Many of these message boards were of tremendous help to me in planning my trip to Spain. Thanks to all for your help and advice. Here's where we ended up going, which I've split up by city for easier reading:
MADRID: Days 1-3
LA SANABRESA: We went to La Sanabresa for our first meal in Spain after a quick nap at the hotel. We got there just as it opened (actually, a couple minutes early and had been circling the block) to find a quiet, almost empty place. While we initially thought we were at the wrong place—from our research, I had imagined throngs of people clamoring at the entrance waiting for 1pm—the tables quickly filled within minutes of us sitting down. As with everyone else at the restaurant, we got the menu del dia. What a deal! Between the two of us, we got generous portions of championes al ajillo, soup, callos madrilenos, roasted pork loin, rice pudding, flan, and a bottle of wine to share for 12 euros each. The food was tasty, though not out-of-this world. But it serves its purpose—a great chance for us to experience Madrid-style home cooking amongst locals for a very reasonable price. It ended up being perhaps the best value of all our meals in Madrid.
LA CASA DEL ABUELO: After our long and large lunch, we decided on a light dinner of tapas. La Casa del Abuelo came highly recommended for its gambas a la plancha and gambas al ajillo, so we were excited to try it for ourselves. I was a little disappointed—the 9 euros for our small dish of little shrimp (their “prawns” are more comparable to what I would think of as shrimp), while tasty was flavored by the generous use of garlic and olive oil vs. the freshness of the shrimp and thus seemed to be driven much more by hype than anything else. Yummy but not the mind-blowing experience others have had.
OREJA DE ORO: Feeling a bit adventurous, we headed across the street from LCdA to try some of their namesake fried pig’s ears. Crispy and chewy at the same time, pig’s ears are unlike anything I’ve had in “American” food but probably quite like what one would expect ears to taste like—soft but with a hard bite, similar in texture to the cartilage around the end of a chicken bone.
EL BRILLANTE: Wow. Bocadillo de calamares are such a simple food yet so delicious. Although this sandwich is nothing more than a baguette with fried rings of calamari but somehow this combination of hard crusty bread, hot fried breading, and squishy chewy squid is amazing. Get it here because those calamari rings are piping hot and fried to order. It was so good that I came back again for breakfast. Tapas are great and all, but I really wish this would make its way across the ocean next.
CHOCOLATERIA SAN GINES: We stopped at the very very crowded Chocolateria San Gines for a quick snack before dinner. Yum! Thick, rich fudgy chocolate and warm, just-cut churros lightly dusted with sugar. Although fighting through the crowds in the late afternoon to place and pick up an order is a bit tough, we found the churros then fresher and tastier then when we went back again late the next night when it was quieter and emptier. Terrific place for a quick snack.
CASA LUCAS: This was one of my favorite tapas places in Madrid. Brightly lit and filled with what looked like just a few tables and a bar, this quaint little bar delivered some of the most flavorful and inventive tapas we had in Madrid. Most of the other tapas places we passed by served more traditional dishes, but the options here were unique and contemporary. We tried two things here that were both absolutely amazing: a pintxo of soy/sesame sauce-marinated chicken with corn mousse and a racione of squid ink cannelloni filled with curried vegetables. So very delicious that I wish we had stayed here all night and kept going down the chalkboard menu.
ALMENDRO 13: Described in our guidebook as the top rival to Casa Lucas as the “best tapas in Madrid”, we sought out Almendro 13 to compare. We arrived here to find that the two had little in common. While the atmosphere at Casa Lucas was quiet but busy, Almendro 13 was loud and packed like sardines. People are always getting up and down to order/pick-up food and drinks at the windows, which made the already crowded bar even more difficult to navigate. The food itself was very traditional, the exact opposite of Casa Lucas—we got the huevos rotos and rosca de jamon iberico. We were taken aback by the bed of potato chips in the huevos rotos—while the combo of ham bits, fried eggs and hot potato chips were tasty, after 3,000+ miles of travelling, gorging ourselves on potato chips (by far the largest component of this dish) seemed a bit of a waste of stomach space. On the other hand, the rosca de jamon iberico was crispy, flavorful and delicious, but I don’t think I could ever have enough jamon iberico…
TXIRIMIRI: The crowd here is younger and hipper than at any of the other bars we went to, and this was the only place with a mostly female staff (other places typically had older men…none of those here either). The bar area is also mostly dark, seemingly with lighting coming only from the liquor shelf. Not being able to see the menu didn’t really help our poor grasp of Spanish (guess it didn’t hurt too much either in our case), so we took our chances with the first item at the top of the pintxo list—a solomillo pintxo. This turned out to be steak, which came out seared medium rare 10-15 minutes later on a piece of toast dressed in a cranberry/cherry and onion sauce. So tender and so juicy…it was like food back at home but better. But this was also our last night in Madrid so it was on to other “must-eat” sites…
JUANALALOCA: Pricey but spectacular tortilla espanola—the balance of potatoes, eggs, and onions are in perfect ratio, but what really makes their version amazing is the sweetness from the caramelized onions. Here, we also had a mozzarella di bufala pintxo that had a small piece of fish on the top; this was tasty but not really worth the 6 euros. On the evening we went, this was also the most American-filled spot—next to us was a fairly large group of study abroad students, elsewhere throughout the restaurant were multiple tables of native English speakers, and even the bartenders would toss a few lines of English out at each other. Nowhere else on our 9-day trip did we here this much English being spoken, and I’m not sure why there would be so few native Spanish speakers here when every other place, even the touristy Casa del Abuelo, was Spanish-dominant.
TABERNA TXACOLI: Cheaper than the other tapas places we tried so far, but after ordering my skewer of pulpo, the bartender put it on a paper plate and stuck it in the microwave. I guess you get what you pay for.