Eat Your Way Through Madrid With This Guide to the Tastiest Tapas

Apr 25, 2016

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One of the best parts of traveling through Europe is the food. Madrid-based TPG Contributor Lori Zaino guides us through some of Spain’s most popular dishes and where to find them in Madrid. (All photos are by author unless otherwise noted.)

Madrid seems to have become a hot destination for foodies since you can enjoy delicious Mediterranean meals for a very low price. Madrid, in particular, is famous for its hanging legs of cured ham, wide varieties of cheeses and of course, tapas.

Tapas are small plates of food you can order at restaurants and bars. The name originates from an old tale explaining how small plates were used to cover (tapar is the Spanish verb for cover) wine so flies wouldn’t enter the glass. Meanwhile, around the same time, the King of Spain also mandated that food be served with all alcohol to avoid drunken and disorderly conduct that could arise from drinking on an empty stomach. As a result, food was placed on the plate which covered the glass. The name stuck, and today, most Spanish bars and restaurants offer small plates of food for customers to munch on as they drink (sometimes for free and sometimes for a small charge). At minimum, you should be offered some olives, nuts or potato chips to snack on for free when you order a drink in most places.

Creamed spinach with egg and goat cheese with pineapple tostas at Jurucha Tapas Bar.
Creamed spinach with egg and goat cheese with pineapple tostas at Jurucha Tapas Bar.

Tapeando, or hopping from bar to bar enjoying tapas, is a fun-filled day or evening activity and a huge part of Spanish culture. Below you’ll find a short guide so that you too can enjoy tapeando in Madrid!

Typical Spanish Dishes 

Spanish seafood delights.
Spanish seafood delights.

Bear in mind that any dish can be made into a tapa, the word really refers to the portion size, not the style of food. Tapa means a small plate and ración is a bigger plate, typically meant for sharing. Often times a media ración is also an option, which is bigger than a tapa but smaller than a ración. Pinchos is another word you may come across, and this usually refers to tapas held together with a small stick or toothpick. Pinchos are typical in Northern Spain but can also be found in other places, like Barcelona.

1. Embutidos (cured meat)

Embutidos galore: Salchichón, chorizo, manchego, picos and olives.
Embutidos galore: Salchichón, chorizo, manchego, picos and olives.

American deli cold cuts may come to mind but there is nothing baloney about this. Spaniards are serious about their meats and cheeses, and some of the most popular items are jamón (ham), queso Manchego (Manchego cheese), chorizo (spicy sausage) and salchichón (salami). Poncelet Cheese Bar is the perfect spot to sample a variety of cheeses as they offer more than 150 different styles of cheese from 11 different countries. Cured meats can be found at almost any typical bar or restaurant, but a great tip is to pop into a bar that has legs of ham dangling from the ceiling or a large ham leg on the bar. This means that the Iberian ham you order will be freshly sliced off the leg and brought to your table.

2. Jamón Iberico de Bellota

A plate of freshly sliced jamón.
A plate of freshly sliced jamón.

Especially delicious, Jamón Iberico de Bellota means the pig was fed acorns before, well, you know. Cones of ham or sausage can also be purchased for a few dollars at the Mercado de San Ildefonso. Finally, the Museo del Jamón has various locations around Madrid and will offer you a bocadillo de jamón y caña (an Iberian ham sandwich and small beer) for just $2.

3. Patatas Bravas

Don’t these patatas bravas look amazing right about now?

This dish consists of freshly sliced potatoes fried in olive oil and drizzled with a spicy Brava sauce. You can also order them mixtas style, meaning one side will have the Brava sauce and the other side will have Aoili sauce (a topping made of fresh garlic, olive oil and mustard). Get them at La Manduca, a local bar that crisps the potatoes perfectly and uses its own special variety of Brava sauce.

4. Tostas

Shrimp with pineapple on a small baguette toast.
Shrimp with pineapple on a small baguette toast.

Tostas are small pieces of toast topped with items like brie and salmon, meat and caramelized onions or goat cheese and apples. However, you can put pretty much anything on a slice of baguette, so the options are endless. Some of the most delectable tostas can be found at Lateral restaurant or at many of Madrid’s food markets, like the Mercado de San Miguel. Jurucha is a traditional spot with excellent tostas — brush up on your Spanish, as the bar staff doesn’t speak a lick of English.

5. Paella

Paella, filled with rabbit and vegetables.
Paella, filled with rabbit and vegetables.

This Valencian rice dish can be prepared in a variety of styles, but typically is chock-full of fresh seafood like prawns, mussels and calamari, among other seafood. Rabbit and vegetable paella is also a popular dish. While there are plenty of restaurants where you can order a full pan to share with a group, some restaurants, like Pepita Pulgarcita de Madrid in the local Plaza Manuel Becerra, will offer you a small plate as a tapa when you order a drink or two.

