Cal Pep

(Barcelona, SPAIN) — According to most of the travel guides and websites, if you’re looking for an authentic dining experience in Barcelona, you should look no further than Cal Pep. Unfortunately, they do not take reservations for “front of the house” and instead you must get there before they open, then take your place in line. We arrived on another gorgeous, sunny weekday for lunch and stood behind perhaps twenty people, waiting for the doors to open...

He Fed:

Looking around, it’s pretty clear this place is a tourist destination for fellow foodies. There are many nationalities represented in the line, and many different languages spoken. I see similar tour guides being referenced, particularly when Cal Pep’s opening time comes and goes. Impatient locals go around the side and try to peek into the windows, but must come back and join us in line. Finally, about fifteen minutes late, the garage-door entrance rolls upward. We are beckoned inside. The people in front of us are lined up on stools at the bar until all the seats are filled. We have just missed the cut off! So, we are left to stand awkwardly behind the diners, single-file, waiting for seats to open up. How long will this take? Thirty minutes? An hour? Two? I begin to have doubts that we’ve chosen wisely. Is this just another tourist trap? Others behind us are confused and try to leap frog, but the staff sets everyone straight. We will be seated, in order.

Two seats open up about 20 minutes later. A server waves us over. I shove Juliet down that way before any of the other impatient patrons can steal our place. With trepidation, we squeeze into the narrow space and look around wonderingly at the fresh ingredients, the hard-working cook staff, and what everyone else is eating. Juliet attempts to parlay with our server, but he playfully puts us in our place. We resort to pointing and general utterances, without ordering anything specific. This is enough to send us on an adventuresome parade of dishes.

We start, of course, with some pleasant red wine—2009 Ugarte Rioja—and Racio pa de Coca, aka tomato bread. Tomato bread is fast becoming our new favorite thing. It is served everywhere, usually for a nominal fee, but is so delicious it could be its own appetizer.

Juliet admires another diner’s dish and starts us off with Racio Trifasic Fregit, which turns out to be lightly deep-fried (if there is such a thing) shrimp, calamari, and small whole fish. It’s a big heaping platter of seafood. I tread lightly, sticking to calamari, before crunching on one of the fish. At first I think it’s sardine, but seems smaller than what I’ve had before. (Research later uncovers that it may have been “whitebait”.) The head and bones are still intact, though it has been gutted before cooking. I chomp it all down, except the head, with its staring, dead eyes. It’s a damn good fish! With newfound gusto, I snap into a shrimp (or prawn or langoustine). It’s sweet and golden delicious. This time, I grind the head between my teeth and find it richer and sweeter than the body. Yum!

After, I decide to dive in to the deep end of the pool by ordering Xipirons amb Cigrons. A sizzling platter of marinated fresh squid mixed with fork tender chickpeas appears before me in no time. There’s a shallow, inky broth and chopped cilantro too. I eat it all, relishing the salty, briny flavors, like a seafood cassoulet. I’ve switched now to Estrella Damm beer. It has a golden hue, yeasty nose, and German lager taste without any cloying characteristics. I can drink it all day long and, indeed, I probably have one glass too many. Hey, it’s vacation!

Juliet cannot resist the allure of fried artchoke leaves, but I am immune; they are tasty, but I’m just not feeling it. That’s not the story, though, when she decides to cap off our experience with the Racio Filet, a large hunk of beef, seared and served, seeping blood, with a side of potatoes. Although it seems like a cardinal sin to fry a steak, then cut it into pieces, cooking it a bit more before serving, the end result it magnificent. The meat is so tender and perfectly cooked, very lightly seasoned. I take a chunk of beef and a slice of potato, shove it into mouth and chew. Heaven...

During our meal, we meet a nice man from upstate New York (who shares his sausage dish, which is amazing and recommends some Manhattan eateries) and a lovely couple from London who are on holiday. Cal Pep’s tight seating and too-close-for-comfort queueing fosters a kind of camaraderie among diners. We’re all here for a shared, communal experience and it’s hard to ignore someone with whom you are literally rubbing elbows.

