In the volatile restaurant business, trends and establishments can come and go in the blink of an eye. It’s rare to make it to a quarter century, but Tapa the World – which debuted 25 years ago – is still serving up patatas bravas and tortilla espanola after all these years.
If you have trouble casting your mind back to May 1994, when Tapa the World opened, some context: small plates weren’t a trend in any way, smartphones and Yelp and “farm to fork” weren’t things, Sacramento was a conservative restaurant town, and nobody needed a “Keep Midtown Janky” bumper sticker. It was just janky.
Tapa the World, with its punning restaurant name and its now charmingly ’90s logo of earth-toned triangles, promised and still promises “Spanish and world cuisine.” The brother-sister ownership team of Paul Ringstrom and Conni Levis were inspired by time spent living in Spain. The restaurant was the first in town to offer tapas, at a time long before anyone thought of small shared plates as a normal way to eat dinner. In this town that still rolls up the sidewalks early, it was also one of the first late-night options, and it’s still a reliable one, in keeping with its Spanish theme.
Some aspects of the restaurant now feel dated: there’s probably no need to explain what tapas are on the menu anymore, and both the prevalence of Kobe beef and the idea of “world cuisine” seem like an older model of what’s fancy. But other elements are classic: The dining room, like a dim Spanish cave lined with colorful and prettily patterned tiles, the traditional tapas and paella and the seriously impressive wine list all still please.
About that wine list. At a hefty 25 pages and more than 800 selections, it’s one of the deepest and most interesting in town, especially if you like Spanish wine, which is often a great value for quality. The Rioja choices alone go on for pages. Adventurous drinkers will find plenty to interest them in wines from Lebanon, Armenia, Uruguay and Morocco, as well as more traditional choices. There’s a cocktail menu too, and some beers, but the wine here is where it’s at. That said, all you want is a simple glass or a tumbler of exceptional, fruity but not-too-sweet sangria, you’ll do well here too. Not a drinker? I can enthusiastically recommend the minty, tart lemonade.
That tile-lined dining room hasn’t changed much over the years, though some of the furniture has grown a little worse for wear. It also spills onto a sidewalk patio. The seat-yourself host station is a touch awkward – I saw several guests pause, unsure about how to proceed – but the welcome is genuine.
The menu isn’t as extensive as the wine list, but it’s hefty, with paellas, a bunch of specials, sandwiches, entrees and numerous traditional Spanish tapas. In my view, the latter are the best food at Tapa the World, as the name might suggest. There’s also a list of “tapas de la casa,” invented in house. These seem a little dated in their conscious global character – beef tips with plum-ginger sauce, seared ahi tuna with piquillo pepper coulis and balsamic – whereas the traditional types are timeless.
The best thing I had at Tapa the World, and one of the best appetizers in town full stop, was not exactly a looker: Sauteed mushrooms, served in a cazuela, with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and white wine. They broke no new culinary ground, but they were fabulous: rich and savory, meaty in texture, with juice to sop up with the spongy, focaccia-style housemade bread. (Be warned: they do charge for the bread basket and for a balsamic dipping sauce alongside.) They were so good they actually converted my children to eating mushrooms, voluntarily.
Another crowd-pleaser didn’t actually sound that great: cold rounds of fried eggplant, topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Most fried things are better hot, but here the textures melded into some new alchemy that enhanced eggplant’s subtle flavor. It was a winner, as was a straight-down-the-middle, very traditional wedge of tortilla espanola, the frittata-like egg-and-potato cake, full of fruity olive oil, that is a longtime worker’s lunch in Spain. A few olives alongside provided bite and balance.
Fried calamari, with a smoky romesco for dipping, were perfectly fried, feather light and greaseless. Patatas bravas – fried potatoes with a piquant sauce – had a heftier character, but still pleased.
