The Treasure of Tapas

Casa Vicente offers Tucsonans a taste of Spain

In August 2002, rewarding myself for succeeding at the indisputably challenging task of still being alive after a difficult six months, I boarded a plane for Spain.

I planned to spend three weeks in Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla and Bilbao, and end with a few days of sailing between Nice and Barcelona. I wanted to see Barcelona for the Gaudi, Madrid for the Prado and nearby Escorial, Sevilla for its august and catholic majesty, Bilbao for the Guggenheim. The sailing, suggested travel agent extraordinaire Bryna Ben-Asher, would be good after several weeks of trekking in Spain. She was right, but that's another story.

I have found that the best plans are those that change. I have also found this to be vexing to those around me--editors, colleagues, friends and lovers, parents and family--so I have learned to try to keep variations to a minimum. For me, though, change demands innovation, and when I am left to my own devices (i.e., those things that could only inconvenience me in any significant way), I tend to be very loose indeed.

And I was truly on my own on Spain's then-rainless plains. Although I loved walking Las Ramblas, Gaudi made me dizzy, and I left Barcelona early for Madrid, where I holed up in El Prado for a couple of mouthwatering days. I loved outdoor dining at 10 at night amidst the hustle of ladies of the evening and their omnipresent managers, and Philip the Second's Escorial complex, a monument to the integration of church and state, still comes to me in dreams. I stayed longer in hot and dusty Cordoba than expected, and by the time I got to Sevilla, I was parched. It was the best possible place to be in that condition.

I had taken a room at Las Casas de Juderia, a collection of homes now joined together as a small hotel in the middle of what had once been the thriving Jewish quarter of Sevilla before the expulsion in 1492. In a small alley off the Plaza de Santa Cruz, it was the perfect base for exploring the nearby Alcazar, the Catredal and a dozen smaller plazas reached by meandering streets and alleyways, always offering tantalizing glimpses of exquisite, hidden courtyards and tiled entryways. The streets were bustling, yet the pace never felt hectic, and the people were the friendliest I have ever encountered, from shopkeepers and vendors to the two elderly sisters reading their books in the courtyard of their home just off the Plaza Pilatos, who invited me in to take tea with them.

And nowhere was it more friendly than in the tapas bars. Busy, lively, rich in custom and lore, large and small, they were nourishing in more ways than one throughout the courses of the days and the evenings. I fell in love with Sevilla.

I've been happily reminded of my experiences there by Casa Vicente, the Spanish restaurant across from the Tucson Police Department at 375 S. Stone Ave. Even the building--which I dimly recall once housing a Creole/Cajun/NOLA kinda place--conjures up a feel of some places in Sevilla: an almost flashy, formal bar entrance with a stepped-down long, unflashy dining room terminating in a raised stage for flamenco music and dancing. There's a greater variety of liquors and tintos than I ever saw in any of the haunts I visited in Spain, but there was only so much time, after all. But the tapas ... ahhh ...

The other night, Andrew and I had a combination of these cold and hot dishes at Casa Vicente: the salmon ahumado con pasta de anchos (smoked salmon on toast with anchovy paste, capers and olives), croquetas de jamon (cured spanish ham with bechamel), pescaitos fritos (crunchy fried smelt) and champinon con jamon (mushrooms in garlic and wine)--all delicious and savory small bites of old-but-big-world flavors. For some unfathomable reason, Andrew had un beso, a sweet, chocolaty liqueur-based drink that spiked the spices quite adequately. I remembered a long day in Granada and had an Alhambra beer. The company, as always, was excellent, the food great and the service friendly and uncloying.

The next day, I pulled out a still-sealed box I had mailed to myself from Spain three-plus years ago. It was full of street maps and ticket stubs, corks from a dedicated quest to find the best riojas, matchbooks with scrawled telephone numbers, napkins with snatches of bad poetry (products of the not-so-good riojas, of course), postcards and a half-dozen unfinished letters. I re-read journal entries from that month. And took myself back to South Stone that night for bunuelos de bacalao (cod in a beer batter), berenjenas salteadas (sautéed eggplant in garlic, ginger and wine) and chorizo palacios (Spanish chorizo with olives and greens). I plan to sample various tintos sometime, but decided to stay with the crisp and light Alhambra beer. When I have run through the tapas menu, I will take a stab at the full dinner options.

When I was a callow youth some 35 years ago, I worked as a waiter at a Spanish restaurant here in town called Don Quijote's. A tiny place off Campbell Avenue on Roger Road, it featured amazing flamenco, high dining and great tips. After it would close, we'd sometimes take over the kitchen and bar and party hearty. It's where I learned to make paella in a half-dozen forms, but never quite conquered the art of a Spanish fish soup. As with Sevilla, I have very fond memories of the place.

I never made it to Bilbao and the Guggenheim, by the way, opting to spend those days instead in Sevilla. If I could have blown off the sailing trip and stayed longer, I would have, but it was a reservation I had to keep. Besides, it was prudent to leave--by that time, I had started looking at apartments for sale in the old Jewish quarter.

Sevilla remains ripe for continued exploration, and that, I am determined will happen. In the meantime, Casa Vicente is a clear, present and thoroughly pleasing reminder much closer to home.

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