Terrific Tapas

Delicious dishes--large and small--star at Casa Vicente

Thanks to Casa Vicente, Tucson again has a true, tasty Spanish tapas restaurant, and this is something for which all discerning restaurant-goers should be thankful.

Casa Vicente is the latest tenant in what has become one of those Restaurant Spaces of Doom, previously occupied, for about six minutes, by barbecue-joint Chances at Stone, and before that, for a bit longer, Oasis Vegetarian Eatery. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Casa Vicente kills the 375 S. Stone Ave. curse: Although there's room for improvement at Casa Vicente, it's already pretty damn good.

Garrett and I visited Casa Vicente for lunch on a recent weekday. At what should have been the lunchtime peak, exactly three tables were occupied. (*Gulp.*) After entering through the bar area--which at first glance looked welcoming, with bricks and a whole bunch of wine grabbing the eyes--we were seated in the main dining area. It's clear owner Vicente Sanchez and his staff cut a few corners with the décor. While there are some nice touches--including a red tablecloth over a white tablecloth at each table, and a cute old-style village scene behind the stage along the western wall--the furniture consists primarily of mismatched black chairs and occasionally rickety tables (a napkin, sticking out like a sore thumb, was stuffed under one table leg). The south, white wall is already in need of a second coat of paint from chairs and tables scraping against it, and the floor is gray-painted concrete. The man playing the guitar, at a volume soft enough to not impede conversation, provided a nice soundtrack.

But given the choice between an emphasis on food and an emphasis on the look, I'd prefer that a restaurant owner chooses food, and that's what happened here. The menu's impressive, with tapas as the star: 21 tapas selection join two salads, four soups, four paellas (which each must be ordered for four people, minimum, which sucks; if you have the four people, call ahead at least one hour), four lunch specials and five regular dinner entrées. Wanting to dive into the tapas, Garrett and I each chose the lunch tapa sampler ($10.95), offering the diner to chose three tapas.

After a complementary appetizer of fried potatoes with a red sauce and a white, almost tartar-like sauce, our tapas were quickly delivered by our friendly server. The ensaladilla rusa ($4.95 separately) was an extremely creamy potato salad that was refreshing, but lacking a bit in flavor (although Garrett liked the accompanying pickle). The calamares rebozados ($5.95), huge, gummy rings of squid, met Garrett's fancy, but the lack of dipping sauces was unfortunate. Garrett also relished the pollo al ajillo ($4.95), the perfectly cooked chicken in garlic and wine sauce; he deemed this his favorite of our six tapas. The chicken pieces were similar in flavor to the champinon con jamon ($4.95), mushrooms in garlic and wine with salted pork and hot guindilla (red pepper). The only problem: There was no trace of the pork. The gambones ($9.95), shrimp in "a spicy wine and garlic sauce," won raves from me, because the wine and garlic complemented the natural taste of the shrimp rather than overwhelming it. However, I would not describe it as "spicy." Finally, the montado de lomo ($6.95), pork scallopini over seasoned/grilled bread with tomato and peppers, earned the distinction of being my favorite; although it was a bit greasy, the slightly sweet pork was packed with flavor.

Our lunch was exactly what it should have been: quick, not overwhelming and delicious. We anxiously anticipated our return trip for dinner, which happened a couple of days later, on a weekend evening.

We arrived early, and there was only one other table occupied (although we were assured it would get busier later). After sipping on some sangria, we decided to sample more tapas, picking the chorizo palacios (chorizo with olives and ensaladilla, $4.95), the pincho moruno (grilled, marinated chicken with onions, tomatoes and zucchini, $4.95), the croquetas de jamon (four ham and bechamel croquetes, $4.95) and the chipirones rellenos (calamari stuffed with spices and green tomatoes, $5.95). For main courses, since paella was not an option, I ordered the mariscada (seafood combination, $20) and the gazpacho, and Garrett ordered the chuletón de avila (ribeye steak with mushroom sauce and vegetables, $18) with an ensalada de espinacas.

After eating the soup--the peppery and flavorful gazpacho--and the salad--a nice blend of spinach, pine nuts, walnuts and cranberry raisins--we got the tapas, which ranged from so-so to great. The cold chorizo was a bit tough, but very tasty; there was only one olive served with it. The pincho moruno was basically a shish kebab starring well-seasoned chicken. The croquetas were fried goodness, although the amount of ham inside varied--one of the croquetas I ate had almost none at all. The big winner, however, was the chipirones rellenos: It was gummy (in the case of the calamari skin), garlicky and great.

We were primed for the entrées. The mariscada--a large plate with scallops, calamari, shrimp, mussels and cod, all wading in their commingled juices--was a hit. The scallops, cooked in a ton of garlic, were fantastic. The shrimp and calamari were similar to what we'd already enjoyed on the tapas plates. The mussels were deliciously steamed, and the cod, with a lot of tomatoes on top, worked nicely. I was quite satisfied.

However, Garrett was beyond satisfied with his steak. The cut of meat itself was only OK--it was way too fatty--but there was no denying that the preparation and the spices infusing the ribeye made it a tender, delicious treat. Garrett said it was one of the 10 best steaks he's ever had. Wow.

Stuffed and satisfied, we hesitantly decided to sample dessert. I took two bites of my delicious tarta de chocolate ($5.95), a rich, dense chocolate cake with coffee and brandy, before reaching absolute fullness. Garrett, who can eat far more than most mortals, took two bites of his arroz con leche ($4.95), a rice pudding with milk and cinnamon, before stopping because the lumpy dish was merely so-so.

We left Casa Vicente sure to return for the wonderful tapas and entrées. I hope that the next time we're there, a lot of other folks are enjoying the restaurant along with us.

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