There’s nothing like a tapeo, the Spanish ambulatory dining tradition of proceeding from one tapas bar to the next, consuming the signature dish at each. I’ve experienced a lot of Spanish food, from Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian to a vegetarian vendor at a folk-music festival in a Pyrenees meadow, nearly all of it very, very good. But there’s no class of Spanish food that I’ve more regularly and lustily enjoyed than tapas. From Barcelona to Madrid to Sevilla and the Basque Country, a tour of Spain is essentially one great tapeo.
Sadly, as much excellent ethnic food as we have in San Diego, tapas are not our strength. La Gran Tapa has not been grand since Paul Dobson owned it nearly 30 years and seven owners ago. Café Sevilla was more authentic in its prior incarnation, though hardly excellent even then. We lack the critical mass of tapas bars, much less consistent quality, to make a tapeo possible.
But the tapas at Costa Brava (1653 Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach) are quite good. The standard dishes are well executed, and some specials approach spectacular. Parboiled octopus marinated in vinaigrette was tender, toothsome and refreshing on a hot day. Boquerones—fresh anchovies in olive oil—help one see these misunderstood little fish in a new way. Anchovies also showed up stuffed inside olives—not the pungent, forlorn little abominations in a jar that you hope you won’t notice in the finished dish, but sweet little flavor bombs that give the olives an unexpected meatiness. Perhaps the cured Serrano ham and Manchego cheese spoke to good sourcing rather than good preparation, but they were good nonetheless.
Some of the warm dishes were not quite as successful. The pincho moruno—marinated lamb on skewers—seemed a bit imprecise, the flavors melding into an indistinct whole rather than acting in concert while maintaining independent identity. And while the tortilla Espagnola, a Spanish-style omelette with onions and potatoes, was perfectly cooked, it seemed strange to have it served warm rather than cold. But the Padron peppers in olive oil instantly brought me back to Galicia; the fried calamari could not have been more perfectly done, and gambas al ajilloóshrimp in garlic sauce—was spot-on.
It was with the specials, though, where Costa Brava really shined. The clams steamed in a green marinara sauce were perfectly cooked, with a broth perfumed beautifully by the fresh herbs. And the baby eels (angula) sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chile peppers, a Basque specialty, were brilliant. These 2-inch-long, thin white beauties had a sweet, shellfish-like flavor and supple texture and were framed artfully by olive oil, herbs, a bit of the fried garlic and just a hint of chile.
Costa Brava’s baby eel dish was so good that it reminded me that, on a tapeo, one only orders the best dish at each bar. While there might not be enough tapas in town for a true tapeo, you won’t go wrong by a trip to Costa Brava and a dish of angula.