Tapas, the small, mostly savory dishes traditionally consumed in bars across Spain in the pre-dinner hours, made a big splash on the American food scene in the early 1990s. Chef José Andrés is largely credited with introducing Americans to the pleasures of classic tapas like tortilla española and jamón ibérico with the opening of his D.C. restaurant Jaleo in 1993. Since then, tapas have emerged as a deeply influential dining concept — not so much a type of food, really, but a way of social eating that encourages diners to order multiple plates and let the wine flow. Nowadays, shareable small plates show up on everything from corner bistro sandwich boards to the laminated menus at the neighborhood Applebee's.
The history of tapas in Spanish culture is long and hazy, but the most credible theory is that they originated in the working class taverns of Andalusia as a snack for field workers, who used slices of bread and meat to keep dust and insects out of their sherry glasses ("tapa" means cover or lid in Spanish). Down-to-earth food based on locally available ingredients, traditional tapas can be hot or cold and come in a huge array of flavors. For American diners, a trip to the tapas bar offers an easy introduction to the richly complex and multiregional Spanish table. It's too bad, then, that there are so few places to enjoy traditional tapas, and Spanish cuisine on the whole, in the Valley.
Tapas Papa Frita, a breezily upscale restaurant and bar overlooking the Scottsdale Waterfront, is one of the few spots around town specializing in traditional tapas, as well as classic Spanish mains like paella. The dining room makes a striking first impression: airy and elegant, with high ceilings and natural stone and wood fixtures offset by colorful Spanish art handpicked by owner and chef Joseph "Pepe" Gutierrez.
Gutierrez, a native of Bilbao and longtime Valley restaurateur, opened the restaurant in 2010, resurrecting the concept from a previous attempt to bring authentic Spanish food to the Valley. Some diners may remember the original Tapas Papa Frita, which operated in the early 1990s in Phoenix in the space that now belongs to Tarbell's. That restaurant is a blip on Gutierrez's extensive résumé, which includes apprenticeships in Spanish kitchens, various restaurant openings around the Southwest, and stints in the kitchens of the Arizona Biltmore and the Scottsdale Fairmont Princess.
Today, Tapas Papa Frita is Gutierrez's only restaurant, a tapas bar meets fine-dining concept that features an astonishing number of menu options (roughly 50 tapas and 20 entrées at last count, with dishes representing almost every region of Spain). Traditional Spanish cuisine is still a gamble in a region where Mexican and Italian food prevail, and that might explain the everything-under-one-roof approach adopted at Tapas Papa Frita. But after eating my way across four pages packed with all manner of tapas and paellas, I came away wishing the restaurant would trim the fat on its unwieldy menu.
On a recent visit, my dining companion and I geared up for an evening of all-out tapas consumption with a small pitcher of the housemade red sangria, which was refreshing but slightly watery. It lacked the punched-up sweetness and fruity kick that makes sangria a crowd favorite at summer parties. The restaurant also offers an extensive wine list, heavily populated with Spanish bottles.
Tapas are helpfully sorted into three categories on the menu: seafood, meat, and vegetable/cheese. Choose carefully and you'll be rewarded with simple, delicious dishes like boquerones, fresh anchovies cooked in a garlic and olive oil escabeche. Refreshing and light, the slivers of fish were brightened with fresh lemon, which cut brilliantly through the fish's natural oiliness.
Chanquetes, another seafood dish, featured baby silver fish flash-fried in a light batter. The tiny fish looked an awful lot like the golden-hued French's fried onions that decorate holiday casseroles. But these were, thankfully, tastier than any fried onion I've ever sampled. With a squeeze of lemon, the bowl of tiny fried fish became the perfect bar snack: light, crispy, and well-seasoned, with soft notes of fishiness.
Hot tapas were more apt to disappoint. Berejenas con centollos, a crab and eggplant tart, resembled a hunk of microwaved lasagna on the plate and tasted about as fresh. The dish turned to mush in my mouth, the crab and eggplant indistinguishable in a heavy tomato sauce. Setas con queso de cabra, a lukewarm portobella mushroom cap floating on a cloud of bland white cream, was topped with flat-tasting goat cheese. The soggy mushroom puck, dripping with watery cheese, was unappetizing enough to leave unfinished.
From the carne menu, rabo de buey was a savory standout. The braised oxtail, smothered in a thick Tempranillo-paprika sauce, delivered rich, earthy flavor. The meat, however, was a little tough, giving it a chewy consistency. Conejo romescu, a Catalan-style rabbit stew, was more satisfying. The tender meat, somewhat akin to a moister, more deeply flavored chicken, soaked up the nutty sweetness of the Romesco sauce beautifully.
Popular tapas like patatas bravas (spicy potato wedges), croquetas de jamón y queso (ham and cheese croquettes), and albondigas (meatballs) are usually a safe bet at tapas bars. But sticking to the comfort foods didn't always deliver great flavor. The kitchen nailed the patatas, which arrived piping hot, crispy, and well-seasoned, with a spicy tomato sauce on the side for kick. The albondigas were another highlight: juicy, tender, and dripping with beefy flavor. But the croquetas, which appeared crispy on the outside, failed to excite. They were doughy and bland, turning into a cheesy mush at first bite.
Still, snacking on tapas proved more satisfying than ordering from the entrée menu. The paella valenciana, the kitchen's most popular main, was delivered fast and sizzling to our table in a traditional carbon steel paella pan. But for all its components — clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken, sausage, onions, and peppers in a soupy saffron rice base — the dish was remarkably bland. The saffron base permeated everything with a mild, lackluster tang, which turned Valencia's signature dish into a flavorless hodgepodge. We also were sad to note that it arrived without socarrat, the tasty layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan that is a hallmark of classic paella.
The fideuà, a paella entrée that substitutes pasta for rice, fared slightly better. Garlic turned up the flavor, but like its Valencian cousin, it was underseasoned and underwhelming. Most disappointing of all was the sarsuela, a Catalan-style seafood stew made with shrimp, mussels, and the fish of the day. On our visit, the fish was tuna, and it was served in roughly cut, oversized chunks utterly lacking in flavor. The stew's chamomile-tomato broth also was underseasoned and bland.
Although most diners at Tapas Papa Frita probably don't come for dessert, it's worth making room for the flan. A bit on the dense side, it was topped with a lightly burnished caramel sauce that gave it a sweet, airy finish.
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Service, like many of the dishes, can be uneven. On one occasion, our server disappeared for so long that a waiter in another section took pity on us and subbed in to take our order. On another visit, service was overly attentive and we barely had time to browse the menu before ordering.
If there was one consistently marvelous thing about dining at Tapas Papa Frita, it was this: the complimentary basket of hot rolls, doled out generously over the course of each meal, accompanied by the restaurant's signature garlic aioli. Creamy and garlicky, the aioli hinted at the kitchen's potential for constructing sauces that sing with bold flavor. It's too bad not everything was this tasty at Tapas Papa Frita. Phoenix could sure use a great Spanish restaurant.
Tapas Papa Frita
7114 East Stetson Drive, Suite 210, Scottsdale
3 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Setas con Queso de Cabra $9
Paella valenciana $19.95