Take a Tip from Spain: Have a Few Small Bites to Wash Down Your Happy Hour Libations

Barhopping during happy hour is a sacred rite of passage from workday to evening, but Spain's version of this time-honored tradition just might be better than ours.

You see, we have nachos, quesadillas and wings as our standard happy hour fare. In Spain, they have chorizo al vino (sausage sauteed in wine), gambas al ajillo (prawns sauteed in garlic), and chuletas de cordero a la parill (lamb chops on the grill), all washed down with Rioja blanco or tinto. Sounds better that Miller Lite with jalapeno poppers, doesn't it?

Legends on the origins of tapas abound. One says that King Alphonso XII of Spain stopped by a local inn in Cadiz, Andalusia, and ordered a cup of sherry. The prudent waiter decided to cover His Majesty's libation with a slice of cured ham to prevent it from being fouled with beach sand. After downing his drink, the satisfied monarch ordered another round "with the cover," and the tradition caught on.

In any case, Andalusia is usually cited as the region of origin, and these small plates dominate the Iberian dining scene. Writing in Travel + Leisure Magazine, Anya von Bremzen shows why such dining is infused into the Spanish way of life:

"A visitor can get off a plane, go straight to a tapas bar in any Spanish city, inhale some jamon and migas, and feel like an insider within thirty minutes. The eats...are only part of what makes a tapeo so vital to Spaniards and irresistible to Americans. Pressed together at crowded counters, teenagers trade confidences with octogenarians and locals break bread with foreigners. On a tapeo, old ties are refreshed, new relationships are sparked, and an evening often turns into a come-one, come-all street fiesta. This is a way that the Spaniards keep bland globalization at bay, maintaining such a deep-rooted sense of community that the whole disparate country often has the feel of a big village. Even Spain's status as a mecca of progressive cuisine owes much to the locals' readiness to engage with new tastes. Spaniards will try anything once, as long as it's small. Aren't the tidbits dished up by avant-garde guru Ferran Adria at El Bulli essentially a form of tapas?"

In other words, think small plates and lots of them. Eat a few tapas, and you've basically covered dinner, although the Spaniards usually employ tapas to tide them over until their late dinner hour .

James Beard award-winning chef and writer Clifford Wright notes:

"Tapas can be grouped into three main categories, according to how easy they are to eat: cosas de picar, pinchos, and cazuelas. Cosas de picar....basically refer to finger food, the most famous being the olive -- the quintessential Spanish and, in fact, Mediterranean finger food. If a utensil (like banderillas, decorated toothpicks that get their name because they look like darts in a bullfight) is required to eat the food, the tapa is called pinchos. Cazuelas (little dishes) are dishes that usually come in sauce, for example, albondigas (meatballs), or shrimp fried in garlic."

In Dallas, Si Tapas Restaurant and Bar prepares more than 50 of the feisty little plates, including savory gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic), luscious judias verdes con jamon serrado en salsa de mostaza (fresh green beans with Serrano ham in mustard sauce), and addictive aceitunas de la casa (mixed marinated olives). Accompanied by glasses of Spanish Rioja blanco and Tempranillo, Si Tapas small bites are good enough to make you want to linger awhile. In other words, no barhopping necessary.