When I was sixteen, I embarked on a school-sponsored blitz-trip through Spain. In less than two weeks, roughly 50 Americans armed with a barely function command of the language were herded from Granada to Córdoba, Seville to Toledo, by tacky beach resorts on La Costa Brava and through Don Quixote's dreamy, almond tree-studded La Mancha and, of course, Madrid.
It was tremendous fun and we were lucky to have it, but as a perpetually discontented teenager, I remember being frustrated with two things. First, we saw most of the ravishing countryside at lightspeed and through the windows of a bus. We sprinted through the Prado in less than an hour. For the Alhambra, we might have had 90 minutes. With each destination, I found myself aching for more time, for the chance to take in these places at the local, glacial pace of life.
The second was the food. In the interest of satisfying finicky foreigners, virtually every meal of the trip consisted of chicken and French fries or spaghetti with tomato sauce. While I don’t blame the trip leaders—somehow I doubt that octopus would’ve been a resounding hit—I swore to myself that if I ever returned I would eat excessively and extraordinarily.
In the years since, I’ve been dazzled by Spanish cuisine in other regions, but never the capital. Which is why, although I gaped at the El Grecos in the Prado and quite literally teared up at Guernica, on this first return to Madrid, I spent a large percentage of my waking hours trying to eat my bodyweight in jamón ibérico. Here are a few notable standouts.
I associate Basque culture with unpronounceable words and remarkable food. This local gem was steps away from the AirBnB I stayed at off the Plaza de España and came highly recommended by the owner. Between the bacalao braised in spicy tomato sauce, silky beef tartare, and seasonal special of mushrooms piled high with lightly sizzled garlic, the kitchen certainly didn’t disappoint. The highlight of the meal though was a bloody steak with crunchy flakes of sea salt and whisper-thin potatoes. You’ll notice there are no pictures, as I was much too happy stuffing my face to give a damn.
In the States, “tapas” frequently implies tiny, exorbitantly priced plates with fussy fusion touches. In their home country, however, these dishes mostly originated as a complimentary giveaway with drinks. The tradition still lives and most restaurants in Madrid will pass a few olives your way with your vino tinto. La Castela takes the concept much farther and throws in freebies for which I would happily pay. We’re talking molten croquetas and house-made potato chips with anchovies and hot peppers, a brilliantly deranged combination I have been missing my entire life. The actual menu is both reasonably priced and even more delicious. From a pot of shrimp swimming in garlic oil to beef carpaccio with porcinis to simply grilled asparagus, everything was pretty perfect. Best of all were a layered salad of tuna with roasted red peppers and arroz con mariscos. “Seafood rice” hardly does justice to the luxuriously creamy risotto-like dish bursting with chunks of shellfish. If pressed to pick a favorite—not an easy task, I assure you—this restaurant would be it.
Simple, lively and with a slight international tinge, Ojalá is just the spot for an early evening bite and an aperitif. It’s located on a rather lovely plaza on a trendy-but-not-overly-so neighborhood. Curiously, there’s a beach bar with sand in the basement, which a locally based friend promised heats up in the evenings.
Food markets, both traditional and modern, are all over the place in this gastro-obsessed city. And while we didn’t get to all of the ones on this list, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Wrapped in glass and wrought iron, Mercado de San Miguel, which reopened six years ago after extensive restoration, is certainly the sleekest of the bunch. Flaky miniature pizzas topped with blue cheese and mushrooms, spicy bite-size sausages, candied almonds, blistered pimientos de padrón—every single thing here was sensational. Our wallets took a beating here, but we never regretted it for a second.