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.

Desserts are just as appealing as everything else. Rice pudding, crema Catalana and strawberries and ice cream topped with burnt sugar furnish sweet satisfaction.

Espana will raise your spirits in other ways. The made-to-order sangria is a knockout, a terrific blend of red wine, lemon soda, Cointreau and sugar-soaked fruit. A pitcher will set you back $18, and your group won't feel shortchanged. And if you feel like lingering, discover Cuarenta y Tres, a smooth, fruit-flavored Spanish liqueur, or sip a glass of Spanish brandy.

The downside of my job is that after I find a gem like this, I have to move on. Fortunately, you don't. Put Espana on your "don't miss" list, and prepare to become a regular.

Rincon Espanol, 7607 East McDowell (Plaza del Rio), Scottsdale, 675-0255. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Bright, tidy and cheery, Rincon Espanol is all you could want from a neighborhood Spanish restaurant.

And more. A Spanish grocery, the Valley's first, is part of this delightful operation. Hard-to-find homeland specialties--cheeses, wines, meats, fish, peppers, oils, spices and canned goods--fill the display cases and line the shelves. It's difficult to leave without picking up an edible souvenir.

Most of these products find their way onto the restaurant's menu, which features tapas, sandwiches and a single, nightly main-dish special.

Among the cold tapas, check out lomo embuchadao, luscious, buttery, cured pork loin, thinly sliced and served with bread and melon. Rincon Espanol's boquerones are also outstanding, cured with vinegar and loaded with garlic.

The hot-tapas list offers several lip-smacking nibbles. One of the best is champinones al oporto, mushrooms swimming in a gorgeous port wine sauce. The earthy flavors of the fungus and the sweet, winy scents of the port make a powerful team. The chorizo al vino won't be sporting a Heart-Smart logo, but that's about its only defect. Pungent Spanish sausage gets sauteed in wine, and the result is very oily, very spicy and very, very tasty.

Scallops sauteed in garlic is another tapas winner. The kitchen puts nine scallops into hot oil and garlic, and you'll need enormous will power to resist sopping up the liquid with your bread. Croquetas, too, are first-rate, right out of the fryer, crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside. And if you're partial to potatoes, try them in the form of the tortilla de patatas, Rincon Espanol's fine potato pie.

Not everything shines. I didn't particularly care for the ketchupy tomato sauce that overwhelmed the mussels. The chicken in the chicken with vegetables had a distinctly prefab look and taste. And while I adored the parsley-flecked garlic sauce that accompanied the mound of battered calamares, the squid itself was somewhat chewy.

If you're still hungry after tapas, the evening's budget-priced main-dish special should fill up any remaining empty space. The Saturday-night paella, bearing chicken, shrimp, one mussel, peas and peppers, goes for an eye-rubbing $12 tag, about half what it costs anyplace else. When the cook learns to restrain himself from seasoning it with a bucket of salt, it will be an outstanding value. In the meantime, if you come on an evening when the offering is grilled tuna, don't hesitate. The fish is served in an all-purpose Spanish sauce, an aromatic blend of tomatoes, garlic and sweet peppers.

A bonus: The main dishes come with lovely salads. One night it was pipirrana, green peppers, cucumber, onions and tomatoes; on another evening, it was a plate of white asparagus, peppers and cucumber.

Or consider ordering a sandwich. Naturally, you can get serrano ham, manchego cheese or grilled pork. But if you're feeling frisky, why not risk the sobrasada, a spicy chorizo spread that's a specialty of Majorca?

For dessert, settle back with queso con membrillo, a sweet and pungent, oh-so-European treat of manchego cheese lined with a strip of quince jelly. If that's too far-out, the flan will do. The espresso, I'm happy to report, is everything it should be.

Along with the nifty fare, Rincon Espanol offers quite a range of native beverages. Watch out for the homemade sangria--it's incredibly potent. The wine list features dozens of good Spanish wines by the glass, most in the five-dollar range. Or take the opportunity to discover Spanish beers. Cruzcampo is light and refreshing; Estrella Galicia is fuller and more hard-hitting.

In its own small way, Rincon Espanol brings a welcome touch of cosmopolitan charm to the Valley dining scene. Let's hope we're wise enough to take advantage of it.

Lomo del pueblo

Rincon Espanol:
Champinones al oporto
Sauteed scallops
Sobrasada sandwich
Grilled tuna


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