La Tasca, Arlington

October 2004

Spanish Hot Spots in Arlington, Chinatown

The two La Tasca Spanish restaurants are dazzlingly decorated. The one in Arlington reaches up three stories with a spiral staircase, okra-colored walls, and an array of hundreds of plates, paintings, hand-painted tiles, and wrought-iron objects on the walls. On a busy evening the building vibrates.

With one floor and a basement dining room but with similar decorations, the DC Chinatown restaurant is less spectacular but still visually appealing. The pair is the product of a joint venture with an English company that operates 40 tapas bars and restaurants in the United Kingdom.

Based on four visits to the Arlington outlet and one to the District's, the decor trumps the food. The cooking is not bad, and there are a number of dishes that are very good, but the list of 37 tapas includes some items that stray far from the authentic. The only main course is paella, served for a minimum of two and priced between $12.95 and $14.95 per person. Four versions are offered–Valenciana, meat, seafood, and vegetarian.

The 37 tapas and occasional daily specials cover a lot of ground–too much ground. Among the successful tapas are grilled prawns on a bed of lettuce, eggplant baked with cheese and tomatoes, mushroom sautéed with oil and garlic, marinated unsalted anchovies, and a fritura mixta de pescado, consisting of deep-fried squid, swordfish, shrimp, and whitebait served with garlic mayonnaise.

The paella is okay. Apparently cooked to order, the saffron-colored rice was correct in texture but showed little of the saffron aroma that the color promised. The seafood in the paella Valenciana was mostly mussels and squid. The chicken appeared as small cubes rather than larger serving pieces that would have been moister. There was no chorizo, which paella Valenciana usually contains. If you want chorizo in your paella, order the paella de carne. The vegetable paella, not often available in Spanish restaurants, worked well.

One try at the Sunday brunch in Arlington was enough. If you want to eat Spanish food for Sunday lunch at this restaurant, order from the menu or else arrive very early. Diners arriving at 12:30 found a few good dishes on the buffet, including an octopus salad and sausage patties, but most of the food, and especially the two paellas–one apparently seafood, the other vegetarian–looked unappetizing. Forty minutes later, the paellas were barely touched by the discerning clientele. The wait staff apparently did not notice that diners were avoiding the paellas not because they were full but because the dishes had become so unappealing as a result of diners having decimated them. No other dish on the buffet had been supplemented either.

The wine list is impressive with 40 wines, all from Spain, at prices ranging from $15 to $49. The list provides a helpful description of each wine. While the consumer demand might be limited at La Tasca, the addition of a few of Spain's world-class wines from the Torres or Leon vineyards would be welcome.

Nine sangrias sounds like a lot and are, in fact, about a half dozen too many. They start with a more or less traditional one made from red wine, another from rosé wine and yet another from white wine. At the far end of the range there is margarita sangria and a concoction made with sparkling wine, Triple Sec, brandy, pineapple juice, and topped with whipped cream. The first two listed are the best. There is no fresh fruit in the sangrias, but there is plenty of ice, so the 1H-liter pitcher for $16 is not as good a deal as it sounds.

Desserts are straightforward and pretty good. A flan was bold in its ingredients, and a coffee mousse with espresso sauce and whipped cream was rich. Several coffees are available, and all have been very good.

Atmosphere: Hopping in the evening, calm at lunch; Spanish decor.

Food: Mostly tapas, with a selection of paella the only main course. Food is uneven, but there are some appealing tapas.

Service: Adequate.

Value: Fair.

Wine list: A commendable selection of 40 moderately priced Spanish wines as well as nine sangrias.

Bottom line: The food takes second place to the atmosphere.