Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Basque Eats at Tia Pol

Back in 2004 I took a trip to Spain to go rock climbing in Catalunya, near Arboli.

I met up with some friends (or, actually, friends of friends who soon became actual friends) in Bilbao, in the Basque country, before we took a hair-raising cross-country drive to Catalunya to get to Arboli, where we would climb.

My mom is always scared I'm going to get injured when I'm out climbing, but what she should really have been afraid of was the Spanish highways -- I constantly felt as though I was playing some crazy game of motorized Frogger at 600 km an hour. Normally this would have stressed me out. But the Vascos we were with had a fondness for what they called "porros," or, hash mixed with tobacco. They smoked these from morning till night, even while driving. Once the car filled up with smoke, *somehow* I was able to mellow out about the impending death or twisted-metal doom we always seemed to be narrowly escaping on the road.

I speak a little Spanish, albeit poorly. I can't remember how to conjugate verbs correctly so I end up saying things like, "Four days behind yesterday I want to eat cheese. We buy cheese. Cheese good. Where I buy cheese now?" Although I sound like a certified retard, I can at least come close to making my point if I have a dictionary on hand. Can I keep up with heated arguments about Basque separatism? No. Can I find out where a bathroom is or order a beer? Yes.

Complicating matters on this trip, however, was that we spent much of our time in either the Basque country, or Catalunya. The Basque language is totally indecipherable and as far as I can tell has absolutely nothing to do with Spanish; the words are consonant-heavy tangles of Xs and Ks. In fact, the language has yet to be classified into a language family.
Catalan is only marginally less difficult; it's some kind of mishmash transitory language based on both French and Spanish. The Spaniards tried to be welcoming by speaking Spanish, instead of Basque or Catalan, when we were around. But, the restaurateurs weren't so thoughtful.

And so, when dinnertime came, we usually only had one option: point, pick and hope for the best.

Luckily, the hearty food of Catalunya and the Basque country turned out to be rustic and delicious, and we eagerly sought out every opportunity to "point and pick" croquettes (delicious, fried, melty balls of cheese and serrano ham), tortillas (layered pies of sliced potatoes) and seafood.

We ate so much of the same stuff that when I stumble upon something similar now, it really transports me back to that happy adventure. Thus, I've been wanting to hit up regional Spanish restaurant Tia Pol (one of the chefs is Basque) for some time. A little culinary vacation, if you will.

Last night I and one of my favorite dinner companions, B, toughed out an hourlong wait and went to Tia Pol, which is on 22nd and 10th Ave. Normally, I leave tapas bars still hungry and pissed off about overpaying for underwhelming food. Tia Pol was just the opposite.

For about $40 we got drinks and more food than we could handle -- I think we had about 10 total plates, and I definitely would NOT describe them all as "small." Plates cost $3 to $14 or so.

Things we'd HIGHLY recommend: the salted, blistered green peppers (which have already gotten much love in the press -- get a large order), the fried chickpeas (addictive on the level of nicotine), the ham and cheese croquettes (divine), white asparagus with caviar (delicate), and patatas bravas with aioli (rich, sinful and stacked deep in their crock).

The deviled eggs were OK but I thought they were a little heavy on the paprika. Neither of us liked the salt cod ("Ewww, it tastes like mashed potatoes whipped with fish," B said.) although that doesn't necessarily say anything about the preparation. We both found the lamb skewers to be tough and not all that tasty.

Desert choices were limited -- a flan, an almond cake, and a Calimoxo. "A Calimoxo?" I wondered. When I was in Spain, I learned a somewhat embarassing lesson about the Calimoxo (pronounced cal-ee-MO-cho), which is a sweet mix of red wine and Coke.

I kept ordering them because that way I wouldn't get a) too drunk or b) too tired -- which tended to happen given the late hours and heavy drinking schedule the Spaniards keep. Often when someone went up for the next round, they looked a little puzzled at my order, or sometimes they smirked. Eventually, someone broke through the language barrier enough to let me know that I was ordering the type of thing that teenagers drink on the sly at weddings -- like a Zima or a wine cooler. My face was red as I gulped down my next glass of fizzy, grapey goodness.

ANYWAY, I thought since it was listed as a dessert that it would be a TWIST on the Calimoxo -- you know, frozen, or served as a, um, reduction, or something. The waitress mentioned something about a granita. However, what showed up was....a red wine and Coke, with a tiny chunk of red wine ice floating on top. It was fine for what it was, but it wasn't dessert. It was just a Calimoxo.

My suggested addition to the Tia Pol dessert drink menu, which would remain true to Basque and Catalan regional fare, is the bom bom, an espresso mixed with sweetened condensed milk. I drank every one I could get my hands on in Spain, and it might make the wait at Tia Pol worthwhile if I could end my dinner with one of those.


Blogger Mike said...

Do you not like salt cod in general, or did you just not like it at Tia Pol? It's kind of an acquired taste, at any rate.

4:07 PM  

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