For the past couple days, I have been cogitating and scheming, figuring out how I was going to play out my final evening meal in New York. Make another stealth attack on Babbo? Try to nab one of the four bar seats at The Little Owl? My foodie coworker Ramona had also sent me off with a list of suggestions, mainly in the west Chelsea/Meatpacking District area. I was armed with an embarassment of choices.
But first I had arranged to meet up with my friend David for a drink. We arrived at the bar within seconds of one another, at which point he asked whether I had dinner plans. I was delighted to have the opportunity to share a meal and some quality time with him, but it threw me at first into a bit of a quandary. One person scoring a bar seat at a place like Babbo can be dodgy enough, but for two the odds are exponentially inverse. I didn't want to be bossy or demanding (or as he says, play top daddy), so I asked whether he had any suggestions. He mentioned Tía Pol, and my heart lifted. It was at the top of Ramona's recommendations. Corroboration inspires confidence.
It's not to say that landing a seat at Tía Pol is any less challenging than at other popular spots. The restaurant is teeny weeny, long and narrow with roughly 10 seats at the bar in front, a handful of two-tops lining the wall opposite the kitchen and, I think, one sole four-top in the very back. They don't take reservations. By the time we got there, right around 6 pm, the place was already full. At first we were told a 30-45 minute wait, though we could vie for a seat at the bar. And then, as if by magic, they got us onto one of the two-tops within minutes. Score.
Tía Pol offers a compact but varied menu of tapas, covering the gamut of regional specialties. I was pleased to see some familiar presentations from my time in Spain. Our server was upon our table in a flash -- of course, she could never get very far away as we were seated a matter of inches from the pickup station -- and as soon as she took our order for sangria, rattled off an additional seven daily specials. We had already made some selections from the menu, and though the specials all sounded fantastically good, we didn't want to rock the boat.
Food came in a flash, the first three arriving almost simultaneously and within five minutes of our order. We got, in order:
Garbanzos fritos -- Evidently the dish they got all the buzz for when they opened. Tender, tiny garbanzos lightly battered and fried crispy. Crunchy exterior, creamy centers. Delicious, and as David notes, a bargain of a bar snack at $3.
Paquetitos of jamón serrano, artichoke and manchego -- These came as three wee triangular parcels, the artichoke and manchego wrapped in jamón in the fashion you would spanakopita or, say, the American flag. The first one I had was lackluster -- the jamón overpowered the contents -- but the second one was better. The artichoke was more assertive with a creamy texture that played down the intense saltiness of the jamón.
Pulpo galiciano -- Galician-style octopus discs flash sauteed with garlic, olive oil, parsley and chili flake. My favorite dish of the night, though I am generally partial to octopus and specifically to Galician preparation of it. Nice contrasting texture between the silky skin and resilient (but not rubbery!) flesh, and just enough chili to leave a faint tingle on the lips.
Piquillos rellenos -- Tiny (no, tiny) piquillo pepper tips stuffed with a mixture of tuna, potato and egg. Surprisingly satisfying for such a small portion.
Brandada -- I almost always go for a nice salt cod brandade if it's on the menu. This was not bad, but I prefer it to be more consistent. The chunks of salt cod were not unpleasant, but I prefer a smooth puree. Plus, it was actually an overgenerous portion, especially since they provided six wee discs of baguette upon which to slather it. About half of it went back to the kitchen.
Bocata of roast pork loin, piquillo pepper and tetilla cheese -- Excellent little bocadillo on 3" lengths of baguette. Flavor and presentation more reminiscent of Peru (lomo saltado) than Spain but very nice nevertheless.
At first, I was concerned that we had not ordered enough food, as some of the tapas are quite diminutive. But by the time we got up to the larger and richer dishes, like the bocadillo and the brandada, we were positively stuffed. My only complaint -- and I do have to have one -- is that overall everything struck me as a tad oversalted, but never so much so as to get in the way of the food itself. I only noticed it as a pervasive theme across all the dishes. Ironic, too, since I remember the tapas in Spain as being rather undersalted most of the time. Frankly, I prefer my food seasoned.
Tía Pol is not where to go for a leisurely or romantic meal. The space is small (though we were never cramped), the service and food almost unbelievably fast and it is loud (not least due to the table of women cackling like cracked-out hens five feet away). But then, you wouldn't go looking for white tablecloths and string quartets at a tapas bar, would you? Of course you wouldn't. And sure, some of the tapas can be pricey -- one of the specials was $19 for three shrimp -- but it's still cheaper than airfare to Barcelona. So for authentic Spanish tapas bar atmosphere, buzz and above all food, Tía Pol is hard to beat.
205 10th Ave (at 22nd St.)