Hail, American Tapas!

Spain’s iron grip on bar food comes to an end

I love Spanish food: patatas bravas and delicate curls of Ibérico ham that melt on the tongue, boquerones soaked in vinegar, and croquetas in a thousand variations. I love tapas, and think the Spanish passion for drinking, snacking and crawling through a dozen bars on a Tuesday night speaks to something deep and wonderful in the national character. And I’ve been cooking and writing about food long enough now that I remember the first madness for small plates in America, when our chefs sought to capture some of the fire of that Spanish and South American taste for grazing multiple plates in a single sitting.

It is kind of genius, after all: one-third-sized portions at two-thirds the price? The trend quickly took over the American restaurant scene in the early aughts, maturing into an obsession with all things Spanish and resulting in wildfire fads for bocas, meze, cicchetti and antojitos. But tapas is what stuck. Among highbrow foodies, it became perfectly fine to eat a plate of meatballs at the bar, or a piece of fried chicken with flamethrower hot sauce, as long as they were labeled “albondigas” or “pincho moruno.”

But here’s the thing: America is, after all, the Land of the Tater Tot. We’ve been doing tapas forever. We’ve had bar snacks and little nibbles thrown down on the long oak since before we had names to call them. And eventually chicken wings, nachos and nasty bowls of stale beer nuts gave way to things like bacon-grease popcorn at Khyber Pass and duck-fat french fries with Sly Fox cheddar sauce at Village Whiskey. Indeed, in the past couple years we’ve quietly entered into a Golden Age of American bar snacks—one that rivals the most fervent sangria daydreams of Spanish bar-crawlers.

The result is that the reign of tapas is coming to an end. Once again, American chefs and their bar menus are king. So raise a glass. Because the best way to celebrate the ascension of our own native brilliance is with a beer here, a glass of wine there—and a round of tater tots for
the bar.