When it comes to Spain, the average American mind conjures up a series of cultural images: old churches and cobblestone streets. A cup of gazpacho and a pitcher of sangría. Maybe even a bullfight or two, and a good shoe sale. But a strip mall and a rice plantation house? Tempranillo by the glass and paella with rabbit and snails? And a handlebar mustache? It's pretty doubtful these would be the initial connections to coast in on the brain waves.
Unless, that is, you've been to La Barraca Tapas Bar & Cafe, a completely surprising and authentic Spanish restaurant located in the Jacaranda Square shopping plaza in Plantation. As genuine as Lladro, La Barraca is named for the Valencia rice plantation house that belonged to chef-owner Jorge Luis Fernandez' family. (Now the plantation -- the one in southeastern Spain, not western Broward -- is a historic landmark, owned by the government.) The interior of this 30-seater, positioned as not much more than a notch in the three-sided strip mall, resembles the exterior of the house, with a wooden-frame construction looming over the bar and tapas counter. Objects ranging from articles of clothing to flamenco guitars -- real, in working condition, and up for temporary grabs by (hopefully) trained hands -- dangle on the walls. The effect is as charming and incongruous as the menu, an ode to the motherland right down to the Asturias mineral water, and Fernandez himself, a personable restaurateur who wears street clothes rather than a chef's jacket and sports a neatly groomed and waxed handlebar mustache.
A somewhat recent transplant from Northern California, where he spent a dozen years or so building an international catering business -- "now serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Madrid, San Francisco, Valencia, and Tokyo," his website, www.paellas.com, notes -- Fernandez originally rented the La Barraca spot solely for the kitchen. But his wife convinced him it would be as unthinkable to waste the dining room space as it would be for the wine list to offer port instead of manzanilla sherry. So with the help of his brothers, who work in the restaurant as servers, he reconstructed the plantation house of his ancestors and opened La Barraca about eight months ago.
It's an appropriate homage, considering that Fernandez specializes in more than 20 versions of paella. Fernandez will even design a paella to cater, quite literally, to your tastes. In the restaurant, though, only a few versions are available: the traditional Valenciana, with seafood, sausage, and chicken; the popular paella de mariscos, with fish and shellfish; and the one my mouth was salivating for, made with rabbit and snails. Unfortunately, I was left to stew in my own juices, so to speak; Fernandez had only frozen rabbit on hand, and he prefers to cook that particular paella with fresh game.
His honesty in this case allowed us to trust his tapas recommendations. Rather than order the sautéed baby calamari, he suggested, try the sepia a la plancha, cuttlefish grilled with garlic and olive oil. The cuttlefish, a cephalopod like the squid and octopus, can sometimes be tougher than its two aforementioned relatives, but not here. The tender white flesh, cut into strips and gently curled from the cooking process, boasted both succulence and a clean, mild flavor.
Fernandez and company display the day's cold tapas in a glass case, which makes it easy to choose based on what looks appealing. We thought all of it did, so we indulged in a platter comprising, well, everything. That included a sampling of the justifiably famous jamón Serrano and Manchego cheese, a typical pairing in Spain; a classic and finely prepared tortilla española; and a handful of pickled white anchovies, beautifully filleted and marinated in vinegar, garlic, and parsley. In the center of the plate, a scoop of ensaladilla rusa, a Spanish version of the Russian potato-vegetable salad, was enhanced by the addition of albacore tuna, which was savory rather than fishy.
Likewise, I'd recommend whatever fish has just come in for a main course. Fernandez had just received some beautiful corvina, a hefty yet tenderly flaking fillet that he cooked simply with some olive oil, white wine, and garlic. The spare flavors were also a good match for the parrillada de mariscos, a mélange of grilled scampi (small lobsters), prawns, scallops, sepia, Galician mussels, clams, and merluza (hake). Accented with a sprinkle of lemon, each piece of seafood featured its proper individual texture; nothing was overcooked. We especially enjoyed the scampi, which taste more like rock-lobster tail than shrimp.
Fernandez also has a secure grip on his meats, and these get international touches. For instance, steak dishes such as the entrecot a la pimienta takes direction from France, via its peppery crust and its brandied demi-glace. The tiny lamb chops are influenced from even further abroad -- these babies, and I mean babies, are sourced from Australia. Big surprise: They're outstanding. Touched with thyme and just barely grilled, the delicate chops were undoubtedly the best I've had in some time. And priced for 15 bucks? Obviously a bargain as well.
Indeed, prices are reasonable enough to make La Barraca a regular hangout, particularly if you like Spanish wines. Though the list isn't extensive, it's a better-suited assortment of red-and-white varietals, including Riojas, Tempranillos, and Viura Blancos, than I've come across in most ethnically driven restaurants. Fernandez also has bottles off the list that he can pour if you like something a bit more esoteric, such as a Rosado (Spanish Rosé). Couple a copita of Palomino Fino sherry with a puff of a cigarillo -- Fernandez proffered us one of his along with the check -- and strum a few chords on the guitar and you can justly claim to have been transported from a Plantation strip mall to a rice plantation house in Spain.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.