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Creative, tasty tapas are the attraction at La Boca

La Boca, the tiny sister restaurant to Taberna, offers Spanish tapas, or small plates, for lunch, as well as happy hour and dinner.

Tapas are ancient history in Santa Fe, where El Farol has succeeded with the concept for many decades, as has El Meson, though for fewer years.

The notion of lunching on a series of savory morsels usually associated with evenings and bars may be new here, however, and it’s a welcome idea.

But La Boca has something more interesting going for it: The tapas we sampled each offered very unusual flavor combinations, all of them successful.

The lunch menu includes a few meal-size plates, including steak and paella, as well as a selection of sandwiches for those in need of greater sustenance.

Two of us split three small plates for lunch recently and more than enjoyed the experience. We asked for them to be served together, the better to compare tastes and textures. The choice left room for dessert, which we recommend.

The star of our small-plate show may not appeal to everybody: “boquerones” or pickled white anchovies ($12). But we both love regular anchovies, had no idea what white anchovies might be, and in any case had never eaten these small pungent fish any way but salted and oiled. La Boca’s presentation lined up a row of these teeny, silvery soldiers on an oblong white plate and garnished them with very, very finely chopped fennel and strawberry.

It may sound unlikely but it was wonderful – the sweet tones of the fennel and sweet-tart strawberry married well in the mouth with the lightly pickled (and lightly flavored) morsels of fish. We demolished them all, perching them on the thin and toasted baguette rounds served alongside.

Only two problems: It was hard to get the morsels and especially the garnish onto the bread with a dinner-size fork. Spoon? Smaller fork? And we could have eaten many more.

But then, light eating is the corollary to small plates. Thusly, tacos de La Boca ($10) came two to a plate – enough to share, but not to sate the appetite.

Two things were unusual here. The tacos were made with bite-size morsels of shrimp and morcilla, which I knew was some kind of Spanish sausage and recognized on tasting as a kind of blood sausage.

No problem there – I love blood sausage, too, and it’s hard to find hereabouts. My guest was less enthused, but admitted that La Boca’s treatment of the morcilla – chopping it into little bits and frying it until slightly crunchy – saved the combination of light and dark flavors for her.

The other surprise on the plate was the little salad of slivered mangos, pickled onions and cucumbers. The salad treatment resulted in mango “pickles,” a concept my guest, who may be the only person on the planet not fond of mangos, applauded.

Also worth noting: The obligatory “salsa” was made from pimenton, the smoky Spanish paprika. It was lightly flavored with agri-dulce, a sweet-and-sour note that went well with the taco contents. And it was very spicy.

Fearing we might need more than a few mouthfuls of food, however interesting, to hold us all afternoon, we also ordered the “vegetariana” sandwich ($11). Really a wrap, it proved to be flatbread stuffed with roasted vegetables and locally sourced goat cheese. It, too, was excellent, although beyond the tortilla-like thinness of the flatbread, we couldn’t find anything radical here.

The robust and perfectly roasted combination of red peppers, zucchini and eggplant appealed to me, although my guest wasn’t so fond of the eggplant, reduced by the roasting to puree I thought was a nice “sauce” for this knife-and-fork friendly selection.

La Boca offers a choice of sides with its sandwiches. Unfortunately, my guest doesn’t enjoy green salad, I dismissed the couscous, and I don’t generally care for cabbage-and-pineapple slaw.

So we got fries, which were great – crunchy and salty and hot. On the sandwich plate at a nearby table, I spotted a serving of the slaw, which looked to be made with fresh pineapple. Next time, I’ll give that healthier option a try.

La Boca also offers a half-sandwich with a cup of soup or a salad for $10.

The dessert menu also provided some out-of-the-ordinary selections like nougat semifreddo and gateau Basque, the latter of which sounded straightforward, but turned out differently. Desserts are $9; a platter of three is $25.

The gateau was less a cake than a sweet, slightly crunchy timbale, swaddling a nicely flavored vanilla cream filling. The dollop of crème fraîche was a sour note at first bite, but scooped up with the brandied sweet cherries strewn atop, it proved a wonderful combination

We also chose the chocolate pots de creme, which was the best “chocolate pudding” I can remember eating in Santa Fe. Its dark and super bittersweet intensity demanded to be savored slowly. We also enjoyed the lemon-anise shortbread garnish – like very thin and rich bizcochitos, given a slightly exotic twist by the lemon.

One caveat: La Boca is in the postage-stamp-sized space on Marcy Street near Washington Avenue that has, in my memory, always housed a restaurant and, very often, some of Santa Fe’s most notable. That means La Boca can be noisy if crowded. The tables are tiny and close together, adding to the din.

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