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The Best Spanish Tapas Dishes You Simply Must Try!

Updated on May 27, 2017
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Lena is a foodie and home cook from the SF Bay Area with a passion for Spanish flavors and traditional cooking with a modern touch!

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Whether it's your first visit to a tapas bar or you're going to host a tapas party at home, selection is everything. It can be intimidating to look at a long list of dishes you don't recognize, or maybe you just have too many favorites and you need to narrow down the list!

It's no secret that I'm a Spanish food lover, but more specifically, I'm a tapas junkie. There's nothing that gets me through a hard day like knowing that I can park myself at the bar with a glass of wine and a few of my favorite small plates at the end of it.

Tapas and red wine
Tapas and red wine | Source

Popular Tapas Dishes at a Glance

Tapas Dish
What You'll Get
Aceitunas
Olives, sometimes stuffed or marinated
Albondigas
Meatballs (usually pork) with sauce
Bacalao
Salt cod, often served with bread and tomatoes
Banderillas
Cold pickles made of baby onion, baby cucumbers, chilis or peppers
Boquerones
Anchovies ("en vinagre" means "in vinegar")
Calamares Fritos
Squid rings, battered and fried
Costillas
Pork ribs, sometimes confit
Croquetas
Breaded, fried mixture of meat or fish
Empanadillas
Small turnovers filled with meat and/or vegetables
Ensalada
Salad, see your menu for specific ingredients
Gambas
Prawns (can be served with different sauces)
Gazpacho
Cold tomato soup, with garlic and/or cucumber
Mejillones Rellenos
Stuffed mussels,usually very spicy
Patatas Bravas
Fried potatoes served with spicy tomato sauce or aioli
Piquillos Rellenos
Stuffed piquillo peppers
Pulpo
Octopus, cooked and served various ways
Pinchos Morunos
Meat on a skewer (or "pincho") cooked on the grill
Tortilla de Patatas
Spanish omelette with potatoes, also known as tortilla espaƱola
Grilled octopus, or "pulpo"
Grilled octopus, or "pulpo" | Source

How to Eat Tapas

In Spain, eating tapas isn't always a relaxing affair. Many establishments only serve tapas at the bar, not at the sit-down tables, where they require that you order raciones, or larger-style plates. During peak dining hours, you may find yourself squeezing in at the counter to gobble down your favorite dish (usually standing up), and then strolling on down the street to the next restaurant to do the same thing. The walk and the fresh air prime your appetite for the next stop.

In the United States, your average diner expects a different experience, so eateries tend to cater to the American customer. Here in the Bay Area, I often go to La Marcha, which is named for the traditional walk between tapas bars, but where you don't have to elbow someone to get a seat on a stool at the bar. I have to admit, I enjoy settling in for a few hours with a friend, without all the pressure to move on.

Tapas Menu Vocabulary

Before you start ordering (or planning your party menu), make sure you know a few basic pieces of vocabulary so you know what to expect.

  • allioli or aioli is a mayonnaise-like sauce made with garlic and oil
  • al ajillo means the dish is cooked "with garlic"
  • al pil-pil means "with spicy pepper sauce"
  • al salsa negra means "with black peppercorn sauce"
  • a la sidra means cooked "with cider"
  • al vino means cooked "with wine"
  • al whisky means cooked "with whiskey"
  • con achoas means "with anchovies"
  • frito(s) means "fried"
  • mixta means "mixed," such as a salad or a paella with many ingredients
  • relleno(s) means "stuffed"

If you learn the terms above, along with the words for some basic ingredients, you'll be able to figure out almost any menu item just from its name!

Popular Tapas Dishes

Depending on what region, city, and even restaurant you're in, you'll find almost infinite variations of classic tapas, but there are some favorites you can find almost anywhere.

Patatas Bravas

If you're new to Spanish cuisine, this is an easy "gateway plate" to try. Everyone loves fried potatoes, right? Also called papas bravas, they're a good kid-friendly option if you're traveling with children (or other picky eaters). They generally come with aioli or tomato sauce, but be warned: one or all of the elements may be spicy.