6. Croquetas

Tasty, fried balls stuffed with ham, cheese, chicken, etc.
Tasty, fried balls stuffed with ham, cheese and chicken, are quite popular.

Croquetas are small, breaded fried balls of goodness. Most typically have a ham mixture inside and lately there has been a revival, with restaurants putting everything from spinach to codfish to cheese inside. If you want to go all out, try the croquetas de rabo de toro (oxtail croquets) at Maricastaña — they will literally melt in your mouth.

7. Tortilla de Patata

You can get the whole tortilla, or just a slice. You can also carb-load, as sometimes it's served on bread or as a sandwich.
You can get the whole tortilla, or just a slice. You can also carb-load, as sometimes it’s served on bread or as a sandwich.

A delicious potato and egg omelette, this may be one of the simplest but most delicious dishes in Spain — if you want to get real crazy, you can order one with onions! Vegetarians take note: This dish is one of the few specialties that come meatless in Spain. Flash Flash restaurant is a spot entirely dedicated to these omelettes and stuffs them with elaborate ingredients like truffles, cheeses, mushrooms, chicken and surprise, ham.

8. Gazpacho/Salmorejo

Salmorejo is an Andalusian specialty, but can be found all over Spain.
Salmorejo is an Andalusian specialty but can be found all over Spain.

These two Andalusian delights are both tomato-based cold soups. Gazpacho is typically topped with vegetables while salmorejo is a creamier version mixed with eggs, bacon or ham shavings. Eat these cold soups on a hot spring or summer day as they are surprisingly refreshing. Although these are best ordered in the south of Spain, Emma Cocina has some of the most savory salmorejo I’ve come across in Madrid. La Zaguina is another prime spot for these cold soups and you may also catch some impromptu flamenco there as well.

9. Huevos Rotos

Broken eggs over potatoes topped with ham.
Broken eggs over potatoes topped with ham.

Literally translated to “broken eggs,” this dish is simple but wonderful. It consists of two fried eggs topped over potatoes and garnished with ham, sausage or another type of meat. You cut up the eggs, leaving to yolk to soak into the steaming hot potatoes and top it all off with ham. The best spot in Madrid to find this dish is Entre Caceres y Badajoz — this bar is also known to offer free tapas when drinks are ordered.

10. Don’t Forget to Drink Up

Red wine is cheap and delicious in Spain.
Red wine is cheap and delicious in Spain.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Spain if you didn’t pair your tapas with a beer or a nice glass of Spanish wine. Typically a caña (small beer) or a glass of red wine is best paired with most Spanish culinary delights. Rioja and Ribera are the most common options, referring to the Spanish wine region they’ve been cultivated in. Tinto de Verano is a crisp, refreshing wine spritzer drink that Spaniards enjoy once the warm weather arrives.

Getting to Madrid

All three airline alliances provide options for getting from North America to Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD):

  • Oneworld — Iberia offers nonstop flights to MAD from Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Miami (MIA), while American flies nonstop from Dallas (DFW) and Philadelphia (PHL). You’ll need 60,000 AAdvantage miles for a round-trip economy ticket, 115,000 for a round-trip business class ticket or 170,000 for a first class ticket following AA’s March 22 devaluation.
  • SkyTeam — Delta flies nonstop to MAD from New York (JFK) or Atlanta (ATL). Delta no longer publishes an award chart, but after searching several dates, it appears that you’ll need to redeem a minimum of 75,000 SkyMiles for a round-trip economy award ticket or 295,000 in business class.
  • Star Alliance — United flies nonstop to MAD from Newark (EWR), requiring 60,000 United MileagePlus miles for an economy saver award ticket, 115,000 for business class and 160,000 for first class.

Where to Stay

The Westin Palace Madrid is a TPG favorite. Photo courtesy of hotel.
The Westin Palace, Madrid is a TPG favorite. Image courtesy of the hotel.

If you have hotel rewards points to spare, The Westin Palace, Madrid is located in the city center and this luxe Starwood hotel is furnished with traditional regal Spanish decor. Rates for this Category 5 property start at 269 euros ($303) or 12,000 Starpoints per night in April.

If you’re in the mood for a truly opulent escape that’s slightly farther from all the action, AC Santo Mauro, part of the Autograph Collection, is a stunning property. This Category 8 palace-turned-hotel is small, cozy and has a very boutique feel. Rates start at or 245 euros ($276) or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night in April.

A Final Tip

Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacations in foreign countries like Spain. To see more cards without these fees, check out this post: Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

Do you have a favorite food in Spain or a go-to tapas spot in Madrid? Share your tips in the comments section below.

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