Without a doubt, Cal Pep is our favorite dining experience in Barcelona. The food is fresh and simply prepared. The servers are friendly, confidently guiding you through the day’s menu options. The atmosphere is convivial. When we finally relinquish our seats, it is with regret that we don’t have more room in our bellies.
She Fed:

We arrive 15 minutes early to find a line waiting for the doors to open. Cal Pep is highly rated and we’d been advised to arrive early to avoid long lines. About 10 minutes after the posted opening time, the garage-style door slides up and we move as one into a narrow room with a long lunch counter. As luck would have it, the last stool is occupied just as Jeremy and I enter. So we are herded to the end of the counter where we wait for an opening, along with a mass of people behind us.

Despite my impatience, the people watching is great fun. A few parties squeeze by to the “reservations only” back of restaurant. On the other side of the counter, there are several line cooks grilling, frying, and sauteing various dishes made with ingredients we can see in the cooler's glass fronts: whole fish of various sizes, prawns, steaks, mixed fresh veggies, calamari, salads, fish filets, and more. Once in a while, a dish comes out from a second kitchen hidden behind swinging doors to tease us. There is much ado when the chef brings out a gigantic paella and ceremoniously divides it amongst six plates that are quickly dispersed along the counter. There seems to be an ordering procedure here, but I am clueless.

After nearly 30 minutes, two stools open at the opposite end of the room. We double-back and push our way through the line to the seats. Our server Carlos is adorable (I’m a sucker for a faux hawk) but rebukes my “Habla ingles?” with “Habla espanol?” There are no menus, we don’t know the ordering system, and our Spanish is rudimentary. After a few halting attempts to converse with Carlos, we realize we must pick the main ingredient and they prep it pretty much however they want. Carlos runs through a list of dishes and we either nod or shake our heads. Tomato bread, grilled peppers, calamari with everything, beef...nods all around. Tuna tartar, shake. Jeremy also asks for the garbanzos with squid, a staple in these parts it seems.

Tomato bread is toasted or char-grilled bread rubbed with half of a meaty raw tomato and drizzled with Spanish olive oil. The better those three ingredients are, the better the end result. Cal Pep’s tomato bread is quite good, but not the best we’ve had so far. It does help soak up the glass of cava I chugged while working through our order, though.

A fry up with calamari, small shrimp, and thin fish piled on a platter arrives. The shrimp and fish are whole, complete with heads and tails. The shrimp are unshelled and have those spiny “feelers” coming out of their heads, right above tiny dead eyes. I start with the familiar calamari rings and bodies, which are tender. I try a few shrimp, but pull the heads off and pile them on my plate. Another server walks by, returns, and points to growing shrimp head pile. He speaks in English “Those are the best part. They’re naturally sweet. You have to eat them.” It’s when he raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms, that I realize I am going to have eat the pile of shrimp heads. I nod, take a big gulp of the Rioja Jeremy ordered for us to share, and pop in a head. I’m pleasantly surprised to find he’s right; they are sweet and crunchy. He is clearly pleased. Luckily, he doesn’t see me pulling some meat off the fish bones and discarding the spines and heads. Baby steps!

A plate of tiny green peppers are tasty with good heat, but not that painful burn I was expecting. Then comes the squid and beans, glossy in the aubergine cooking liquor of the squid. It’s too fishy and overpowering for me, though Jeremy loves it. I spy a container heaped with meaty artichoke hearts and order a batch. In less than three minutes they’re presented in a light batter with shiny crumbs of sea salt scattered about. A couple squeezes of lemon and I am in nirvana. Carlos brings me a glass of Estrella Galicia (a shandy) on the house. The lemony bubbles are beautiful with the artichokes.

Like all the others, our final dish is cooked before our eyes. A cubed filet is quickly grilled and piled on potato slices. Despite being cubed, the beef is perfectly medium rare and the meaty juices seep into the buttery potatoes. The dish is so flavorful, I’m oohing and aahing at this point.

If this meal wasn’t fabulous enough, we find ourselves seated next to a couple of fun British foodies on holiday. Amazing luck! We exchange emails and Twitter handles, watching them stroll into the Barcelona sun where we’ll soon be after a final glass of Cava.

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