Many of us are familiar with the lowly and inexpensive appetizer. These easy to eat prequels to dinner are the tiny bites that often consist of finger food and little dips, and can foreshadow the quality of food to come. In the fine dining set, they might be called an amuse-bouche, the little taste that is offered by the chef as a means of thanking you for your patronage while at the same time displaying his or her witty, culinary ability.
Offering complimentary tastes is common in many societies but leave it to the Louisiana Creole French to come up with a name for this phenomenon, the lagniappe.
In the 1880s, Mark Twain was pleased to discover this amusing word in his travels to New Orleans, and wrote that it was both expressive and handy. He went on to describe the lagniappe as the 13th roll in a baker's dozen, a complimentary stick of licorice for a child, or a cheap cigar for a servant.
He also noted that the term originated in the Spanish quarter of the city.
That the Spaniards are refined in the art of the lagniappe is evidenced by tapas, the complimentary appetizer offered in taverns also as a means of expressing gratitude. Free food served on small plates offered benefits to the tavern keeper as well, keeping his guests drinking more beer or wine without overly impairing their ability to do so. Tapas come in three categories: cosas de picar (finger food like almonds and olives), pinchos (food eaten with a fork or toothpick), or the more extravagant cazuelas (things cooked in a sauce like a meatball or stew).
In the United States the system of lagniappe has turned into a restaurant concept: We are now able to frequent a tapas restaurant and simply purchase what little bites and tastes we desire without relying on the generosity and whims of the tavern owner. Progress but at a price.
Today, we explore some tapas restaurants in Dallas and glimpse at the dish in what we call the Tapas Tumble: Si Tapas vs. Sangria Mediterranean Tapas and Bar.
Both of today's opponents are considered great choices for tapas, offering a vast array of small plates for the hungry Dallas diner. These restaurants capture the quality of spirit offered in Spain sans the lagniappe mentality. In other words: You pay for what you eat. (And drink.)
Both restaurants offer a medley of choices that includes meats, seafood and vegetables
One particular dish to which we are always drawn is the tortilla espanola. This tasty egg dish is a simple concoction that resembles the Italian frittata: it's flat, made with eggs and infused with morsels of vegetable or meat. But in the case of the tortilla--which has little to do with the Tex Mex tortilla--these are generally filled with a simple potato and onion concoction.
In the tapas world, the tortilla may be listed under several names such as the tortilla espanola, or tortilla de patatas, or the more bite-sized pincho de tortilla.
Our first visit was to Si Tapas, the little oasis of a restaurant tucked away on Allen near State Street in Uptown. The place has the feel of a Spanish tavern, with its cozy dark rooms.
Attempting to dine at Si Tapas simply for the singular dish of tortilla proved difficult with its inviting menu that is as varied as the diners seated in the tiny restaurant. The selections include interesting seafood dishes such as grilled octopus and eels, and seared tuna and croquet's.
Our order of tortilla espanola arrives. It's big, perfectly cylindrical, and pretty as it is delicious. There is a sweet drizzle of roasted garlic aoli that melts with every bite.
The Si Tapas version is as classic as you can possibly get with a tortilla, and was satisfyingly delicious.
The next stop was to the more intimate Sangria Mediterranean Tapas and Bar located off Knox on Cole Avenue. As it happened, Tuesday was half-priced wine day so we were able to shout out a 'Bingo," and ordered a Faustino I Gran Reserve which is a Spanish Tempranillo and Grenache blend and a bargain at half priced $32.
When asking for the tortilla, the waiter was quick to point out that he did not know what that particular dish was. We pointed to what was called a Spanish Omelet, and he described what was in actuality a tortilla. After all, what self-respecting tapas concern wouldn't serve the venerable Spanish dish?
The Spanish omelet arrive, and it did indeed resemble the tortilla. However instead of the dense layers of potato, this version was more fluffy - not surprisingly, like an omelet. But it was thick, filled with potato and onion and tasted very much like the tortilla. It was served with a side of garlic aoli.
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The dish was certainly no disappointment. But it was clear to us that the attempt to recreate the fond tortilla was minimal. The dense disk we were served at Si Tapas breathed deeply the spirit of the tortilla, and we tasted the layers of crisp flavors that takes considerably longer to create properly.
For its adherence and tenacity to the classic dish of Spain we offer the prize of bragging rights and all the pageantry that comes with a Toque to Toque win to Si Tapas. Congrats.
2207 Allen St.
Sangria Mediterranean Tapas and Bar
4524 Cole Ave.