Patatas bravas, also called "papas bravas"
Patatas bravas, also called "papas bravas" | Source

Albondigas

Another easy entry point for the uninitiated (or for children) are these classic meatballs. They're primarily made with pork, but sometimes contains other meat, like beef. The name comes from Arabic al-bunduq, or "hazelnut," because of the shape. They usually come in tomato sauce, and their characteristic soft, moist texture is due to the liberal use of breadcrumbs in the mixture. They may be served plain or with a creamy tomato sauce, as they are at La Marcha Tapas Bar (best restaurant in Berkeley, hands down).

Albondigas in tomato sauce with bread
Albondigas in tomato sauce with bread | Source

Gazpacho

This cold soup has epic origins, as far back as the ancient Romans. The red tomato version we think of today has only been internationally popular since the 19th Century, but it became an instant classic for good reason. Besides tomatoes, authentic gazpacho is made with cucumbers, garlic, and parsley and thickened with bread; variations contain watermelon (very American!) or meat or seafood stock for extra umami.

There are also green and white gazpacho soups, the former made with green vegetables and the latter just with almonds and garlic. White gazpacho is more accurately known as ajo blanco.

Tomato, white, and jamon gazpachos
Tomato, white, and jamon gazpachos | Source

Croquetas

You may know these nuggets of goodness by their French name, "croquettes," but a tapa by any other name is just as sweet. They may be cylindrical or spherical, but it's the filling (not the shape) that really matters. In Spain, you'll mostly find fillings of ham, chicken, or cod, but if you're feeling adventurous, try morcilla (blood sausage). The photo below is a beautiful chicken croqueta from La Marcha, which also makes delicious cod and mushroom varieties.

A Spanish croqueta, or "croquette"
A Spanish croqueta, or "croquette" | Source

Tortilla de Patatas

This dish is known by a lot of different names, but in English you'll often hear it referred to as a Spanish omelette or Spanish tortilla. Basically, it is a cake make of eggs, potatoes, and (usually) onions. You may see it served by the wedge at dinner, but for tapas it's usually cut down to bite-friendly size.

Tortilla Espanola, also called Tortilla de Patatas
Tortilla Espanola, also called Tortilla de Patatas | Source
A glass of white wine
A glass of white wine | Source

Having a Tapas Party?

If you're looking to make your own, there are a lot of easy tapas recipes online these days. I recommend enlisting a friend to help and opening a bottle of wine right away to make the cooking more pleasant for everyone.

When planning your menu, try to select tapas with a variety of textures, temperatures, and flavors for the authentic experience. It helps to pick a few dishes that you can do ahead of time, like marinated olives or homemade pickled banderillas, so that you're not stuck scrambling when your guests arrive. Seasoned, salted almonds make a great little extra that can also be prepared in advance. You'll also want to make your sauces (aioli, tomato sauce, and something spicy) before you start cooking in earnest, because they're easy to forget once you get going... especially if you've taken my advice about the wine!

Fried food is always best hot; wait until the last possible moment and make sure your oil is at the right temperature before you drop those precious calamari, croquetas, or potatoes. Drain them on a paper towel or cooling rack for a few minutes before you plate them to avoid an oil slick on the bottom of the plate.

If you're providing beverages, you can easily make a great sangria with white or red wine and seasonal fruit. (Red wine can overpower some of the more delicate flavors of tapas, especially seafood, but let your party guests decide for themselves.) Another option is to ask friends to bring a bottle of Spanish wine to try, and have yourself a mini wine tasting party to boot! Remember to always have some non-alcoholic options like sparkling water for those who do not drink.

Just like any event, the most important thing at a tapas party is to have a good time. If you're stressed, your friends will feel it. Try to relax and enjoy yourself. After all, if one dish doesn't work out, you'll have plenty of others to cover it.

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    • Spanish Food profile image
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      Lena Durante 6 months ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Don't they, Matty? One of the best things about tapas is that you can order just what you like and because it's all small plates, it's easy to stop when you're satisfied.

    • Matty Fernandez profile image

      Matty Fernandez 6 months ago from Passaic, NJ

      All of them look so delicious.