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Food in Spain Part 2 of 5 — Pamplona

Pamplona!  Let’s run with the bulls!  Er, maybe not.  I’m all for experiencing local culture, but that’s one tradition I think I’ll sit out.

A few facts about the Running of the Bulls that I learned during our visit:

– The running of the bulls takes place each morning at 8am during the week of Fiesta de San Fermin in July. I always thought it was just a single day. What’s even more amazing is that all those nuts who join in are doing it first thing in the morning!  I’m barely able to lift the toilet seat at 8am, let alone run alongside stampeding bulls who could potentially kill me.

– The actual running takes only  4-5 minutes.  The bulls surge up the hill into Pamplona’s old city and wind their way through the narrow streets until they reach the historic bullring.

– Some sections of streets in the old city were re-surfaced a few years back with a special non-slip cobblestone.  I can’t remember if this was to prevent the bulls from slipping, or the humans.

But enough bull-talk.

As we walked from our hotel toward the old city, we passed this.

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That’s a 24-hour bread vending machine. You pop your money in, and a baguette comes out.  Greatest idea ever.  Who doesn’t get the occasional hankering for bread at 3am?

Up the hill into old city, and this is the view.

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Some of the buildings need structural support, so they’ve erected these.  Hmm. That doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

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Lunch, our first pintxo experience!

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I asked Carlos the difference between tapas and pintxos, and he explained it as tapas referring more to small plates, and pintxos as individual-sized portions that have been skewered with a stick, or “pinched.”

Essentially when you go to a pintxo bar, the pinxtos are displayed on the counter, and you select whatever you’d like. It’s an ideal way to graze and sample the offerings at multiple stops.

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The only downside is that you end up feeling like a kid in a candy store who wants to try everything!

A common pintxo sight — olives, anchovies and green beans, swimming in luxurious Spanish olive oil.  It’s a combo that just works.

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Wine and Coke come together in this drink called Kalimotxo. Unusual. Probably wouldn’t order it again, but not bad.

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I settled in with a cod croqueta, grilled zucchini and bacon sandwich, and boquerones and peppers on  bread.

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You don’t see much meat in a cone in the  States.

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We walked off our lunch during the afternoon, taking in the sights.

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Around mid-afternoon we stopped in at Café Bar Gaucho for a snack. Mine was a piquillo pepper stuffed with cod.

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I began to understand the wonderful rhythm of Spain and pintxos: walk a bit, eat a bit, walk a bit, eat a bit. Drink wine. Repeat.

Exhausted from all the eating and walking, we plopped ourselves down in the late afternoon at Café Iruña, where Ernest Hemingway himself frequented back in the day. (Hemingway made Pamplona famous with The Sun Also Rises.)

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A bottle of wine, people-watching and a view of Plaza del Castillo. One of us marveled, “I could think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.”

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The pinxto bars really come alive at night, with people streaming in and crowding around the pinxtos.  At Bar Gaucho the two employees behind the counter were a whirl of motion, taking orders, heating up pintxos, pouring wine, sorting out bills… I don’t know how they kept it together during the chaos, but somehow they did.

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At one point it sounded like one particularly loud female customer was arguing with one of the ladies behind the counter, but in the end we decided it was more an animated conversation than an argument.

I lost track of pictures at this point, so you’ll have to take my word for it that our group had pintxos and wine flying all over the place.  When we finally tracked down the bill (no one in Spain seems in any rush to have you actually pay), I did a double-take. That can’t be right, I thought.  The bill seemed way too low considering how much we ate and drank.  This would become a common theme throughout the trip.

The finishing touch was a cone of natas con billetes ice cream near the plaza.

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Pamplona… if you’re going to visit for the bulls, stay for the food!

Next: Logroño

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Food in Spain Part 1 of 5 — Barcelona

It’s almost impossible to write a blog post about food in Spain. There are only so many superlatives,  and only so many times that one can write the word ‘delicious.’

But I’m going to try.  I’m going to try to point out most of what I ate during a northern Spain tour that included Barcelona, Pamplona, Logroño, San Sebastian and Madrid.  There will be five blog posts, with Barcelona being the first. (And the shortest, since we spent the least amount of time there.)

There’ll be the requisite gushing, and I’ll try not to break down while writing this and sobbing, Why??? Why can’t I go back to Spain right now???

First things first.  If you love food and are thinking of visiting Spain, I highly recommend looking into traveling with Intrepid Travel and searching out the tour leader, Carlos.  The man has a passion for food, and when he realized how much the other six of us in the group loved food as well, his eyes lit up and he became positively giddy. He started making mental plans of all the local places he would take us.

So, Barcelona. Limited time, but I did spend a few hours walking around and immediately observed the Spanish obsession with jamón, their renowned hams. You could barely walk a block without seeing some form of jamón in a store window.

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I also saw small restaurants with these types of menus all around the city. This seems to be the Spanish version of fast food — sub sandwiches with fillings like manchego, chorizo, anchovies, tuna and olives, hot dogs, etc.

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And then there was this. I suppose even in a great food city, there’s a demand for shitty pizza.

