Since moving from Gótico to Gràcia I’ve come to appreciate more strongly the neighborhoods on the other side of Eixample. What once represented to me a type of palm tree lined Disney World in which I would lie awake until 4 a.m. waiting for the rumble of inebriated tourists to cease is now something more beautiful. I descend for special occasions now, to see friends, to walk around with my beaux, to remind myself that there exists an el Born, a Gótico a beautiful coastline with glittering sailboats and yachts moored under the sunshine. Distance has especially made me fonder toward Barceloneta, the lofty promenade terraces perfect for a glass of white wine at any time, but also the interior of the triangle, where you will find narrow streets lined with colorful houses with their shutters drawn down cryptically, while laundry is left to dangle carefree from balconies. The area maintains the charm of a former fishing village, though one whose residents were clearly quite poor. Smuggling, gambling, seedy business. I’m sure it all took place on these streets at a time before the 1992 Olympic Games came into town, polishing up the coast. Maybe it still does. But that roughness adds character, making this neighborhood truly dynamic and fun to visit.
And though the sea glitters blue just at the end of these streets, tourists never seem to walk down them. After broiling their bright white backs and shoulders in the Mediterranean sun they walk straight up the promenade, get a The Dude burger and a 12 euro cocktail at Makamaka and pretend like they’re in some kind of L.A. surf town (when clearly the surf in Barceloneta actually sucks). This face of Barceloneta is fine but it gets old seeing burger, taco and vegan ice cream shacks all over. (Though the veg juices at the Surf House are pretty rad…)
What I prefer are places like Can Maño. This is one of those hidden gems that I feel slightly guilty reviewing, as the last thing it needs is more publicity. Passing by, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a restaurant, were it not for the laminated yellow paper with the place’s name tacked to one of the window shutters. And the crowd, that’s another dead giveaway. There’s already a mob of locals waiting out front, beer in hand (as if that were legal). The vibe is dive, a traditional fish tavern with fresh fresh seafood and cheap cheap house wine. Elbows on the table, excitement over the food, fast and loud service, an energetic atmosphere. As we sat at a table in the back room and waited for our food, we admired the old-school, wooden-doored refrigerator and the shelves lined with dusty bottles of oil, wine and rum, miscellaneous stuff from all over. There was even a large, white, plastic jug of what we guessed was sketchy house-booze mounted atop one of the higher shelves. We thought it best to avoid that.
The menu is a list of individual seafood items, fried or grilled with garlic and parsley, as well as a rather long meat section with things like chicken, lamb ribs and bacon (spelled “beicon”). They also have a few very popular randoms, such as the breaded and fried eggplant slices that our waiter recommended. We ordered two beers and a butifarra sausage (can’t go wrong with that) and then perused the seafood menu. Hake, whiting and red mullet (grilled or a la romana), grilled sardines, mackerel, something called maira, anchovies in vinegar, calamari, cuttlefish, baby cuttlefish, prawns.
My guy’s favorites are the chipirones, which are baby cuttlefish dipped in batter, deep fried and served with a lemon wedge. So we got some of these to start. I recommend you do the same. The heads and tails separated immediately, barely held together by a few tender fibers of flesh. The texture was in no way chewy, but soft and tight, creamy white under the golden brown coat. The batter stuck nicely to the slippery smooth skin of the animal instead of separating off from the steam. Some of it also got trapped in the delicate webs of small tentacles, resulting in wonderfully crunchy pieces to complement the meatier upper body of each cuttlefish. With beer on a hot summer day these are especially wonderful. Not the lightest dish, but not too much of a bomb either.
The butifarra was great too. For 3 euros it was quite a bit larger than expected, with a fantastic combination of a slightly charred, tight, caramelized natural casing and a steamy tube of juicy and moist pork inside. The flavors are smoky, salty and very slightly sweet. A bit greasy and definitely in need of some cold beer and bread on the side, but not heavy enough to stay with you after your meal.
Then gambas a la romana, grilled and seasoned with plenty of garlic, parsley and oil. Fork and knife down; these are to eat with your hands, to twist the head off the body carefully, suck out the salty soup of brown head juice almost overflowing from the head cavity and then to maneuver the flesh out of the tight little shell in one whole piece. The meat is fresh and sweet, cooked to the right temperature so that it’s just elastic enough without being too rubbery.
And then came a plate of sardines, grilled and treated with the same parsley, garlic and oil. Lemon on the size to squeeze on generously. These are always fun to eat, especially when you manage to slice them just right, separating the body into two skinny fillets of tender, salty meat. The glittering silver skin got a great char from the grill, resulting in bronze patches here and there. A very pretty dish, well balanced with lemon and parsley. Another great beer-side snack.
We ate at Can Maño on a lazy Saturday afternoon and strolled down to the beach to sit on the sand in our boots and coats with one more beer shared with a friend. And for a few moments we reminded ourselves that this is really Barcelona, the city in which we live, one which is unfortunately overrun with a cloud of tourists, the smog of which is sometimes difficult to see the city through. It’s easy to hate on the neighborhoods, the restaurants, the plazas, the markets that also attract these tourists, though often they actually are the most beautiful. The only solution is to try to see these places another way, by walking the streets, really paying attention and stopping at restaurants like Can Maño for a taste of the small bit of purity still left behind.