What American Tapas Restaurants Get Wrong

The other day, while reading my mother’s copy of Reader’s Digest, I stumbled along a “funny” quote:

What the ...?
What the …?

This shouldn’t have enraged me … but it did. Okay, perhaps “enraged” is the wrong word to use, but I was rather miffed after reading this. I even Tweeted about how this person clearly didn’t get tapas. But then I thought about it some more. This person did get tapas, except he had only had tapas in American restaurants, meaning his experience was worlds away from what real tapas are like. I guess I couldn’t blame him, though I did blame Reader’s Digest for publishing his inane comment.

The real question is—What do American restaurants do wrong when it comes to tapas? Is it even possible for them to do it right?

American restaurants serve tapas at raciones price.

In Spain there are usually a few different categories of dishes on the menu, including tapas and raciones. Tapa are individual sizes, whereas raciones are meant to be shared among 3–4 friends. In the U.S., the restaurants make you pay much more for smaller-than-raciones sizes, meaning the guy in my picture is, um, right.

Whole Foods refers to tapas as “tiny treasures of Spain.”

American restaurants hardly ever give you anything for free.

Don’t you love getting something “for free”? It’s not really free, but in many Spanish restaurants (outside of certain areas), you’ll get a free tapa when you order a drink (a beer, a glass of wine, or a soft drink). I’ve never been to a tapas restaurant in the U.S. that does this.

There is no tapeo experience.

The true Spanish tapeo experience involves walking from bar to bar to get the best thing at each particular bar. In Zamora, for example, we know the best place to get a pincho moruno (pork kabob), calamares (fried squid), and a sandwich made with pork loin and Cabrales cheese.

You go from bar to bar with a group of friends. Ponéis todos un bote, meaning you all pool your money for a kitty—you then use this money to pay at each bar instead of everyone paying for their own drinks at each place. (You must put someone in charge of this. Choose wisely.) At the end of the night, if there’s money left over, we usually just save it “for the next one.” In Spain, there is never the last round; it’s always la penúltima (next to last).

The drinks are expensive.

When I come back from Spain, I can never believe how much wine is here. You want me to pay $10 for one glass of mediocre wine?! And you’re going to serve it to me room temperature? And you’re going to fill the glass up? I know it’s not like that in nicer places, but so many places just don’t know how to serve wine. At all. In Spain, you can get a good glass of wine for €3–€4 in Madrid, and in Zamora, we pay for €1.30 for a really decent glass of Toro wine.

Beer in Spain, if not usually good, is at least cheap. There are more and more places to get craft brews, but those tend not to be your traditional tapas bars.

And stop it with all the sangría, okay? Spaniards do drink it—sometimes—but most will likely opt for a beer, wine, or even vermouth.

Paella.

I know not even to get a Valencian started on paella, so I won’t go too into too much detail. But stop with the paella crimes, okay? Just stop!

So what do American tapas restaurants actually do right?

In my opinion, not a lot. They push things like sangría, they mix up Spanish with South American, and they charge way too much for way too little. However, I can say one thing: The taste of the food is good, even if there’s too little of it to really appreciate.

What’s your experience with tapas restaurants in the U.S. or other countries besides Spain?

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20 thoughts on “What American Tapas Restaurants Get Wrong

  1. These are my thoughts exactly, especially having gone to a Spanish restaurant in Dallas with a friend over the weekend. My half of the ticket came to $26 with tax and tip…unbelievable although I had been craving Spanish food. All we got was a platter with a few slices of jamon serrano, two thin slices of Manchego, a tiny bowl of marinated olives, a sliced chorizo link, and some pieces of salchichon–for 14 dollars!!! A plate of 4 (admittedly good) croquetas was 7 bucks, and two thick slices of Tetilla cheese was $4. We both got the cheapest Riojas on the menus, or $6 for a glass. That place made $50 off of what we could have done for 20 or 25 euros in Spain. Ouch! It’s all a big money-making scheme…

      1. I love manchego too! Although it’s a style I get in Zamora and it’s called “queso zamorano,” of course, and I like it the best.

        1. I love queso zamorano too! Thank goodness Despana here in NYC sells it along with jamon bellota..my addiction problem-solved!

