, who never met a meatball he didn’t like. So of course I dove head-first into Duran’s albondigas en salsa brava. According to the chef, for every one customer who finds these rounds of beef and pork not fried or “Sicilian” enough, hundreds of others keep coming back for more. The tomato sauce is kicked up with cumin and coriander, definitely putting the brava in this salsa.
In a tapas bar like Malaga, it isn’t about the traditional progression from little appetizers to big entrees, since all the plates are small and intended to gang up on you. Still, I did find one of the things I most wanted to gang up on me: the so-called empanadas Salamanca, named after the fascinating ancient university town. Light years removed from familiar Mexican empanadas, these are light turnovers stuffed with spinach, Mahon cheese and mushrooms. There’s roasted garlic-herb aioli drizzled over the top, plus spicy roasted tomato sauce on the side. In an instant, I who was in Spain forty years ago and Nancy who was there a few months ago both found ourselves in the passionate heart of Spain once again.