Name: Como Taperia
Location: 201 E. 7th Ave., Vancouver
Cuisine: Spanish tapas
Prices: Tapas, $3 to $10; small plates, $9 to $17; conservas, $16 to $60
Additional information: Open daily, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; reservations only for groups of six or more.
Rating system: Casual dining
Miguel nods approvingly at the crackling-skinned pork belly with white beans stewed in Basque cider. He’s from Malaga in southern Spain and this rustic dish hails from the north, but he and his young friends, all crowded around the bar drinking small glasses of draft beer (canas), declare the pork authentic.
Les, who was raised in Madrid and has retired to Vancouver, is slicing through the gooey centre of a golden-tanned tortilla cooked to order. The omelette’s runny interior sparks lively debate:
It should be firm, so it can be held in the hand;
No, this is an upscale version served in many bars in Barcelona;
Who cares, it’s delicious.
Carmen, meanwhile, is discussing the fried chorizo’s spice quotient with an owner. The recipe was acquired from a restaurant in Madrid and is made locally, but the hot pimenton has been notched up on purpose.
“Because Canadians need that excitement in their mouth. I don’t get it!” she laughs.
Carmen Ruiz y Laza, the glamorous host of CarmenTV, is here at Como Taperia as my guest. I asked her to come along because she is the most proudly Spanish person I know and Vancouver doesn’t exactly have a huge Spanish population. A tourist stumbling into this bar might get a different impression – because it feels like they’re all here.
Opened in November, Como Taperia has already become a magnet for Spaniards seeking a true taste of home. It’s owned by three industry veterans – bartender Shaun Layton (L’Abattoir, Juniper), Frankie Harrington (co-founder of Meat & Bread) and chef Justin Witcher (Clayoquot Wilderness Resort) – who don’t have a drop of Spanish blood among them. And yet, they’ve captured the style, vibrancy and flavours of a Spanish tapas restaurant better than any other attempt in Vancouver. Or, so say all the Spaniards we meet.
We’re having so much fun at the stand-up bar – nibbling tangy boquerones, sipping dry fino sherry on tap, picking out olives from the cases behind the counter and sharing them with cordial strangers – that when a table finally comes available (the waits can be up to 90 minutes during peak hours) we give it away and stay right where we are.
The long wait for a table might be a deal-breaker for some. But the location, in the up-and-coming commercial neck of Mount Pleasant at 7th Avenue and Main Street, makes it manageable. While not a typical pintxo crawl, there are enough brewpubs and bars in the vicinity that you could spend the whole evening hopping to and fro. Although we don’t venture anywhere else, we meet at least a dozen people who are just dropping in for a drink and a few bites as one stop among many.
The bar, everyone standing around it agrees, should have been built larger. And the drink selection is fantastic. Zesty txakoli (a dry, high-acid white wine) and tart Basque cider are poured with flair in long streams from great heights from bottles held over the shoulder. Watch out, you might get splashed.
There is a rotating list of eight gin and tonics, a perfect margarita rimmed with pimenton and the weirdly refreshing kalimotxo, a red wine, lemon and cola cocktail. The list of vermouths and sherries is vast and includes the terrifically bitter-sweet El Bandarra vermut served with an olive garnish, which goes down almost too easy.
Even if you’re not standing around the bar, chances are you’ll have a good time. The rest of the room, a mix of tightly squeezed high tops and communal counters next to the open kitchen, buzzes with the same high energy. It’s a bright, breezy design by Craig Stanghetta, punctuated with soccer paraphernalia and filled in around the edges with open shelves lined with canned goods.
Many of those cans contain seafood – top-grade anchovies, razor clams, squid, octopus and so on, packed in brine, seawater and olive oil. Spain has a great tradition of preserving premium fish. And Como Taperia’s conserva menu is extensive. The prices, starting at $16 for 110 grams of mussels and topping out at $60 for Galician gooseneck barnacles, aren’t cheap, but the markups are minimal. On a previous visit, I cracked into a tin of grilled sardines so plump, clean and tender, they were well worth $25. Whatever conserva you choose, order it like they do in Spain, with freshly fried potato chips and a bottle of hot sauce on the side.
The kitchen does much more than just open tins, slice fatty slivers of melt-in-the-mouth jamon iberico or skewer plump green olives with anchovies and peppers into a delightful little snack called Gilda.
There are also golden croquettes crumbed in crisp panko and bursting with creamy béchamel; pan-fried chicken livers showered in pine nuts and smothered under a warm, sticky blanket of brandy-macerated stone fruit; and big platters of clams simply sautéed in olive oil and finished with vermouth that should definitely be sopped up with charred pan con tomate rubbed with garlic.
Seafood is treated with respect. Tender accordion slices of squid, served in a vibrant pool of romesco sauce, are barely kissed by the grill so that the initial chew dissolves into briny meltiness. Gorgeous Galician octopus delivers a wallop of ocean salinity in each delicate medallion and is served with fingerling potatoes cooked in the same poaching water, creating a wave effect across the plate. The flavour is almost drowned out by smoked paprika, which is used a little too liberally on some dishes, yet still shines through.
The kitchen isn’t reinventing any wheels – and that is to be commended. When the ingredients are this good, they should be allowed to speak for themselves. According to all the Spaniards we meet, Como Taperia tastes like home.