Tapas bars are to Spain what fast-food franchises are to the States: no mere eating establishments, they reflect the collective lifestyle of the society that created them. While the latter answer to Americans’ need for speed and instant gratification, the former let those fun-lovin’ Spaniards linger, drink, and socialize. We gobble; they graze. And though we’re growing savvier, we still have a long way to go. No wonder it’s so tough to re-create the true tapas experience here: even if you’re in no hurry to eat and run, the customers waiting for your seats may be, along with the tip-dependent wait staff.
Mind you, Boston’s not hurting for tapas restaurants. Take Taberna de Haro (999 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617.277.8272); run by the former owners of a tapería in Madrid, it turns out superb pinchos and racioneslike spicy papas arrugadas and, well, anything seafood-based, be it salt-codstuffed peppers or bluefish spread on toast. But with its long bar and parallel bank of communal tables, its blackboard of by-the-glass wine specials and its general bubbly bustle, dim-lit Toro (1704 Washington Street, Boston, 617.536.4300) may most closely resemble Spain’s tapas bars. Indeed, I prefer dining at the bar, where I can nibble as I please on dishes that are no less authentic for all their creativity (after all, Spain’s where the world-class culinary action is these days). Beyond must-try signatures like the salt-cod fritters paired with intriguing lemon rings ($9) and the peppy grilled corn with alioli and cojita ($5), the menu is your oyster — and the pearls range from perfectly simple Brussels sprouts roasted with olive oil and sea salt ($8) to delicacies like a special on wild mushrooms sautéed with cockscombs and topped with an egg poached in almond milk ($12). In the end, the genuine and generous talent that owner Ken Oringer has found in chef John Critchley is reason enough to frequent Toro; the ambiance only augments it. All this place needs now are a few customers brave enough to bring their guitars and break out in impromptu, drunken song.
Ramen-ya (noodle shop)
If you’ve ever seen Tampopo, you know the effect good noodles can have on a hungry soul. But what constitutes good noodles? I asked Limster — a Chowhound.com regular whose gastronomic expertise is well-known on both coasts — for advice. According to him, the classic noodle shop simply “specializes in noodles, and does it well. Things that folks look for in a ramen include the texture of the noodles, the flavor of the stock, and the quality of the ingredients.” On his recommendation, I checked out Ken’s Noodle House (1 Brighton Avenue, Allston, 617.254.5524), facing the parking lot of the Super 88. True to its modest genre, the little joint isn’t much to look at — unless you count the view of the open kitchen, where the cooks quietly and efficiently assemble your bowl of goodies, or the view of yourself slurping away in the dining area’s large mirror. (Come to think of it, that’s plenty to look at.) The small menu lists a handful of varieties of ramen as well as a couple of rice dishes and side orders, all less than 10 bucks. So live a little and go for the Sapporo ($9.50), featuring sliced roast pork, corn kernels, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, boiled egg, and, of course, those yellow wheat noodles in a miso broth (itself apparently pork-enhanced). One spoonful, containing depths of meaty flavor and noodles with bite, is enough to ensure you’ll never go back to that salty, slimy instant stuff again.