Si, Spaniard

Espana, 3923 East Thunderbird (next to Fry's), Phoenix, 494-1236. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Monday (dinner only), 4 to

11 p.m.

It's been more than 400 years since the first Spanish conquistadors marched through these parts. Now it looks like the reign of Spain may finally be about to begin.

This time, however, the invasion isn't military. Instead, we're the target of a culinary operation, led by chefs armed with nothing more threatening than Old World recipes. They're not hunting for the Seven Cities of Gold. They're seeking restaurant gold, and I think they may have found it.

Spanish cuisine doesn't have the reputation of its French and Italian neighbors, at least in America. But that's more because of the paucity of restaurants than any inherent culinary defects. Spanish fare can hold its own against any other on the planet. One whiff of the heady scents of Iberia--olive oil, garlic, saffron and pimientos (sweet Spanish peppers)--will convince even the most stubborn skeptic.

Ten years ago, there wasn't a single Spanish restaurant in the Valley. Then the Scottsdale Princess resort hit upon the happy idea of featuring Spanish regional fare from Catalonia in its main dining room. Since then, Spanish-food fans have been able to get a taste of Spain at Tapas Papa Frita, Pepin and Altos. But two other Spanish restaurant ventures, Andramari in 1995 and Patio Flamenco in 1996, couldn't make it.

Have we reached the limit of Spanish restaurants that we can support? I hope not. That's because two new, utterly charming neighborhood spots have just opened for business.

Unlike their higher-end competitors, there's nothing fancy about Espana or Rincon Espanol. They're set in small, easy-to-miss shopping-strip storefronts. No maitre d' will be kissing the back of the Senorita's hand. You won't be seeing flamenco dancing or hearing live guitar music. The only thing these places do is dish out beguiling Spanish fare with homey congeniality, at prices that won't set the alarm bells ringing at Visa headquarters. Espana and Rincon Espanol are exactly the kind of restaurants a city like ours, with its big-time aspirations, needs to have. Let's hope the Valley notices.

You can't help noticing that dinner at Espana is a dazzling experience. Along with Spanish food, the young proprietor shares a passion for Real Madrid, his nation's premier soccer team. The bar area looks like a soccer shrine, and if there's a soccer game going on anywhere in the Milky Way, the big-screen television in the front corner of the room is tuned to it. He also shows an artistic bent. You can't miss his copy of Guernica, jazzed up with color, which looks like something Picasso might have painted if he'd listened to Miro.

But the proprietor's true talent lies in the art of cooking. Espana is the kind of place where, even before you've made your way through your first meal, you're already mentally making plans to come back.

Tapas are Spain's unique contribution to gastronomy. They're appetizer nibbles, some as simple as sliced cheese, some as complex as chicken in sherry sauce. In Spain, folks make a dinner of them, and at Espana, you can, too, especially since most are reasonably priced at around five or six dollars.

Start off with cold tapas. Don't let your off-putting experience with the awful anchovies they put on pizza keep you from ordering boquerones. They're meaty Spanish white anchovies, coated with a tangy marinade. Roasted red peppers, bathed in olive oil and garlic, hit all the right notes. Marinated mussels are superb, draped with a mix of finely chopped tomatoes and onions. Tortilla Espanola is a tapas bar staple, a thick wedge of filling potato pie. At $7.50, the salpicon de mariscos is the most expensive tapas item, but this irresistible assortment of sublimely marinated seafood may be Espana's best tapas effort.

The hot tapas exhibit real flair. The bowl of fried potatoes drenched with melted cabrales, the exceptional Spanish blue cheese, is a heart-stopping thrill. Tomato stuffed with yellowtail tuna, chicken in a sherry cream sauce and morcilla, a blood sausage blended with rice and onions, will make you wish you'd been born a Spaniard. So will the fragrant chicken and vegetables, or chistorra, the sharp Spanish sausage powerfully teamed with olive oil and garlic. The spicy, sauteed pulpo, meanwhile, is certain to drive octopus fans into a frenzy.

If you prefer deep-fried appetizers, Espana won't let you down. You don't need the incisors of a wolf to chew the lightly breaded calamares. Think of cazon en adobo as Spanish shark McNuggets. And make sure you dip them in aioli, a garlicky mayonnaise. Consider, too, the wonderfully crunchy croquetas, which make up in taste what they lack in nutrition.

If you haven't already made a meal of the tapas, the main dishes will finish you off. It's a short entree list, but an intriguing one. I don't believe you can get marmitako anyplace else in town. It's a Basque specialty, a bubbling tuna-potato stew, in a gorgeous sauce seasoned with laurel, cumin and white wine. Nor will you find lomo del pueblo elsewhere. It's a down-home platter, grilled slices of pork loin paired with fried potatoes and two eggs, sunny-side up. But Espana's seafood paella, bearing two mussels, two clams, two shrimp and a handful of squid, could have used more saffron punch. At 21 bucks, it may not seem like a bargain, but one dish will take care of two appetites.

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