“A farm-to-table Spanish tapas bar led by big-time culinary talents opens its doors inside a style-conscious youth hostel.” The summary sounds like a joke about those crazy foodies down in Austin finding yet another way to out-weird the rest of Texas.
But it’s not a news alert from Austin. Deep Ellum is the place to find Izkina, the new tapas bar from chef Joel Orsini and a couple of colleagues from his former restaurant, the now-closed Dallas landmark FT33. Izkina is serving exciting, even joy-inducing Spanish snacks under the auspices of the Deep Ellum Hostel, which is owned by a group from ... well, they’re from Austin. So that makes sense.
Make no mistake: This is a bar first and foremost, and not an especially welcoming one. Service is almost willfully ragged. When I first walked in, a man who appeared to be a bartender (in that he was behind a bar and preparing ingredients for drinks) told me that he wasn’t actually on duty and I couldn’t order anything from him. I had to order not merely at the bar, but specifically at the end facing the front door, where the room’s one and only service employee was stationed. There he told me that the $5 happy hour draft beer special applied to exactly one beer.
On later visits, the service was friendlier, but I still felt like I was wandering into a college buddy’s dorm room in search of food. When I asked what wines they had, a bartender said the wine list was outdated, grabbed some bottles and handed them to me.
The best way to recover from this curious welcome is to arrive during happy hour, which extends all the way to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Happy hour means cheap drinks, but more important it means cheap bites of food, like a delightful $2 mix of good-quality olives and a $3 piece of toast topped with fluffy white cumulus clouds of ultra-fresh, creamy Spanish goat cheese. Another $3 slice of bread comes with a huge smear of peppery aioli and a whole fried anchovy, the batter crispy and the fish delightfully simple in flavor. (Watch out for its spine.)
Pieces of toast are the stars of the happy hour menu, but my fondness for them isn’t just a millennial affectation. The pan con tomate ($3, or $7 for a full portion) is an old-school Spanish classic of fresh tomatoes scrubbed onto the bread, and at Izkina, even in the dead of winter, the produce has a thrilling, tongue-lashing extra jolt of acidity.
In theory, hostel-goers could make a meal out of ordering everything on the happy hour list — $15 for six snacks — but there are plenty of reasons to turn to the main menu. One of the best is the patatas bravas, a beloved classic of Spanish cuisine ($6). Orsini and his crew fry tiny fingerling potatoes and build them into a mound on an eighth-size sheet pan, then add a smoky red pepper sauce and numerous dollops of garlic aioli. The result is the perfect bar food, an addicting pile of oily, spicy, garlicky potato greatness; I’ve had worse in Barcelona.
Other inspirations may be fleeting as the kitchen finds new fresh produce. One visit produced seared cherry tomatoes and squid nestled together in a bowl, sweet-acidic tomatoes popping between my teeth as I chewed ($9). There was also a terrific pan of mixed peppers, including fiercely spicy, pickled chocolate poblano peppers, named for their dark color rather than their flavor, and sweeter roasted Spanish reds ($9).
On another night, the starring vegetable was the humble turnip, which arrived in three different guises ($8). Big wedges of roasted turnip, thin fans of pickled turnip and a chopped-up, fermented sauce of the veggie’s green tops were all doused in enough olive oil that I can, with a straight face, call turnips an indulgence. On the other hand, it was no surprise that balls of mozzarella battered in rice flour and deep-fried were decadent and delicious ($8).
The tortilla española, another tapas classic in which eggs and potatoes are folded into a soft, savory layer cake, gets topped with Izkina’s house-made mojo picon, a Spanish hot sauce made from dried peppers, cumin and garlic ($8). The depth and intensity of flavor is made possible by aging the mojo picon — by the time diners try it, their portion may have been aging for over a month.
Given the tiny size of the kitchen behind the bar at Izkina, it’s a little surprising that we’ve only scratched the surface of the menu. Izkina’s storage closet is a Harry Potter-style cupboard under the stairs, with a house-elf-sized door. The kitchen itself is visible through a small window in the back wall. The window even has chalkboard shutters, on which Orsini and his assistants, Jess Alonzo and Petey Feng, might write exhortations to try certain dishes.
But despite the small crew and improbable setup, Izkina has much more to offer. As this review was filed, the bar started offering Sunday paella specials. There is a charcuterie program begging to be explored. And Izkina is one of the very few places in Dallas where diners can feast on premium tins of Spanish fish. These aren’t the chopped white tuna chunks of my childhood; they’re carefully preserved pieces of squid in its ink, or yellowfin tuna belly, and they’re served with toast and other fixings.
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I haven’t had the tinned fish yet, but that doesn’t worry me. As long as Izkina keeps turning out such inspired fare, with such affordable price tags and such commitment to FT33’s locavore, preserve-everything ways, I’ll be visiting once every month or so from now until the end of time.
“Let’s be regulars at a youth hostel bar.” Now there’s a sentence I never imagined saying until now.
Izkina, 2801 Elm St., 214-712-8118, deepellumhostel.com. Kitchen open Monday through Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon-11 p.m.