Best tapas in Barcelona? I’m still not quite sure. But Ciudad Condal comes pretty damn close. It’s the first place I’d think of if asked for the “best overall tapas experience,” after considering a wide range of pros and cons. I recommend it to friends visiting Barcelona as a way to prevent them from falling into the tourist potholes. Heaven forbid they should stumble inadvertently into a 100 Montaditos, or that god-awful Passeig de Gracia Tapa Tapa that already preys on too many clueless tourists wandering hungrily out of their shopping sprees at ZARA. No. Cross the street and head a block over to Rambla de Catalunya, where Ciudad Condal awaits you with its long wooden bar and turn-of-the-century mood without the museum-restaurant prices.
Tip #1: Important here to remember not to go between the hours of 1:30pm and 3:00pm or 9:00pm and 10:30pm. During lunch and dinner, pretty much every day, this place gets a mad rush of locals in the know. The spacious inner dining room and outdoor terrace fill up and stay filled up. But the place is technically open from 8:00am-1:30am, so the trick is to go between rush hours. The place serves breakfast staples like tortilla de patatas, croissants and sweet pastries in the morning. They switch to savory, substantial items for lunch and roll out the more serious, meaty tapas for dinner.
Ben had for 2 years been telling me about Ciudad Condal when finally, on our last week in Barcelona, we popped over for lunch. Exhausted from packing boxes all morning we needed a feast of the good stuff and a beer. And that’s exactly what we found as we opened the door, sitting at the bar at roughly 3:45pm. At that hour I was half-expecting a post lunch rush wreck – toppings slapped clumsily off bread bases, crumbs everywhere, foods clearly made in the morning morning made to stretch till the afternoon. Maybe even a little extra garnish positioned pathetically here and there to make the old look fresh and new. That’s not what we found at Ciudad Condal.
Everything looked fresh and polished. Half-empty trays were withdrawn every few minutes, passed back through a window to the kitchen, and returned full with shiny new tapas to choose from. At around 4:00pm, the bar woman took down the montaditos, replacing them with flauta sandwiches of all kinds: butifarra (white sausage), cooked ham, dried ham, tortilla, cheese, tomato, etc. This was the bar transitioning from lunch to “afternoon snack” time. And the variety was overwhelming. Tip #2: Before placing your order, remember to walk the length of the bar and peer between guests to see the full range of what they offer. Don’t be shy and just choose the stuff closest to you!
When picking out tapas I always like a montadito topped with roasted eggplant. Nothing beats a bite of creamy, smooth berenjena, especially when paired with its best friends, goat cheese and sundried tomato. This trio appears at almost every tapas bar I’ve visited. Ciudad Condal was out of it, so I got a close alternative: eggplant on red bell pepper topped with an anchovy fillet. A great starter montadito, combining the crunch and sweetness of the pepper with the silky, nutty eggplant. The burst of brine from the wet little anchovy livened things up, acting as a more aggressive substitute for pungent goat cheese.
The crab salad montadito. Never order this at one of those run-down late-night dive-type tapas joints you’ll see frequented by older gentlemen who order beer at 9:00am. Reserve for the restaurants you trust, like Ciudad Condal. I once had this tapa at a bar down Carrer Blai just minutes before the place started closing up. It was stiff on the outside, the uneven chunks of fake crab gliding down a track of coagulating mayo. A pinch of pathetic paprika sprinkled over the top to call attention away from the ghastly color of the meat. Ciudad Condal’s version is far from this. Tender bits of im. crab mixed with a light binder, corn kernels for crunch and color, and a plump chilled shrimp mounted on top. You’ll find a nice variety of seafood salad montaditos here – I would recommend trying at least one of them.
Speaking of variety, Ciudad Condal sure isn’t stingy about their ensaladilla rusa offering. Below the montaditos, sandwiches and croquettas is an endless row of refrigerated items served by the scoop. Pasta salads, avocado salad, potato salads, chopped veggies with cheese. And ensaladilla rusa of many different types. We tried one with chunks of boiled potato, pieces of carrot, strips of roasted red pepper, peas, flaky tuna, boiled egg and mayo. The traditional. A no-brainer brand of delicious, this tapa is creamy, mushy, savory and fatty in all the right places. The pieces of potato are kept just the right size to offer a good bite. Strands of tuna absorb the creamy mayo and the boiled egg yolk adds a silky finish to each mouthful. I’d recommend ordering a plate of crunchy pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato) to mount the stuff on. (Eaten by itself this “salad” can be pretty heavy.)
Always nice to have something golden brown and delicious on your plate. A little something fried to complement the chilled, grilled and mounted. We ordered some alcachofas fritas (fried artichoke hearts), sliced thin and sprinkled with rock salt. This is the type of crunchy thing best enjoyed with a glass of fresh draft beer. Easy to share, but hard to stop eating once you’ve begun.
Next up: the All-Stars from Ciudad Condal’s wonderful seafood collection. Shrimp, clams, cuttlefish, squid, octopus, baby fish, giant pans of mussels. Most things chosen raw to be cooked fresh to order. We chose navajas (razor clams) grilled with good oil and fresh chopped parsley sprinkled over the top. Tender and sweet strips of marine meat, very fresh, its natural sweetness brought out even more by a squeeze of fresh lemon over the top.
And finally some grilled prawns, seasoned with sea salt and parsley, served with lemon to squeeze over the top. I eat these by first twisting off the head and sucking out the briny juice inside. Next, a quick tear down the abdomen, a flipping back of the hardened shell, and out comes the curly-cued, tender little body in one delicious piece.
I’m not always in the mood for these guys since de-shelling them requires too much work for a very small bite of something good. You either struggle with your fork and knife to open the abdomen in a way that doesn’t catapult droplets of hot briny oil at you, or you grab them and risk appearing vulgar among refined company. Then again, the second option has never bothered me. It’s mostly the odor of seafood lingering on my fingertips all day that I do not enjoy about the experience.
Tip #3: Don’t leave without trying their roscón de la casa. I’m not usually a big sweet-tooth gal so a dessert recommendation from me is rare. But this decadent, grandma-style cake is not to be missed. Alternating layers of soft yellow cake and sweet custard, with a caramelized top, whiskey-infused throughout. Tremendously moist, with a delicate sweetness that is nicely complemented with whipped cream and melted caramel. Absolutely delicious!