El Rastro – Part Two
“El Rastro is a wonderful excuse to have a beer or two before lunchtime,” is a comment that can be heard in its various forms throughout the flea market’s Sunday social scene. This is only logical, as those 100,000 people – having picked through and poked at the different wares on offer – are thirsty. And yes, given the early hours, it would make sense if they ordered a cafe con leche, an orange juice, a cup of hot chocolate, or even, a very non-macho manzanilla (i.e. chamomile infusion).
But, that would ignore the fact that most people have had their breakfast before coming to El Rastro – Churros and Chocolate at San Ginés being the most popular option – and those who haven’t, probably don’t have the stomach for it anyway since they were out late, enjoying many a drink, and are now merely winding down the weekend’s activities. That’s where the copious number of Rastro-area bars come into the picture.
If you moved to Madrid tomorrow and wanted to earn a fast
Buck Euro, I’d first tell you to go to Puerta del Sol, cover yourself in mud, and then sit completely still in with your eyes closed and a frown on your face, and believe it or not, someone anxious to get rid of their change will take you for a real artist, dropping a few coins in your little brown box.
Having said that, option two would be to go and rent out un local near the Rastro flea market. Give your place an uninventive place name, such as Casa or Bar or Restaurante followed by your own first name, home town, street address or house specialty.
Your casa/bar/restaurante would then offer several menu items, but would emphasize one item above all others, something so simple, yet so tasty, that everyone would jump for joy, lick their fingers, order five more raciones, and call mamá, telling her not to set out that extra plate for lunch. The best part? You’d could open just on Sundays, and still make enough Euros to get by.
If I’ve peaked your curiosity to open just such a business, you can start your research with Bar Santurce, a.k.a La Casa de las Sardinas Asadas, a Rastro institution since 1977 and a good jumping-off point for fish lovers.
Although the owners offer the typical range of tapas, they follow the golden rule of specializing in just one item, namely grilled sardines. Before you say “yuck” or “ew”, you should know that the poor sardine, so vilified in the states, has a great many admirers here in Spain, and foods we think we know from experiences at home are often radically different when tried abroad. The sardines served here are some of the best grilled fish in the neighborhood, if not the city, and this place is heaving on Sunday afternoons for good reason. So get here early, put your stereotypes aside, and cough up a couple Euros for a
new true impression of sardines.
The barman will offer to serve your sardines with small green Galician peppers (pimientos de padrón), but I’d try those elsewhere and stick to the fish here (a suggestion my in-laws clearly ignored), which are served in portions of una Ración (a large plate for 3.60 Euros like you see below), or 1/2 Ración (only 1.80 Euros) with a sprinkle of thick salt over the top.
Rather than pick the bones out of your teeth, you can follow the elegant fingers of my mother-in-law Elieser, who peels off each side with ease before popping them into her mouth and piling the bones on her plate.
It might seem strange that fish play an important role this far from the sea, but Madrid actually has the second largest fish market in the world after Tokyo, and the capital is blessed with a steady fresh supply.
The sardine in particular is given special prominence in Madrid, partly due to a late 18th/early 19th century tradition known as the Burial of the Sardine, held on Ash Wednesday to mark the end of Carnival and the start of Lent. The festival was captured on canvas by Francisco de Goya and continues even today, with the Burial of the Sardine Brotherhood parading through Madrid, dancing, playing music, and stopping for a refill at bars who invite them in, all with their sardine-packed coffin in tow, which they eventually bury at the end of the night. Really.
But what about meat, you ask? Head up the street and around the corner to Bar Santa Ana. Before you get there, remember not to judge a book by its cover…
(I’m still not sure if the signage was purposely split or just broke in half one day, losing a letter in the process). This humble bar serves some of the best ropavieja (literally, old clothes) in Madrid, a dish originally from the Spanish Canary Islands that made its way to Cuba where it became a star. Given the flea market’s original traders, there’s hardly a more appropriate dish. A hefty block of stew beef is simmered for hours until it becomes so soft, it can be peeled off like string cheese. It’s then marinated overnight in a sofrito of red bell pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic, giving it a pleasant sweet-acidic balance.
Once ordered, from under the glass counter into the microwave it goes! It’s then served up with baguette slices, perfect for mopping up the rest of the sauce.
Yanelis, seen here sporting her Bar Santa Ana t-shirt, is one of the four Cuban women behind the bar, and as long as you behave, they’ll give you an occasional smile. Just make sure to follow the rules and not take your drink outside, even if you see some of the cheekier customers doing it.
Moving on to the next spot, should you be in Madrid in summer and in danger of breaking into a sweat, you can pop into El Museo de la Radio at #8 on calle Santa Ana. If you don’t see it, look for the old name in large letters, Mesón del Rastro. This low light and refreshingly cool bar is a relief for a cold caña of beer, which you can sip while having a glance at the dozens of antique radios that decorate the walls.
But when you’re done with your drink, you can skip the food here and move on down calle Santa Ana til you reach another iconic Rastro bar, La Cabra en el Tejado (The goat on the roof).
The crowds arrive here later in the afternoon to have un quinto de Super Bock beer, to snack on a crepe and a tosta (similar to an open-faced sandwich), or to get a sweet fix from one of the home-made tartas, like the carrot cake or the puff pastry filled with dulce de leche…
Although these places may not be the first ones covered by a walking tour of Madrid’s bars, perhaps it’s better that way, as they’ll remain a secret kept by those thousands of market visitors.
Should you be curious to check out these Rastro-area bars but not in need of so much social contact, come to the neighborhood any day but Sunday, when it will be just you and this guy…
and you’ll have the bars all to yourself (with room to sit!) ___________________________________________________________________
Bar Santurce (Casa de las Sardinas Asadas) – Plaza del General Vara del Rey, 14. Open from 12pm til 4pm Tuesday – Saturday, and from 9am til 4pm Sundays.
Bar Santa Ana – Right off of Plaza de Cascorro, at the corner of calle Santa Ana and calle de la Ruda. No fixed hours, but generally open from 2pm til 7:30pm Tuesday-Wednesday, 2pm-11pm Thursday-Saturday, and from roughly 11am on Sunday til late. On Sundays, starts filling up after 12:30.
Museo de la Radio (Mesón del Rastro) – calle Santa Ana 8. Open Thursday-Saturday from 10:30pm til 02:30am, and from 11am on Sundays.
La Cabra en el Tejado – calle Santa Ana 29. Open Monday – Friday from 6pm til 2am, Saturdays and Sundays from around 12pm til 2am.
Last update: March 7, 2014