Top Tapas | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Restaurant Reviews

Top Tapas

Small-business restaurateurs, listen up: I have discovered the key to success. Forget about offering value for money or supplying a hitherto-overlooked cultural demand or even trying to please your regular customers. If you really want to make a go of your culinary foray, all you have to do is paint the walls of your eatery yellow.

All told, yellow's a pretty useful color. Housepainters know it doesn't fade noticeably. To expecting parents, it's a nice, neutral color that means no, they haven't looked at the sonogram, so stop asking if they know the gender of their baby. Most important, perhaps, the golden hue signals wealth and prosperity in the feng shui world, making a yellow interior not only a good omen but a wise business decision.

OK, so there's a little more to running a restaurant than choosing the correct shade of paint. But I'm not entirely kidding around. I frequent many shoestring operations headlined by various moms and pops of limited funds (and usually even less English, given their recently immigrated status). Most of these proprietors don't make much of an effort with décor, which doesn't necessarily mean that the food is unworthy of discovery. But those who do -- say they paint the walls a cheerful, optimistic yellow that doesn't show dirt or grease and brightens an otherwise dingy storefront -- seem to be at least attempting to court success rather than just survive. Indeed, of all the ethnic joints I've visited in just the past year or two, the ones that stand out in my mind, including Islands in the Pines, Moon Thai & Japanese, and Spanish Tapas y Olé, have featured walls as vibrant as the South Florida sun -- not to mention kind, sincere service and studiously authentic fare.

Like Islands and Moon Thai, Spanish Tapas y Olé is not an elaborate startup. Located in a modest strip mall off Pines Boulevard in Pembroke Pines, the 30-seat restaurant is as much deli and market as it is café. Glass cases house take-home possibilities like blood sausages and Spanish omelets. Shelves against one wall hold a bewildering array of international products ranging from Jack Daniels bourbon mustard to Swiss chocolate to bottles of imported jerez. Everything from cooking to totaling up the check is handled by proprietors Moises and Pilar Pinto, who exchanged Madrid for Weston in 1998.

As a result of the lack of pretense, the overlying impression one receives from the establishment is that of frank concern for the clientele's well-being: When we asked Moises Pinto, who was waiting on our table, if the "Guinness black beer scaloppini" was good, he simply replied simply "No" so definitively that we laughed and allowed him to steer us toward paella. In fact, the imprint of his honesty didn't fade for us even when we found that an extra $50 had been mistakenly added to our credit card. Rather than making us wait while he canceled and rerang the transaction, Pinto simply handed us the balance in cash and absorbed the tax difference himself.

Of course, strength of character doesn't mean much if no one in the place can cook. Fortunately, Pilar Pinto has a way with that paella, among other house specialties. She brings it to the table steaming in a metal paella pan, saffron and paprika hints hitting the senses just before an impression of smoky sausage. Fresh shellfish, including green-lipped mussels from New Zealand, plump squid rings, and small and large shrimp, contrasted with some cured and shelled mussels that had been mixed into the tender rice. Perfectly seasoned, the paella here was better than any I've had in Valencia itself, where this seaside dish originated.

If paella is your plan, order it along with tapas, as it takes about 45 minutes to make, and be aware that the minimum two-person serving is more than enough for four. We found it to be a terrific intermediate course between an antipasto-like platter of sliced Serrano ham, chorizo and Manchego cheese, and a thick churrasco, rare and juicy and served with French fries. More like a New York strip, this steak is less the churrasco of South American fame than it is the lomo alto (loin cut) direct from a Spanish butcher shop. Regardless, it's delicious -- not too vivid, not too bland.

The signature Serrano ham also showed to great effect when grilled with a handful of quartered artichoke hearts. Fresh artichokes would be an improvement over the canned kind, though the salt-versus-vinegar flavors were palate-awakening. Despite its name, Spanish Tapas y Olé doesn't really offer many tapas: The artichokes, listed under the "vegetable" heading, are perfect to share as a starter. Mushrooms in garlic and olive oil, a dish that diners who are accustomed to Spanish cuisine might expect to see on a tapas menu, is also itemized here.

As far as the actual tapas menu goes, like the entrée menu, it is bare-bones and basic: assorted olives, fried red peppers, croquetas. Tortilla Española is de rigueur, though I didn't care for the slightly dry texture of this preprepared and re-heated omelet, and anchovies, fried or marinated, are also available. I liked snacking on the pungent marinated fillets, which taste similar to herring in wine sauce, though fans of fainter flavors and aromas might want to stay downwind. I also found the gazpacho to be a little too bright with vinegar, but when combined with the arrangement of garnishes brought on the side -- minced cucumber, onion, tomato, and croutons -- the cool soup had more of an elegant balance.

Don't expect much from an abbreviated wine list, but a half-dozen sherries and the house sangría are ideal for the sugar junkie. The desserts were also rather limited, yielding a multitemperature crema quemada a la Catalana (crème brûlée to those of a French persuasion) that merely confirmed a pet peeve of mine when it comes to Spanish restaurants in the United States: No sweets imagination. Without belaboring the point, I can name a handful of dishes from southern Spain alone -- figs stuffed with chocolate and almonds, peaches cured in syrup, sponge cake rolled around caramel custard -- that would be just as easy to make ahead of time and serve on the spot.

Still, Spanish Tapas y Olé works well within its space and location limitations, offering just about the only true Spanish cuisine in southern Broward County. You might not get as upscale a dish as sea bream baked in rock salt or rabbit with minted peas, but you will receive some sweetheart service and hearty, home-style cooking at welcome prices -- a credo that's practically painted, along with the mood-affecting color, right on the walls.