In Spain, food has a different meaning. It's both fuel and fun, consumed and enjoyed in a series of small, snack-like bites throughout the day. This all begins with a family meal, meat from a whole pig's leg sliced onto bread for a portable breakfast.
As the workday rolls to a halt, you quiet a growling belly with a quick stop at the local tasca, the working man's tavern, where tiny pintxos, tapas, and montaditos are washed down with wine and beer.
Later, you'll stroll home to enjoy the final meal of the day, a late-night feast and a few bottles of wine shared with friends and family that can stretch long past midnight.
In South Florida, where the recent small-plate obsession has tainted our palates (and pockets) with pricey, upmarket concept foods, we have no understanding of the Spanish art of celebrating food and drink.
But at Candela Restaurant in Wilton Manors, you can get an idea of what it's all about. Just one block south of Oakland Park Boulevard and over a canal that hems the northern edge of the Island City, you'll find one of the area's best-kept secrets.
You may be familiar with a restaurant where the chef knows your name and delivers your dish as if you were family. This is the type of experience you'll get from chef-owner Armando Vega and his wife, Yudaris. They aren't looking to thrill with fancy farm-to-table fare, seasonally rotating menus, or fancy cocktails. And this is neither some newfangled gastropub with craft beer coursing through its veins nor the type of place that offers 20 different small-batch bourbons. It's no bar at all, for that matter. The main draw is the food, the Cuban-born couple's version of authentic Latin and Mediterranean cuisine.
Though the Vegas have attempted to change the menu, they can't remove one of his 30-plus selections for fear of angering devout patrons, like the couple who recently made a reservation for October in the middle of summer.
"That's special, that they thought that far ahead to spend an evening with me," Vega says. "That means I'm doing something right."
What makes Candela so endearing -- apart from Vega himself -- is his knowledge of the painstakingly sourced ingredients. A medium-grain rice from Murcia, Spain; Mahón, a soft cow's-milk cheese from the island of Minorca; smoky pimentón, a type of Spanish paprika; and olive oil from Jaén, a city in the south of Spain.
"Food in the Old World is about name-dropping. One place is known for its rice, another for its cheese," explains Vega, who uses a Spanish vinegar and olive oil not because they are superior to the Italian or Turkish varieties but because they are what he likes.
His patrons clearly like it too; they are willing to slap down close to $20 for his more popular plates. Candela opened nearly a decade ago, several years after Vega and his family moved stateside from Spain. Confident they could awaken the tapas lovers of South Florida with their recipes, they took over an abandoned market to open the small eatery. It began with just four tables stuffed into a tiny, 600-square-feet dining room with a counter displaying a variety of ready-made tapas.
Today, the place is barely recognizable thanks to a recent expansion that made way for additional seating and a private dining room that can seat up to 24 for formal, sit-down service. The rustic, red-walled hideaway is accented with handmade wooden wine racks; Vega's family china and art made with the corks of emptied wine bottles are evidence of the gastronomic merriment that's taken place over the years. If you're lucky, Vega will emerge from the kitchen to pour a complimentary glass of his favorite vino for no other reason than to see how it helps you appreciate his food.
Vega is most proud of his paella, prepared in the style of Valencia, a recipe that hails from the heart of Spain, where he cooked for more than a decade after leaving Cuba at 21. It's $25 for a single portion.
"The secret is the rice and broth," said Vega. "I make it the way it's supposed to be served. It's a rice dish, and that means it should be crusty and dry."
Vega uses Spanish Calasparra rice, a pearl-shaped variety that won't stick and allows for the complete absorption of the savory calamari, clam, mussel, and shrimp-based broth. The dish is served from a piping-hot paella pan, blackened rice scraped from the steel and onto your plate.
A house specialty is the fideua negré, a noodle dish with an unctuous sauce of squid ink that's filled with fat chunks of tender squid and octopus. Vega weaves an interesting tale depicting the origins of the dish: Poor Spaniards used but a single paella pan to cook the entire dish. He combines the ingredients -- squid, octopus, sauce, and raw noodles -- in the same manner, heated until the pasta leeches every ounce of moisture from the pan. Fat and tender, the noodles are left to burn and crisp around the edges, pan-seared and sealed with flavor. As with the paella, it's the texture he's looking for.
Neither Mediterranean nor Latin, the Moroccan chicken is a house favorite, says Yudaris. Chicken on the bone is cooked with raisins, dates, olives, and paprika for a fragrant delivery of sweet, smoky, spicy, and briny.
Vega's most popular dish, however, is cerdo asado. Rather than braising it, Vega confits the pork in its own fat and finishes it in a hot paella pan with olive oil and sofrito. This renders the meat into crispy, fried tendrils of pulled pork that are served over a bed of rice and black beans seasoned with a pepper-based vinegar sauce Vega gets from his family in Cuba.
By the end of the night, don't expect to leave without a visit from Vega himself. You'll have a full belly and blushing cheeks from a few extra glasses of wine. He'll tell you the family wouldn't have it any other way.
Candela Restaurant is located at 2909 NE Sixth Ave., Wilton Manors; 954-563-8088; candelarestaurant.com.
Fideua negre: $21
Cerdo asado: $17
Pollo marroqui (Moroccan chicken): $19
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.
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