Mexican & Spanish Food Tips For Restaurant Ordering

Mexican & spanish food tips on how to order tapas based on personal dining experience; what to expect, how many dishes to order, etc.

Chances are, you've heard the buzz about the "tapas dining experience." Tapas-- those little hot and cold dishes that are served up during cocktail hour in Spain. Dinner or supper is served later on the peninsula (I've heard times varying from 10 p.m. to midnight) and the Spaniards like to have something to tide them over between work and the dinner table. So, you've taken the leap and you're now sitting at a table with a gaggle of friends with a menu in hand and a waiter or waitress lingering nearby.

Now what?

(The following tips are based on personal tapas dining experiences of mine, of which I try to have as many as possible. Feel free to deviate whenever the mood strikes you.)

1. There are no dumb questions.

An important point to remember is that there is no "wrong way" to do this. Your server will probably ask you if you've ever eaten in a tapas restaurant before and it is okay to tell the truth. All they will do is explain how the menu is set up, how the process works and what the specials are. They will even make suggestions based on personal favorites or recommend a wine to try if asked politely.

2. This ain't Acapulco.

Save yourself the embarrassment. Although the festive Spanish music and usually inspired decor may throw you for a loop, please try not to inquire about or order tacos, burritos or enchiladas. This is a Spanish restaurant, which means that there will not be chips and salsa on the table to start you off. It sounds silly to some to even mention, but I have friends that work in tapas restaurants and they have shared with me that there are in fact patrons that are disappointed at the lack of Mexican and/or Tex-Mex fare in a Spanish place. This means that instead of chips and salsa there will more than likely be bread and olive oil to snack on. I have seen this consumed in many ways, but my personal favorite is to use one of the little plates you will find stacked on the table, pour a bit of the oil onto the plate, season with salt and pepper and dip the bread into the oil. Oh, and there will also be no Parmesan cheese to shake onto the bread. It is a very yummy snack in itself.

Now, to order...

3. How many tapas?

If you are alone, ordering two is the way to go. Two or possibly three to a person is usually a good bet. The idea is for everyone to pass the dishes around and spoon a little onto your own plate to get a little taste. I have been a member of larger groups, 10 to 15 or more, and on one or two occasions, one member of the party orders two or three dishes that have been requested and leaves the rest up to the server. A good server will have a list of personal favorites to choose from and will know how many dishes of each to bring. One of the many advantages to eating in this way is that you will always find a something that you like and also won't be stuck with an entire dish that you think is only so-so. The prices of tapas are also usually very reasonable and will be a lot of variety on the table for the money you spend.

4. Hot or cold?

I have found that this is simply a matter of personal preference. You can order either, or both. In really hot, muggy weather I like to order all cold tapas. When it's chillier outside, nothing satisfies a "pincho de pollo" (chicken skewer) or some "patatas bravas" (spicy potatoes. ) When both hot and cold dishes are served, the cold ones arrive first. Another point is that "hot" in a tapas restaurant almost never means "hot-spicy." There may be a very few dishes that cause the sniffles (ask your server) but by and large, tender stomachs needn't worry.

5. Am I also expected to order an entree?

You can, of course, but are you expected to? No, no, a thousand times no. Entrees are available but strictly optional. Sharing several tapas followed by a nice custard or other tempting dessert is usually satisfying enough.

6. Beverages?

Traditionally, the drink of choice at a tapas restaurant is red sangria. Served by the pitcher or by the glass, you will find it on almost every table in the place. (For those not in the know, red sangria is a red wine punch, garnished with alcohol-saturated diced fruit.) Most places also have a wine list (with Spanish wines) and a full bar, and coffees to accompany dessert.

These tips I've provided will hopefully have you ordering with more confidence (and more often), but above all, be adventurous. Try a dish you've never heard of before, or would balk at in normal circumstances. The braver you are, the more memorable your tapas experience will be!

Some tapas restaurants in Chicago, IL: Cafe Iberico, Cafe Ba-Ba-Ree-Ba!, Emilio's Tapas

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