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.