In Barcelona, a terrace in a plaza or down one of the ramblas (except the main Rambla, just don’t go there…) is a great place to catch up with a friend or two, to people-watch and discuss the comings and goings of one’s work or love life. Another good options is a night out tapeando on Carrer Blai. Meet at 9 at the Poble Sec metro, cross Carrer Parallel and find a street that runs diagonally southeast into Montjuic. The pedestrianized Blai is studded with terraces belonging to the tapas bars that line either side of the road. The selection is similar at each bar: two or three ingredients mounted upon rounds of baguette (montadito), little plates of pickled things, tortillas (thick potato omelets) or 2-bite pies. Each tapa bears a toothpick to help bartenders count how many you’ve consumed without asking. Some toothpicks also help identify tapas that are more expensive than the more basic offerings. Usually they range in price between 1-2 euros and sometimes a small caña of beer is thrown in with that as well. The idea is one borrowed from pintxo-hopping culture in San Sebastian, to go from bar to bar, and get one or two bites to eat with a side of beer or clara (beer + lemon soda). While each bar has its own specialities, many of the classics are recurrent. My advice is to not window-shop too long before deciding on a place. Just pick one, go in, get a seat and point at what you want.
But to make the choice simpler, I’ve outlined a few of my own hits and misses from a night out on the Blai.
The first bar we went to happened to also be the best of the night, La Esquinita de Blai. They have a large selection of relatively inexpensive tapas, a vast variety of ingredients combined in creative ways and presented artfully. Each montadito seemed fresh and tightly assembled, no loose tuna spread or limp pepper hanging down the side of the platter. I strained to dilate my pupils enough to take in the entire spread and zoned in on a “mounted one” with a slice of roasted eggplant, a round of fresh goat cheese and some herbed sun-dried tomato jazz over the top. Warm, smoky eggplant and bright, pungent goat cheese went terrifically together. Herby tomatoes added a great depth of flavor to it all. We also tried one with a thick slice of roasted turkey and goat cheese “pastrami-ed up” with black pepper. A more substantial tapa than the first, though perhaps a bit more bland in flavor. Nevertheless, definitely worth the 2-euro price tag. Judging by the plates passing from the kitchen to the dining area, La Esquinita also has a good selection of salads, entrees and a very large variety of fluffy tortillas to choose from.
The cool kid on block Blai is indisputably La Tasqueta de Blai, where throbbing mobs of locals, expats and tourists rush the bar, order strong and stay there until the next hungry wave of patrons push them to get the bill and get out. Tapas are also very nice here and varied in presentation. Some come in little plastic glasses, some in the shape of miniature sliders. They also have quite a few dessert tapas to choose from. We tried the very popular flamenquin (a.k.a. Roll Saint Jacob), which consists of a slice of ham rolled up with cheese, coated in egg and breadcrumbs, and then deep fried to a crunch. Not the most complex or refined of dishes but a sneaky, sinful, two-bite ride down a roller coaster of naughty sensations: crunchy coat, oozing cheese, salty and gummy ham. A bar-food success. A more elaborate tapa is the block of camembert coated with chopped almonds and fried until the cheese melts and pops through the crunchy exterior. The very slightly stinky cheese and toasted nuts are paired with a dollop of bright, acidic quince paste, which adds a nice contrast in flavor.
Another good one is La Taberna Blai Tonight, which seemed to have a lot of house specialties that the other bars did not. I saw towers of baked mushrooms mounted over bread and topped with a single cocktail shrimp. Some of the pickled artichoke bites looked pretty good too. But the most prominent tapa here is the chistorra con pimiento, a juicy tube of paprika-laden pork chistorra sausage poked through and served with a single blistered Padrón pepper atop a slice of bread. Pretty basic but delicious with a fresh draft beer.
We were quite underwhelmed by the selection at a place called De Picos Pardos further down the Blai. The tapas looked pretty mundane and it took us a while to order, in this case not because of the overwhelming choice between delicious bites, but because it was difficult to choose one we’d actually pay for. I ended up picking a montadito with a single, super salty anchovy lain over a bed of slippery smooth escalivada (made of roasted eggplants, red peppers and onions). It wasn’t too bad after all. The stingy brine of the fish woke up the humble, comforting flavors of the roasted veggies, the latter of which melted like smooth butter over the slice of baguette. I guess I had a lucky pick. My dinner companion doesn’t even remember what she got there, nor did we think it was worth photographing to remember.
A bar that looked great from outside, but was unfortunately just too crowded for us to enter was Blai 9, specializing in slightly more expensive, artsy tapas. Number One on my list for next time…