I was slightly less taken with the lineup of sandwiches, which veered toward the oversauced, thanks to a heavy hand with allioli (the Spanish version of the garlic mayo more commonly known by the Provencal term aioli). I enjoyed the combination of red peppers and jamon serrano with Manchego on the “Heart of Spain” sandwich, but a gloppy double dose of allioli overwhelmed. A similar problem plagued the towering Kobe beef sandwich with fried onions.
A rather majestic burger tasted more balanced, despite plenty of the allioli, thanks to lettuce and tomato. Salad alongside the sandwiches came with just a little too much apple-sherry-scallion vinaigrette and some shoestring fried carrots that lacked crunch or flavor. Patatas bravas, crunchy outside and mealy within, are also an option.
Specials and entrees round out the options. Some are a little boring, like veggie and chicken pastas; again, I suggest hewing to the more traditional Spanish choices. I tried the lomo de cordero, marinated grilled lamb tenderloin. The slender pieces were cooked a little past the requested medium rare, but had a properly gamy flavor balanced by the red wine tang of the sauce. Overcooked sautéed vegetables (mainly zucchini, which also adorned a chicken special) were dull, but a round of saffron-rich, perfectly chewy rice hinted at the house’s skill with rice, showcased in its paellas. A special of chicken had good texture to the juicy breast, but slices of avocado and tomato on top were lost in a heavy creamy sauce and mashed potatoes.
Desserts include housemade ice cream – the mint chip is great – and various Spanish-style options, among them fruit empanadas with a changing filling. When I sampled them, it was apple and dried cranberry with pecans, a pleasing if not exactly seasonal combo. The fried dough, reminiscent of a doughnut, was delicious though not light. But then, you don’t come here for light.
When I told a few friends I was revisiting Tapa the World, they all replied along the lines of, “Oh, I almost forgot about that place!” In our rapidly changing restaurant scene, it’s easy to overlook old standbys. But going back to Tapa the World felt like visiting a true friend from college: instantly familiar and comfortable, picking up right where you left off.
Some of the restaurant’s pleasures are merely nostalgic, like that logo that oddly resembles a Pendleton-blanket-style jacket I wore the heck out of in 1994. But if you stick to the Spanish-style tapas, like mushrooms flavorful enough to enchant a whole new generation, you’ll likely find the place simply classic. If you haven’t been in a while and you enjoy Spanish fare – or, especially, Spanish wine – it’s well worth the backward look.
Tapa the World
2115 J Street
Info: 916-442-4353. www.tapatheworld.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Wednesday through Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar with exceptional strength in its wine offerings. The extensive, highly international wine list travels as far as Macedonia and Lebanon, but with a special focus (including all wines by the glass) from Spain and Spanish varietals.
Vegetarian options: Yes, several tapas and main dishes in each category are vegetarian, though vegans may have a harder time finding options.
Noise levels: Reasonable enough to permit conversation, though there’s a buzz when it’s full.
Ambiance: Dim and cavernous, with a pleasant patio and expansive bar. Elaborately patterned tiles provide the main décor. Some furnishings, such as thematically appropriate leather chairs, are a bit wobbly and the worse for wear.
After a quarter century, the unflashy but solid Tapa the World has weathered more than one round of small-plates trendiness and keeps on keeping on with its familiar tapas, its outstanding wine list and a convivial vibe.
Traditional Spanish small plates shine here, like garlicky, sherry-scented mushrooms, tortilla espanola and cold fried eggplant with tomato sauce. A too-heavy hand with the aioli can overpower sandwiches, but overall the food is reliably tasty.
Servers are relatively efficient and pleasant, and quick with a reliable recommendation. The main service bump comes upon entry, where there’s a seat-yourself sign and a stack of menus that can cause a little hesitation and confusion for guests.
Tapas range from about $5 up to $14 (with traditional Spanish ones mostly on the lower end), but can add up quickly. Sandwiches are a tad pricey but hefty at $12 to $17. Most entrees are under $20.