More and more, tapas are finding their way onto menus and into mouths throughout the United States. If they’re not specifically listed as such, they’re called small plates, bites or appetizers, with a focus on cuisine that goes well beyond the traditional offerings in Spain.
In part, it’s a response to the increasingly casual vibe we find with dining out. It also gives people a chance to embrace something European and sophisticated.
Sometimes, however, concepts taken from one culture and interpreted for another wind up being an awkward fit. Tapas in Spain, for instance, are a lively part of everyday life. Because Spaniards tend to eat dinner later than most Americans, there are several hours between the time they leave work and the time they settle down for their evening meal.
Tapas fill that gap – an array of food, often no more than a bite or two, that is either inexpensive or even free, used as a vehicle to get patrons to stay awhile and buy wine.
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In America, we tend to eat early, and tapas, it seems, are cobbled together as a series of small plates for us to make a meal. Many people enjoy this. Others find it odd and clunky, their feedback prompting many tapas joints to offer full-sized entrees.
In the Sacramento area, several restaurants feature tapas. We recently assessed two leaders in the category – Source Global Tapas in an upscale strip mall in Granite Bay and Aioli Bodega Espanola on one of the liveliest blocks in midtown. Source is very inventive, edgy and wide ranging. Aioli is traditional, eclectic, quirky and endearing. In a different way, the Press Bistro on Capitol Avenue also does superb tapas, though the restaurant’s menu has evolved to emphasize larger plates.
And then there is Tapa the World, a long-running, pun-loving tapas eatery on J Street in midtown that once was a star attraction for tapas. At its peak, the place was packed and was so noisy it was often a struggle to hear the live classical guitarist.
Things change. The restaurant scene evolves, and what the competition is doing plays a part in determining the rating a restaurant receives. Since it was last reviewed in 2005, Tapa the World is no longer at the tapa the heap for casual dining in this category. While there are still ways to enjoy this eatery, its food has clearly declined in recent years while the competition has clearly elevated.
Thus, Tapa the World’s overall rating has been lowered from three stars to two. It’s easy to justify such a reduction. No serious restaurant would serve a fish special so lacking in flavor and character. And a restaurant concerned about maintaining its reputation for quality would not be offering lackluster chicken strips or empanadas that eat more like a frozen dinner heated in the microwave.
Paella, a hallmark of Spanish cooking, is probably the best dish at Tapa the World. When ordering it, you must allow at least 30 minutes to an hour for preparation, so it’s not for those who are impatient, don’t enjoy drinking or whose companions have nothing else to talk about other than what they just posted on Facebook.
Two friends and I ordered the paella mixta (seafood, chicken and chorizo), among several other dishes on a recent weekday evening, and bided our time drinking, nibbling on tapas and, best of all, talking about life and food and whatever else came to mind, including the friendly service, the superb wine list with scores of rioja and the lovely live guitar music.
This was almost like they would do it in Spain, only we were trying to make this our dinner, as we had to get home to our TVs and our early bedtimes. Those stylish Spaniards who eat dinner and drink wine at midnight surely don’t rise at 5:30 a.m. to trot around a city park with two dogs.
Rice is the base ingredient for paella, and a host of other elements, including saffron, are applied to alter and enhance the dish’s character. In this case, the chorizo scattered throughout the ample platter gave the paella a hot, spicy vibe while the shrimp and chicken offered a meaty texture and low-key flavor.
This is a robust, colorful paella, though the dish’s paramount virtues could inspire endless arguments. With paella, do we look for those crusty/crispy bits at the bottom of the pan, or do we celebrate the tender, plump rice and the flavor derived from the cooking liquid and saffron? Tapa the World’s paella lacked the vibrant depth of excellent paella – there were no crispy textures, and the flavors were less expressive than we had hoped. But it is still a solid offering and certainly an enjoyable way to eat here.
