Little Madrid brings a taste of Spain to Sawmill Market with tapas - Albuquerque Journal

Little Madrid brings a taste of Spain to Sawmill Market with tapas

A sampling of Little Madrid tapas, clockwise from lower left: Green Chile Chicken Croquettes, Basque Cheesecake, Papas Bravas and Gazpacho. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

There are several different origin stories for tapas, the Spanish snacks created back in the Middle Ages as accompaniments to wine. One account credits King Alfonso X of Castile, who promoted the serving of food with drinks as a way to combat public drunkenness. My personal favorite involves bartenders putting pieces of bread or slices of meat and cheese over customers’ glasses to keep flies and dust out of their drinks. The word, after all, is Spanish for “lid.”

Whatever the case, Spanish tapas have had enormous influence on the restaurant world. Here in New Mexico we have several places serving up these sweet and savory small plates. Recent years have seen Debajo and Damacios joining veterans MÁS Tapas Y Vino and Gecko’s on the tapas beat. Up in Santa Fe, El Farol and La Boca are virtual institutions.

Little Madrid, the latest arrival to Albuquerque’s tapas scene, is a bit different, being set in a corner of Sawmill Market, the bustling food hall near Old Town.

Christian Monchâtre, maestro of culinary operations at Sawmill, launched Little Madrid in February. The French-born chef’s inspiration came from his time working in San Sebastian in the Basque region of northeast Spain.

Little Madrid occupies a prime location on the southeast corner of Sawmill, adjacent to the parking lot but away from the clamor of the middle of the hall. It’s a very large space by Sawmill standards, and handsomely decorated with hand-painted tiles over the counter facings and back walls. There are rows of seats along the windows, and lots of additional seating nearby, both inside and out.

Of all the places in Sawmill, Little Madrid has the most wide-ranging variety of menu choices. There were no less than 30 tapas on display on a recent weekday lunch hour, including both cold and hot items comprised of meats, seafood and veggies. One side of the L-shaped counter was dominated by three wide, shallow pans filled with different versions of paella. Basque Cheesecake, the only dessert on offer, is sold behind a separate counter.

Most of the items are premade and none are individually priced. Instead, you pay by the number of items you order. Naturally, the pricing incentivizes ordering more things. One item is $8, three are $21 and seven are $47. Not cheap, but virtually everything is shareable. I ordered five items, my friend got three, and the server crossed them off the bill as we chose. It was a bit like getting doughnuts, what with the server updating us on how many choices we had left.

Our meal began with gazpacho, the tomato-based cold soup that originated in southern Spain. Little Madrid’s version, served in a plastic cup, was pretty watery and vinegar-forward.

More tapas, clockwise from lower left: Paella New Mexico Paella, Pintxos, Montaditos and Paella de Verduras. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The three versions of paella that day included the vegetarian Paella de Verduras, the meaty Paella Valencia and a Paella New Mexico, infused with green chile. Burnished with saffron, the Paella de Verduras was well-seasoned and bright with green beans, peas, butter beans and roasted red peppers. I preferred the Paella New Mexico. The dull color belied an intense flavor and a little bit of heat from the green chile and sausage. Missing from both paellas was the crispy, toasted rice that typically lines the bottom of the pan.

Alongside the paella were several versions of the open-faced sandwiches known as montaditos. The two we tried were nicely done. The first paired peppers and chunks of tomatoes with tangy goat cheese; the second, a couple thick pieces of roast beef with onions.

Arrayed in a tray in one display case were pintxos, skewers typical of the Basque region. The name comes from Spanish verb pinchar, meaning to poke or stab. One skewer combined spicy and sweet with a fig and a hot pepper, while the other matched blocks of mildly flavored cheese with red peppers and chorizo. Thoughtful pairings, but they offer less bang for your buck than the other choices.

The many other classic tapas on display included Tortilla Espanola, an omelet made with eggs and potatoes, and the meatball dish known as Albondigas. More adventurous diners may want to try the Boquerones, anchovies pickled in vinegar. We opted for three Green Chile Chicken Croquettes served a small-handled dish with a topping of aioli. They resembled mini-egg rolls. The coating was crisp and savory and the silky smooth filling tasted faintly of green chile.

Papas Bravas, Spanish fried potatoes, are in my experience one of the more reliable tapas. Little Madrid’s version arrived to us darkened with paprika and hot and crisp from the grill. The tomato sauce and aioli cut the starch of the potatoes with tang and acid.

Basque Cheesecake, often referred to as burnt cheesecake, has no crust and is caramelized on top from cooking at a high temperature. Smoother and creamier than the New York-style cheesecake, it was an excellent finish to the meal. It comes with a choice of three sauces.

Little Madrid occupies the southeast corner of Sawmill Market. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

We did not get to test the ability of tapas to combat drunkenness, as it was too early in the day to imbibe on Little Madrid’s selection of beer and Spanish wine.

Two servers work the counter efficiently while one cook ran the grill in the back. Both servers knew the menu well, an important attribute with so many things to choose from. There are several gluten-free options available.

With an impressive variety of classic Spanish tapas, Little Madrid nicely fills a niche at Sawmill Market. It’s another worthy addition to Albuquerque’s tapas scene.

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