No. 66: Jaleo
Spanish cuisine, like Italian in the ’80s and French before that, is getting its close-up. In the United States, José Andrés is its most visible ambassador, cooking up paella with Al Roker on the Today show and touting his tapas cookbook—and his native country’s food—on NPR. Where you’re not likely to see the celebrity chef is at the Penn Quarter tapas house where he made a name for himself. And it hardly matters. This is as well oiled a machine as a restaurant gets.
The crowds are steady, owing both to the restaurant’s convenience—it’s just around the corner from the Verizon Center and the Shakespeare Theatre—and its versatility. You’ll find wanderers in sneakers supping on gazpacho, off-duty chefs unwinding over plates of jamon Iberico and glistening, marinated anchovies, college kids toasting a birthday with sangria, toddlers squabbling over the last croqueta, and groups and families arranging the small plates into a grander meal. It’s also remarkably consistent: The torta es pagnola, the traditional layered omelet, tastes the same today as it did in the mid-’90s. So do the marvelous date-and-bacon fritters, the potatoes with Cabrales cheese, and the goat-cheese-stuffed pimiento peppers.
It isn’t Spanish custom to make a meal out of bar nibbles, nor do Madrileños tend to save room for much more than fruit for dessert. Ignore both of those traditions—larger entrées are skippable, and pastry chef Steve Klc’s spiffed-up renditions of custards and cakes make a convincing case for the American way of enjoying a sweet ending.