Gas Station Tapas!
A couple months ago I read the New Times review of El Carajo (a Spanish tapas place inside the Citgo station on the corner of 17th Avenue and US1) and resolved to try it. Then, even though I drive by almost on a daily basis, I never quite found the right time to stop in. I finally did this afternoon and am now kicking myself for having taken so long.
The little restaurant literally is in the back of the gas station, and you walk past the flourescent displays of 2-liter soda bottles and Auto Trader magazines into the dimly lit back area, where there is a surprisingly extensive selection of wines from around the world (how about a Dominio de Tares Bierzo, or maybe a magnum of Ridge Monte Bello?). There's a deli counter with some cazuelas of cold dishes, about a half dozen small, bar-height tables with wood chairs, and fake brick walls. It's not elegant, but it feels homey and comfortable like a tabas bar should (and nothing like a gas station if you just keep your back to the entrance). The paradigm shift is pretty remarkable - like when the color comes on in Wizard of Oz, or the bar scene in From Dusk to Dawn (but I digress).
The food! I only tried a couple of things - the caldo gallego, and piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao - but they were just fantastic and really show that the proprietors know good food. The caldo gallego was a murky, salty broth full of bits of ham hock, sausage, white beans, potato, and a bit of greens. Hearty and yummy. And the stuffed pimientos were even better - 3 very lightly fried (almost like a tempura batter) piquillos (probably not fresh but still tasty), stuffed with light and fluffy salt cod, and topped with a rich black squid ink sauce. Delicious.
There is a lengthy menu of mostly traditional tapas, as well as some bigger dishes including a mixed grill and some paellas. If it's all even nearly as good as what I tried, I will be happily exploring the rest of the menu soon. I also understand from the Herald and New Times reviews that any of their wines can be had with your meal for $10+ the retail price.
I've been hankering for authentic tapas since a trip to Spain a year ago. The folks at El Carajo are friendly and justifiably proud. Neat spot and definitely worth stopping in the next time you're driving down US1 and feeling peckish.