WE’RE EATING FOOD AGAIN! We’re writing about it! It’s not even pizza or tacos!
Instead, this summer we’ve set our sights on a favored restaurant a couple miles to the east in downtown Claremont. We’ve lived in the area since 2006, the first six of those years in Claremont itself, just blocks from the downtown village. We have two general impressions about restaurants in the village: the first is that the service is almost always absolutely terrible. Slow, inattentive, getting the bill takes forever … we don’t know what it is, but Claremont servers are the worst we’ve ever seen. Maybe they’re all bitter PhDs or uprooted trees? (There are exceptions, of course. But generally, ugh.)
Second impression is that the food just isn’t particiarly good. (A third impression would be that it costs more than anywhere else in the area, but that’s an obvious fact.) Claremont village food is … fine. Union on Yale makes a fine pizza. We hear the Creole place is good (it, ahem, sells red beans and rice for $24). It’s all just … fine. Cafes, Italian, barbecue, Thai, burgers, tacos, Mediterranean, whatever Walter’s is, on and on. Nothing is amazing. You want really good food in the area? Go to Pomona.
Again: there are exceptions. The Cheese Cave is a national treasure.
And then there’s Viva Madrid.
When we first moved to Claremont, the packing house expansion hadn’t yet happened, there was no Laemmle, and everything seemed to close at 9pm. The Press was fun. (The Press still existed.) And that was basically it, save Viva Madrid, the one restaurant to which we’d take our visiting friends and family. If you’ve been there, you know there isn’t any place like it in Claremont. First you have to find it: set down a dark hallway, you wander up and wait in the inevitable line while the hostess suggests you get a drink at the bar. Unless you’re there right when they’re opening, you can see inside, through the window, that it’s packed. The single room is fairly small and seats no more than 30 at a time (not counting 10 or so seats at the bar). The cooks hustling through a pass-through. The Spanish décor is over the top, every inch of wall covered in posters and bullfighting and flamenco memorabilia (there’s a balcony from which a musician supposedly would emerge from years ago, serenading the diners). The tables are set so closely together you always bump into a neighbor, and you can’t help but hear everything they say, and the servers are zooming back and forth from the bar to the kitchen to the table and somehow are managing not to run one another over. It’s loud, clattery, hard to hear …
… and it’s also entirely pleasant. The servers – in Claremont! – are friendly and responsive, and they have to be, as most people order off the tapas menu, and the food just keeps coming and coming, wave after wave. The food isn’t amazing but it’s good—especially if you know what to order. That’s been our project this summer. When we moved out of Claremont eleven years ago, we stopped going to Viva Madrid–it just fell off our radar, basically. But it’s back on, and e’ve been a handful of times this summer and will go back a handful more. Here’s what we’ve eaten and sipped so far, and here’s what we’ve learned.
Most people order the sangria (with the profferred brandy floater), and it’s good! But these two drinks are amazing. The Rocinante is essentially brandied sangria mixed with ginger beer. Yum. And the Cristal De Fuego is a deeply spicy concoction with mezcal, ancho liqueur, and spicy bitters. Yum x dos.
While the drinks are great, the food is the main draw. Here’s what we’ve gotten so far this summer (#s are as-listed on the tapas menu):
- 1. Canasta de Pan • basket of locally baked artisanal bread: it’s bread.
- 4 Tosta con Cabrales y Peras • sourdough toast topped with strong Cabrales cheese and red wine poached pears. So many thanks to Tabitha Lawrence for ordering this! This is insanely delicious. You could have it for dessert. You could have it as an appetizer. You could have it as the main course.
- 8 Aceitunas Picantes • green olives marinated in a spicy paprika sauce So what we love to do is order these olives—intensely coated in paprika—and dip our bread in the olive-paprika sauce. It’s amazingly savory, spicey, and piquant. Yum.
- 21 Croquetas de Pollo • chicken croquettes coated in bread crumbs and fried and 22 Croquetas de Pescado • scallops, shrimp, tuna, halibut, onions, and capers formed into croquettes, coated in bread crumbs, and fried The croquetas are disappointing, as their mild flavors get lost under the batter.
- 23 Empanada de Pollo • slow-cooked chicken, onions, and red and green bell peppers baked into a flaky crust and topped with a roasted red bell pepper sauce and 24 Empanada Jardinera • eggplant, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, black olives, zucchini, red and green bell peppers, peas, and roasted garlic slow-cooked and baked into a flaky crust, served with a tomato sauce Similar to the croquetas, the empanadas are less than the sum of their parts: the pastry overwhelms the fillings … less than the croquetas, to be clear, but still they taste more like dough and less like the fillings.
- 25 Alcachofas en Salsa • a whole artichoke served in a sherry reduction and sprinkled with crushed chili and parsley Here we go: so the best part of Viva Madrid is being in the space … sitting there awhile, enjoying the minor mayhem, snacking on bites, sipping on bevs. And this artichoke is like the paprika olives + bread: a slow joy. One savory leaf a time. It’s unhurried and delicious.
- 26 Calamares Fritos • battered fried squid served with aioli Meh.
- 36 Tapas Buenas Frias • a selection of cold tapas: assorted chorizos, asparagus, Spanish cheeses, cold tortilla, and green and black olives More a combination of other tapas, this is fine. The chorizos are okay. We got literally two spears of asparagus. The tortilla is great (more below) and the olives roll all over the place. Better to get individual tapas, we think.
- 38 Datiles con Tocino • dates wrapped with bacon ¤(GF) I mean, they’re dates wrapped in bacon. Not complex, not subtle, absolutely delicious.
- 39 Tortilla Española • a Spanish baked egg dish with potatoes, onions, and parsley, similar to a quiche and 40 Tortilla Artistica • a Spanish egg dish baked with onions, potato, red and green bell peppers, and spinach These are two of our favorite things on the menu—the tortillas are like crustless quiches if you’ve never had them, and they’re almost custardy in their eggy-potato texture. Both are utterly delicious—so much better than it seems like they should be. We lean toward the artistica.
- STRW: Queso con Fresas al Vapor • our house blend of Spanish cheeses served with steamed strawberries, topped with chopped mint and Spanish sherry vinegar Holy. Shit. Get this.
- CHOR: Chorizo a la Rioja • Spanish chorizo sautéed in a rioja wine reduction with garlic and spices Too intense!
- OCTO: Pulpito Pimento • a delicacy among Basque fishermen – tender young octopus sautéed in olive oil with garlic, lemon juice, and smoked paprika Not intense enough!
- MORC: Morcilla Cebolla • grilled Spanish black sausage, served on toasted bread and drizzled with olive oil The morcilla was very crumbly. Good but not amazing.
As I said, we’re still going through the menu (53 items on the tapas menu!), so this is far from a complete list. We’re excited to try the skewers, and the chorizo-stuffed squid, and the various slow-cooked proteins, and also to revisit some things we haven’t gotten for years: the papas bravas, the asparagus and salmon, the serrano ham and melon, etc. But so far, our happy recommendations would are the bread + paprika olives, that artichoke in sherry, the Spanish tortillas, and the strawberries (or pear + cheese toast). Yum. Suggestions very, very welcome!