  2. I completely agree, but I also agree with Lyn that there are regional differences within the U.S.

    My husband and I went for “tapas” (I use that word loosely) recently at a place that serves “Mexican and Spanish tapas,” a preposterous notion in my opinion. The patatas bravas had alioli sauce. Annoying. And the calamares were a verguenza.

    1. There definitely are places with better food than others; it’s really not the food itself that’s the problem (most of the time). It’s usually the prices, the experience, even the atmosphere.

      Also, patatas bravas shouldn’t be called that if they have alioli. They should be called “patatas alioli” hahaha.

  3. YES! I’ve always complained about the American (and now Australian) concept of tapas. Why bother paying more for smaller portions? Tapas in the U.S. and Australia are rarely actually Spanish food, and when they are, they’re nothing like the real thing!

    The other night, I paid about $17 for a slice of tortilla (somewhere between a tapa and ración size), and everyone who worked at the restaurant insisted on calling it “tortila” (short “i”, “l” instead of “ll”) and even corrected me when I said it properly! I know I’m literally on the other side of the world from Spain, but it still made me sad that no one here gets it. Clearly I just need to find some Spanish friends (preferably good cooks) here.

  4. Hi Kaley! It’s so interesting how broad the tapas concept can be depending on the setting (and the area of Spain, too!). Being Catalan, I see the local concept of “tapas” is quite different from the rest of Spain, as here the idea of raciones doesn’t even exist…
    See my post about the meaning of tapas, and tell me your thoughts!
    http://www.foreverbarcelona.com/2014/07/01/what-are-tapas-meaning-of-tapas-revealed/

    @Sally: in Barcelona you’ll often see bravas topped with allioli, then sprinkled with a red spicy oil or a thick spicy tomato sauce. There’s even a place, Fábrica Moritz, where they have both versions and they call them “braves d’aquí” and “braves d’allà”: bravas from here (meaning Barcelona or Catalonia?) and bravas from there (meaning from the rest of Spain? Never paid attention to how bravas are served when I’ve been to other regions…). But yes, if your bravas lacked the added spicy sauce or oil… That’s not bravas!

  5. Exactly my thoughts, Kaley. Fortunately, I have found a very good Spanish tapas restaurant in Milwaukee. The food is delicious and the most authentic I’ve had since leaving Spain, but the price, tapas experience, and pushing of sangria isn’t quite Spanish. Can’t wait until I’m back in Spain for the real deal.

  6. I haven’t been to too many Spanish restaurants in America, to be honest. I did NYE at Cafe Iberico (at 5pm so we could watch what was happening at Sol!), which was a flat fee for a buffet, and BA-Ba-Ree-Ba, where I got raciones with girlfriends. Am considering a catered taps feast for my wedding…we’ll see!

  7. You hit the nail on the head! I can’t BELIEVE how expensive stuff is over here now after living in Madrid. It’s incredible. I’ve had people look at me as though I’m really cheap, but I’m sorry – after paying what we pay in Madrid, and the greater quality of basics served there, it’s hard to swallow the horrible pill that is North American eating-out culture.

    My favourite places in Madrid are the ones that offer cheap, if not free, tapas with drinks. It’s even great health-wise (for me anyway) as I usually eat less because of tapas.

  8. Yes, yes, yes. I couldn’t agree more. And it breaks my heart that Americans are getting tapas ALL WRONG! We should collectively band together as guiri bloggers and fight this blasphemous representation of Spanish food. America (and the rest of the world) deserves to know the real beauty of tapas done right!

  9. I’ve been to a good Spanish restaurant in Boston run by a Spaniard from Madrid. The food there was the closest thing I have come to experiencing Spanish food since I left. And the tapas menu seemed legit too. But yeah, most of the time the tapas in American restaurants aren’t really tapas and they get Spanish food all wrong.

  10. I’ve gotten really good at finding my go-to places in New York so if I have to move back I have my sources of comfort food. Even though New York has everything, it certainly hasn’t been easy to find something close enough to what I can get in Spain.

  11. As a Spanish living in London I found the exact same problem, tapas size with main dishes price. And of course, although understandable, no culture of tapeo.
    Great post!

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