Some foods are hard to find in Washington—a good bagel, a killer pastrami sandwich. Tapas, however, are not among them. So it was a surprise when a server at the nearly five-month-old Boqueria asked if we’d ever had small plates before. At this point, that’s almost like asking if we’d ever had a main course or an after-school snack.
The restaurant is a spinoff of two downtown New York tapas houses, popular for whiling away the dusk over wooden boards laden with Serrano ham and chorizo and sipping txakoli, the slightly effervescent Spanish wine. The Dupont Circle rowhouse has shed any traces of the previous tenant, the Malaysian chain restaurant Penang. The refurbished interior now has all the hallmarks of a textbook tapas place: Carrera-marble bar, a glistening leg of the prized Ibérico de Bellota ham waiting to be hand-sliced (for a cool $32 an ounce), and chalkboards announcing the specials. It feels more corporate than loose and lived-in, but the speakers throb with a bass-heavy electronica beat, and the din of laughter and conversation rises almost as high as the music.
The menu features all the standards, from a skillet of garlic-mad shrimp to zesty, aïoli-drizzled patatas bravas to Catalan-style spinach, perfectly vinegary and studded with pine nuts and raisins. As nicely as some of those classics turn out—exceptions are the three kinds of croquetas, which have verged on gummy, and a bowl of flabby, oil-drowned shishito peppers—you’d be wise to pay attention to the blackboard and its specials, which are driven by farmers-market bounty.
That’s where you’ll find the most exciting shares, which show off the ingenuity of chef Marc Vidal, who shuttles between DC and New York each week, and his resident deputy, Brian Murphy. One night those included a confit of pork shoulder that sliced as easily as room-temperature butter and was beautifully complemented by shaved kernels of sweet white corn and a kicky mojo verde. Another evening, the star was a bowl of delicately fried florets of cauliflower hit with lemon juice and ruddy romesco sauce. My friends and I fought for the last bites of a roasted-carrot salad done up with a mix of avocado, the thick Lebanese yogurt called labne, cilantro, and Marcona almonds.
Flatbreads change every few days, but all feature cracker-thin, Catalan-style crusts. Whether laden with zucchini and Spanish goat cheese or suckling pig, blue cheese, and pickled shallots, they make for excellent happy-hour snacks, as do the well-chosen selections of cured meats and Spanish cheeses. To drink, there are three regular sangrías—a dry rosé with tequila and orange juice, red wine with Hendrick’s gin, and best of all, slightly sweet and floral white wine with rum—plus sherries and Spanish wines by the glass.
The after-work throngs discovered Boqueria as soon as it opened, so you’ll compete for space with tie-loosening folks then and a slightly older, more Real Housewives of DC set on weekend nights. But unlike some other booming small-plates spots, Boqueria takes reservations, so you can avoid an hourlong wait.
That’s a good thing because, although Washington isn’t lacking for this kind of cooking, you can never have too many successful takes on it. In other words, don’t expect those crowds to let up soon.
This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.