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Apr 30, 2007 10:30 PM

Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo, Barcelona

It was impossible to get to Cal Pep to line up at a good time since we were never in the area around El Born during the early lunch/dinner hours. Instead, as we were spending a good amount of time around El Eixample and then to Parc Guell, Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo presented a better option. Though our timing could have been better, we probably got there after the first seatings of the lunch hour, and we had a wait of about 20 minutes, before we were led to two good counter seats. From what I understand, Paco Meralgo presents a Cal Pep type experience without as much fanfare (or the tourists, it seems).

The menu is long and from what I observed while waiting for our seats, just about everything I saw pass my way looked simply prepared and fantastic. We had what seemed to be the curmudgeonly man serving us at the bar, as he peered up at us while preparing things and waiting on others around us, while we were still waiting for menus. The floor manager saw that we were looking a bit befuddled and approached us with menus (asking is we needed English or Japanese menus; we got one of each). Our guy didn’t speak a word of English, so having an English menu kind of defeated the purpose, since he didn’t know what we were ordering, so I asked for a Castellano menu and ordered with him off of that. Our guy became instantly friendlier after he got through his various tasks during the height of the lunch rush.

Just about everything on the menu is priced from 2€ to 8 or 10€ (if I remember correctly) of media raciones and individual items (like montaditos) so I just rattled off a bunch of things that caught my eye, like a montadito of steak tartar (2,90€), a couple different croquetas (croquetes de pollastre i pernil: 1,10€, croquetes de peix i marisc: 1,25€), a ración of fried zucchini flower stuffed with cheese (flor de carbassó amb mozzarella: 3€), a ración of baby clams (tellines a la planxa, 6€), a braised meat dish with mushrooms, the tomato bread (pa amb tomaquet), anchovies (anxoves d’ondarroa macerades: 6€) and a ración of artichokes (encenalls de carxofes: 4€). I was unsure if I had ordered too much for two, but I was in the mood to taste a little of everything. The dishes came out in a nice steady progression, with plates replacing empty plates, so we never had to deal with crowding our small area at the counter.

The tomato bread and the anchovies were first to arrive. I remembered that during my first trip to Barcelona several years ago that the tomatoes I had during late fall were far zestier than most I’ve had even in the height of the summer growing season in NYC. And with this being my first meal in Barcelona, I was instantly reminded of how wonderful the tomatoes are, even early in the season. Pa amb tomaquet is one of the simplest foods, but when made with the right ingredients, it’s heavenly, and the one at Paco Meralgo was almost perfect. The anchovies were the perfect compliment for the tomato bread. The house white wine (what we were served when we asked for a vino blanco) was also a perfect refreshing accompaniment.

Next came the croquetas and the fried zucchini. These were perfectly fried, and as greaseless as it gets. The croquetas were very good, though it might be hard for me to judge, since I haven’t met many croquetas that I didn’t like in Spain, but these had good consistency and moisture and flavor. The zucchini flower was also perfectly fried, and while they are a rendition of the classic Italian frito, this seemed somewhat cleaner and not quite as heavy with the batter. And who doesn’t like a good melty mozzarella cheese? The fried artichokes were also a nice hit. Simple young artichokes trimmed, quartered, and fried in a flavorful olive oil, and salted. I don’t even remember if there was a mayonnaise dipping sauce, but I do remember the artichokes being quite a pure pleasure.

The tellines were a revelation. I actually didn’t know what I ordered, except the Japanese translated menu called them asari (small clams), and these were tiny clams, each about the size of the end of your thumb. These were really delicate, and very simply prepared with a little help of an herbed olive oil mixture after a brief time sautéing (perhaps with a splash of wine). These were some of the sweetest clams I’ve tasted. I could have eaten a few more platefuls of this. The montadito of steak tartar was fairly standard issue (a healthy portion spread on a slice of good bread), and it provided a good light, but meaty element after the clams.

By the time we finished with these dishes, I had forgotten that the braised meat dish was still on the way. It seemed to take a while to come out, but as a braised dish, it seems like it would be something prepared long ahead of time. Perhaps it is finished with the mushrooms and sauce. Either way, it provided a wonderful finale for a great meal. The meat was perfectly tender, with the right amount of richness to complement all the lighter dishes we had. The braising liquid with the mushrooms was a perfect dip for the bread.

We ordered just the right amount of food for two, and spent just over 30€, so not only was it a good example of fairly traditional Catalan fare, but also a great value. I could have eaten here for every meal and probably had different dishes each time and come away with the feeling of wanting to return again. While Cal Pep might get all the deserved accolades, I think I might just be happy not having to invest all the time and energy to have what might be as good a meal. I’ll have to put that to the test next time I’m in Barcelona.

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  1. That place looks really nice (from the photos on the site) and the description of the food more so.

    I've bookmarked it for the future !

    1. What a GREAT report! Thanks for any of the local 'hounds have comments on this particular restaurant???

      1. Glad you found this place--it was one of our best meals in BCN last June. Definitely a similar experience to Cal Pep without the long lines of tourists. We ate at around 8pm, sat down without a wait, since no one in Spain eats at that time. Our waiter was hilarious, too. We especially liked pajaritos (fried green onions), seafood croquettes (like a mixed-seafood crabcake), clams with bits of diced ham, simply prepared seafood (crayfish, seared tuna, Marennes oysters), solomillo with garlic or black pepper, fantastic wine, good value.

        1. Everything you wrote about your meal is correct. We wound up here by accident after a failed attempt to go to Taktika Berri, the Basque tapas bar around the corner (which also gets great reviews, btw). We had no regrets. Every bite was a treasure. We had the best seats - at the bar! - where we could watch the amazing preparations and banter with the bar tenders. The atmosphere was mainly local, educated, a little trendy but not in an snooty way - after a few minutes we forgot that we a bit disheveled after a day walking around the city and felt completely comfortable. It was clearly the place to be as it was hopping with people just enjoying themselves.

          We had almost the same menu as you described above. Must add that the lagoustines were amazing, but the most exquisite tapas proved to be a perfectly roasted slice of aubergine (with a subtle smoky flavour) topped with fresh anchovies and a rich olive oil on toast. This which must of been one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my mouth in my entire life.

          I still dream of this fantastic tapas dinner in extreme longing to go back and head straight over there.

          1. I'm very late in posting this, but this was a great tip - we too, for whatever reasons, didn't make it to Cal Pep, but Paco Meralgo was an incredibly delicious and delightful experience - a highlight of our brief trip to Barcelona, and really, one of the most memorable meals/experiences ever. We too were seated at a table in the bar, and had the most hilarious waiters - it was just so much FUN, but completely unobtrusive. The pimientos al padron were absolutely revelatory - they must have been flash fried in hot hot hot olive oil - they were savory with a bit of crunch, and a wonderful sear on parts of them. Insanely delicious. The razor clams were sensational - unctuous but firm. The tiny little asparagus - well, it was the most fully realized asparagus I have ever tasted! The BEST pa amb, jamon iberico, and like E Eto said, a fairly standard steak tartare but it was delicious - good crunchy/chewy bread, fresh delicious meat - same for the fois gras (it was so cheap we just had to try it). I can't remember the name of the dessert - it was like french toast, and the waiter decided we needed ice cream with it...he was right, but we were stuffed. This will be the first place I head whenever I get back. Oh, we ordered way too much food for two, but it came to 60€, with like three glasses of house rose each. Dreamy - thanks so much for the rec, and I highly recommend it as well.