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For dinner, Carlos took us on a walk past the Sants train station. Looked like your typical modern cityscape. Suddenly, we veered left down a small set of stairs, and it was as though we had entered a different time and a different city.  The quaint, narrow streets and older-style architecture led to this open plaza, where people were dining outside and enjoying the mild late-October air.

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This was our first night together as a group. We put our trust in Carlos and let him do the ordering.

I think I probably requested this though, seeing as how it’s one of my absolute favorites: pimientos de Padrón.  It’s a particular kind of Spanish pepper that’s pan-fried and sprinkled liberally with sea salt.  I could not get enough of these things, and neither could everyone else.

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An assortment of cured meats like jamón, mixed in with Spanish cheeses.

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Pan con tomate.  Crazy delicious (there’s that word!) and crusty bread that you first rub garlic cloves onto, followed by a juicy tomato.

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I couldn’t keep up with the pictures so I stopped trying, but we also tucked into boquerones (vinegared fresh anchovies), prawn croquettes, calamari, hummus and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a tomato sauce and aioli). And of course there was wine. Lots of wine.

Stuffed and happy, we wandered back to our hotel.  We had learned a few things on our first night. One, Spaniards eat late. Lunch is late, and dinner is late, like starting past 9pm. And there’s no rush either. They take their time. Two, food and drink are markedly inexpensive compared with dining in the States.  More on that later, but I remember splitting the bill thinking, That’s it?  And three, wine is a way of life.  It accompanies practically every meal — as natural as having a glass of water.

I knew already that I would love Spain.

Next: Pamplona

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The World’s Saddest Order of Chicken Tenders

Lake Anna State Park, VA has a lot going for it: picturesque lake, walking trails, grassy areas, picnic spots, showers… But this order of chicken tenders from their snack bar takes the prize as the world’s saddest.

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For $5, three waif-like pieces of chicken (they look bigger because my camera’s so close up). I trembled as I held them in my hands, savoring each fleeting moment with my precious tenders.

Leave it to chicken tenders to turn a person into a character from a Dickens novel:

“Please sir, I want some more.”

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Chinese Dumplings Invade Glover Park

It doesn’t appear that the word’s gotten out yet, but there’s a bona fide Chinese dumplings spot in town. The name of the restaurant, Dumplings and Beyond, is undeniably goofy — it conjures up images of bed sheets and 20% off coupons.

Don’t snicker at those dumplings though, ’cause they’re legit.

It seems that the chef/owner? of the highly esteemed China Bistro in Rockville has expanded her reach with this new venture in Glover Park. The handmade dumplings (jiaozi) are prepared with the same technique. (You can watch them being made on the way to the restroom.) The result is heavenly.

First, choose your filling. The ones pictured below were the house special of pork, shrimp, cabbage and chives.

Then take your pick of steamed or pan-fried. Why not both?

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Dumplings come ten to an order.  That sounds like a lot, until you realize these aren’t the jiaozi you’re accustomed to eating in most Chinese restaurants. You know the type: gut-bombs with thick, gummy skin and leaden fillings. Two or three of those and you’re done.

The Dumplings and Beyond version is characterized by a delicate skin with chew. No easy feat — too delicate, and the filling would fall right out the bottom. It helps that the filling is packed with a gentle touch.

The result is a balanced dumpling that’s flavorful, juicy and light. You get rolling on these things and you’ll want to eat more and more. On this visit, three of us put down 40 dumplings with ease. I think we could have kept going.

I’d like to get the word out about Dumplings and Beyond, but not TOO much. Part of me wants to keep the place to myself so that I can stroll in there any time I’m around Glover Park. Sometimes a guy needs a dumpling fix.

Dumplings and Beyond
2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Washington, DC
202-338-3815

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For Charlottesville BBQ, Ace is the Place

If you didn’t know what it was, you’d think that Ace Biscuit & Barbecue was a garage, or the office of Jim Feinstein, local accountant. It’s a non-descript brick building in a non-descript part of Charlottesville near the train tracks.

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Ah, but looks can be deceiving.

Inside, the place was bustling with activity and customers, and the smell of barbecue wafted through the air.

The efficiency at Ace is impressive. To speed up the process, an employee walks through the line taking orders, so that by the time you reach the register all that’s left to do is pay.

Your jaw will drop as you observe orders come out of the kitchen. The fried chicken and waffles looked spectacular, as did the day’s special — brisket, fried egg and cheddar on a biscuit.

By the time my pulled pork sandwich arrived, my mouth was watering like a Pavlov’s dog.

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That’s an astounding heap of pulled pork. It spilled out the sides like a pork glacier. A container of Carolina vinegar, and mounds of potato salad and collards completed the platter.

The pulled pork was great, but the surprise was the bun. So many barbecue joints treat the bun like an afterthought; they spend all their time and effort on the meat, only to throw it on a shitty hamburger bun. This bun had been toasted and I believe buttered, and it was soft and chewy. That extra touch makes a world of difference.

The scenery, breweries and vineyards will draw me back to Charlottesville this summer. Thanks to Ace, so will the barbecue.

Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
711 Henry Ave.
Charlottesville, VA
434-202-1403