When it comes to dining, or any other aspect of existence worth writing about, I consider myself simpatico with Ray Milland's quip in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, where he riffs off a line from Thoreau, stating, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation: I can't take quiet desperation!" Transcendence is my cri de coeur. The commonplace and the conventional earn my eternal enmity. And those nooks and crannies in the pockmarked surface of reality that facilitate my ongoing war with the workaday world are like wardrobes leading to my own private Narnia.
The barely four-week-old Lola Tapas is one of these wrinkles in time, an anachronistic pocket of European grace and gentility at Eighth Street and Camelback Road, next door to the ubiquitous Walgreens. The restaurant's yellow sign featuring the outline of a flamenco dancer is evocative of what you'll find inside Lola's squat, boxlike structure: long, darkly stained common tables and saffron-hued walls; antique lamps and light fixtures that suffuse the air with a yellow glow; a copperish, metallic ceiling resembling pressed tin; and a small bar hidden in the back with a window that looks onto a whimsically cut concrete gate, further insulating you from the banality beyond.
You could consider it the house built by a thousand-plus lattes, as its owners Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne were until recently the proprietors of the Lux Coffeebar, considered by many to be Phoenix's holy epicenter of hip under their management. The Waynes spent a good deal of time traveling the Iberian peninsula prior to opening Lux about four years ago, and it's long been their ambition to parlay their passion for Spanish cuisine and culture into just such a place as Lola, christened after their nickname for their 5-year-old daughter Paloma. A large, monochrome photo of the child taken by her mother hangs in the far rear of the eatery. So no Ray Davies jokes, please.
800 East Camelback Road
Gazpacho Andaluz: $3.95
Pinchitos Morunos (Moorish pork skewers: $5.95
Tortitas de camarnes: (shrimp cakes): $5.95
Marinated olives: $3.95
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The Waynes' enchanting Persian hostess Mahfam leads you to one of the common tables, where a vino-enforced conviviality reigns. Most of the wines offered are Spanish, and I was quite taken with the Finca la Estacada, a Tempranillo from La Mancha that's like a mouth full of dark cherries. In addition to a few of the other wines on la casa's short list, I sampled Lola's peach sangria, which was passable if not as remarkable as sangrias I've quaffed elsewhere. Still, with a dish of the Waynes' fresh, doughy, house-made bread, and a glass of the Finca for dunking and drinking, I could easily wile away the time, imagining myself as that incomparably cosmopolitan and decadent Spanish actor Fernando Rey, seated in a cafe, seducing Catherine Deneuve in one of Luis Buñuel's surrealist films.
With all this and Spanish-themed music on the sound system, you practically expect that joker Estéban to come bounding out of nowhere in his Zorro suit, guitar at the ready. Fortunately, the foodstuffs are, in general, a match for the atmospheric overload. The setting is perfect, actually, because tapas are basically highfalutin tavern noshes, meant to be enjoyed as one goes from bar to bar carousing. But being that the setting is en España, the eats are more refined and well-prepared small plates, instead of some grotesque heap of nachos or fried onion rings, as in the States.
The best of Lola's tapas are quite gratifying, despite their apparent simplicity. Take the assorted olives, marinated in a mixture of olive oil, sherry, fennel, oregano, coriander, and so on, of which I ate two portions in one sitting, and continued to order on subsequent visits. Or there's the jamon serrano con queso, thin slices of serrano ham served in a little brown dish along with slices of Manchego and Mahón cheeses, toasted Marcona almonds, and two plump, meaty Medjool dates. The flat, flavorful Marcona almonds and the magnificent Spanish ham in and of themselves are enough to make you want to book a one-way flight to Seville.
I'm not as big a fan of the tortilla de patatas, or potato and egg torte, with saffron mayonnaise as a condiment. Too bland for me, even when the mayo was generously applied, though I suspect it might have tasted better if served hot. Nor did the gazpacho overly impress me, despite its nice, thick consistency. It lacked something, some piquancy or zing. All the same, I've almost never run across a gazpacho I didn't finish, and this one was no exception.
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If you're as fond of the stinking rose as I am, you'll have a tough time extricating your kisser from the Andalusian-style garbanzo beans with sautéed spinach, which is warm, garlicky and just a little peppery. The shrimp cakes, made with garbanzo flour and fried up in olive oil, are exceptional, particularly when you anoint them with lemon juice squeezed from the citrus slices provided.
Am I wrong to assume that there's something ironic about "Moorish pork skewers"? After all, the Moors were Islamic, and pork ain't exactly, er, kosher for Islam. But these traditional Spanish tapas of marinated tenderloin of swine, probably inspired by the way the Moors grilled lamb or chicken, were terribly juicy, and I turned those skewers into big toothpicks in no time flat. I also wolfed down my montaditos con carne: pork hunks, this time on toasted bread, topped by roasted peppers. Scrumptious stuff.
Each of the three platos of the day I attempted went down as well as the smaller, appetizer-size tapas. One day it was a harissa chicken, with saffron cauliflower. On another it was a lovely potato stew, with tomatoes and bits of ham, and a side of black French lentils with sweet onions. With the pork stew of my final visit, I was mildly disappointed that the chunks of hog flesh were oddly dry. Yet the broth, with lots and lots of red wine added to it, made me overlook this fault.
Soft-boiled eggs accompany many of the larger plates, another classic Spanish touch, and one of which I heartily approve. The house dessert changes from week to week. On the week I frequented Lola, it was one of the best crème brûlées I've ever had (actually, a crema Catalana, to be specific): more custardy than usual, flavored with cinnamon and zest of lemon. A noteworthy crème brûlée in a town brimming with them like ours is a thing of beauty. For this and many other reasons, what can I say? Lola, Lady of Spain, I adore you!