Rarely am I as hungry as I was arriving in Santiago de Compostela on the second night of our recent roadtrip to Northwest Spain. Earlier that day we had toured the city of Gijon, driven along the Asturian coastline to the magnificent Praia das Catedrais, lain out on the beach for a couple of hours to tan for the first time this year, then driven down to Santiago de Compostela. By 7pm I was regretting not having finished my churros that morning. A quick check-in at our hotel (just a stone’s throw from the beautiful Archcathedral Basilica), a quick shower, a fresh olive-green dress pulled over my sunburnt back, and we were out the door, absolutely ravenous to the point of being shaky and lightheaded.
Luckily a good Galician friend of Ben’s had recommended a spot nearby, and after getting lost in the labyrinthine layout of Santiago’s historic center and a quick trip back to the car for an umbrella, we found ourselves on the massive terrace of El Caballo Blanco (locally O Cabalo Branco). Recognizing quickly the rare and glorious air of a clear local favorite, we took a seat and ordered beers. I very rudely and without even a “Grazas” inhaled my portion of the very generous tapas which came free with the beers. There were slices of Manchego cheese, cured ham with fresh bread, and some very delicious squares of empanada gallega, which is more like a piece of a savory pie stuffed with pork and roasted red pepper. My sight slightly less hazy and thinking a bit more clearly with something in my stomach, I began to finally take in the Praza da Pescadería Vella, surrounded by the traditional stone houses with wrought iron balconies and galleries built of whitewashed wood and glass. Tables of loud, enthusiastic youths. The buzz of a market nearby. The idea had been to just get a beer here before moving for dinner to O Dezaseis (another recommendation), but it hit us at that moment how much we miss the Spanish terraza, the 2-euro caña (always with something to snack on) and the usual suspects: unas bravas, unas croquetas, unos pimientos de Padrón. So we stayed and ordered them all.
I’m not sure if it’s because we were starving or because these were the first croquetas we had had for over 2 years, but my-oh-my were they to die for. That perfectly golden brown, gritty and crunchy breadcrumb crust burst at the seams to reveal a thick, gooey and glossy bechamel filling that first burned the roof of my mouth (waiting patiently for it to cool down was just unrealistic), then coated the same with its wonderfully viscous texture. This one was made with bits of ham, which imbued every bite with a strong smoked pork flavor. Definitely some of the most memorable croquetqs I have ever had.
Patatas bravas are such a simple snack, yet so satisfying when done correctly. Here, each irregularly cut piece of potato was fried to perfection, until golden brown and crunchy with no unpleasantly mealy or soggy pieces in the center. They came dusted with paprika and topped with a hefty squeeze of garlicky aioli to drunk the pieces into. Absolutely perfect when you’re hungry, absolutely perfect with beer.
And my favorites, wrinkly and charred Padrón peppers sprinkled with coarse salt. There is probably nothing I enjoy more with a beer than grabbing one of these bad-boys by the stem and biting down into the plump little cap, filled with tender seeds. The pepper flesh is slightly smoky, slightly caramelized, with its delicate sweetness and green flavor further enhanced by the salt. I had thought it an urban legend that each pile of these peppers contains one spicy one as I’ve never gotten it before, until that night. A pleasant heat, just enough to clear the sinuses for a second between two sips of cold Galician micro-brew.
Croquetas, bravas, pimientos del Padron – every terrace bar has them but they are rarely THIS delicious. Anyone who has ever lived anywhere in Spain knows this Holy Trinity of beer-side terraza tapas, as well as the vibe that usually surrounds them. After just 2.5 years spent in Barcelona this became something so engrained in my definition of a night out that it has been painfully difficult to live without them in France. Luckily I’m married to someone who shares this exact same register of memories and appetite for these dishes, this vibe, this life in general. Our trip was the perfect reminder that all that still exists, just across the Pyrenees.