The tapas themselves, however, can be good, bad or indifferent, a range in quality that indicates the menu and the execution are not as focused as they need to be. The empanadas filled with beef and potato were nearly inedible. These deep-fried, crescent-shaped bites seemed to have been recently awakened from an arctic slumber, quickly thawed and then cooked. They were tough, chewy and dully flavored. A dish this poorly presented sounds alarm bells to most diners. Is this a serious restaurant? Not if it’s sending out food like this.
A eggplant tapas dish, berenjenas, was marginally better. The eggplant is sliced thinly into medallions, breaded and fried. So far, so good. Then it is topped with what is described as fresh tomato – even though we were a couple of hot summer months away from our area’s tomato season. Still, with garlic and an herb compote, there was plenty of flavor. But the Parmesan scattered on top was a real distraction. With a cardboard texture, it seemed to have been sprinkled right out of a bag of shredded cheese product.
Chicken fingers? No, we did not order off the kiddie menu. Tapa the World has chicken strips that are grilled, arriving unadorned on a small plate next to a dipping sauce. They were overcooked and bland. Their only saving grace? Few if any serious eaters would ever order them.
Far better in the tapas category was the garlicky shrimp, a classic Spanish offering called g ambas al ajillo. The rock shrimp was sautéed in olive oil, garlic, parsley and white wine. This is a tiny dish with a big punch, though sensitive palates might consider it a garlic bomb.
Beyond the tapas, we had mixed results. Our hamburger for lunch was very good – big and juicy and tasty. But an entree offered as a special for dinner was simply terrible – a dull piece of halibut that also seemed to have been paying room and board in a freezer before being cooked, ultimately arriving on the plate with a watery texture. The flavor? Aggressively unremarkable and blah. The couscous was even worse – dried out and nearly unseasoned. The grilled asparagus was tasty but limp.
The leg of lamb ragout, featuring tender meat that had been simmered in red wine and served atop Israel couscous with potatoes and mushrooms, was far better. It’s another dish that shows Tapa the World’s A-game. On the other hand, it reminded us how inferior some of the other dishes are.
Along with the strong wine list that features Spanish styles by the glass or bottle at very good prices, the mixed drinks are solid. The Habibi, for instance, was so good that while waiting for the paella to come together, we ordered another. It features 12-year-old Guatemalan rum muddled with orange and lemon – a perfect summer cocktail.
The desserts, unfortunately, were similar to other parts of the menu – a dice roll when it came to quality. While the “chocolate strawberry addiction” is a fun and decadent cake, the rice pudding was disappointing and the housemade ice cream had an off-putting overly-icy texture. Why offer housemade anything if you don’t know how to do it properly?
It has been a long time since Tapa the World was a bustling, celebrated eatery. How did that happen? While the service continues to be attentive and engaging, the food is simply too up and down and all over the map when it comes to quality. More attention to detail and dedication to consistency would help in making this restaurant a serious contender once again.
Tapa The World
2115 J St.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to midnight
Beverage options: Full bar, including excellent wine list highlighting Spanish varietals
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: Well spaced, cozy and distinctly Spanish in style. There is a small bar. On some nights, there is live classical guitar.
Overall * * (out of 4 stars)
Great hours, a very fine wine list, good paella, some nice tapas and, well, more than a few problems throughout the rest of the menu. If you can navigate the menu and, perhaps, get a little lucky with your choices, you’re bound to have a nice experience. But the clunkers coming out of the kitchen could be a distraction.
Food * *
Two things have happened in recent years: Sacramento restaurants have upgraded and Tapa the World has suffered a decline. The consistency and quality of the cooking can be problematic. The paella mixta is a solid dish. So is the lamb and the garlicky shrimp called g ambas al ajillo. But overcooked tri-tip, the underseasoned and watery halibut special, and the all-but-tasteless rice pudding can eclipse the hits.
Service * * *
The highlight of our visits was the interaction with the polished and friendly service staff.
Value * *
The paella mixta, with seafood, chicken and chorizo, was $51 for three of us. That seems pricey, but it was the best dish at the restaurant. The mussels are $9, which is a good value. Tapas we had ranged from $6 to $9. Dinner for three during one visit was $150, including wine and mixed drinks.