La Mallorquina Cafe
When I first moved to Spain, I wasn’t very picky about the bars and cafes I used to spend time in. The abrupt exchange of a consultant’s life in Boston, for that of a lowly paid (and highly unqualified) English teacher was enough to enjoy. The charm of a “typical” Spanish bar soon wore off however, since that charm included unshaven (and often unshowered) men who played the slot machine while watching (and excessively commenting on) blaring TV programs, stopping only to dig out another cigarette before finishing things off with a shot of brandy in their café solo.
I decided that I’d spend what little money I had, exclusively at places that were – in the vocabulary of an untraveled 25 year old – really cool. By “places”, I mean, “places I could afford”, which eliminated restaurants – unless my roommate Melinda was treating – and although I had trouble describing what really cool meant, I was sure that I’d know it when I saw it.
I realized the first good sign was that a place was constantly busy. Other factors like longevity, a house specialty, and low prices, were all added to my criteria. Then the biggest cool-factor struck me. These places seemed to be, almost exclusively, the hangouts of old people…
Enter La Mallorquina… an essential stop on any walking tour of Madrid’s pasty shops. I first went to this renowned cafe with a friend who wanted me to try, in her words, the best Torrijas in the city. Without explaining what these were, she pointed at the sign in the window.
Even with my basic, I-just-arrived-so-speak-slowly Spanish, I could make out the message: There-are-Torrijas. Several lopsided examples were found below the sign.
Walking into the cafe, I was thrilled that at first sight, La Mallorquina fit most of my criteria. It was from the 19th century, it was cheap, and it had several well-known specialties like Napolitanas, Palmeras, and best of all, Torrijas (i.e. “Spanish” French toast).
The cafe’s name (The Girl from Mallorca) only added to the charm, and evoked – for me at least – images of a young village girl, radiant under the Mediterranean sun and eager to slip into that green dress and white apron, with the hope that one day, her pastries would capture the heart of a young American boy, who would try hard not to butcher her language.
But the clincher, was that the cafe was filled with old people. Old people who knew what they wanted, and who would elbow you out of the way to order their coffee and pastry from the U-shaped counter, with that same push-and-smile friendliness used to cut in line at the vegetable stand.
If your energy levels are low, or you just don’t feel like picking a fight with a local, avoid the counter and head upstairs for a table in the 1950’s era salon where you might find two open seats next to a window. The day we were there, a white-jacketed waiter jotted down our order of a Torrija and a Palmera, smiled briefly, and was gone. Reappearing, he carried a silver tray, which tilted forward under the weight.
Although I first thought – or wanted to think – the Torrija was unique, it differs only slightly from traditional French Toast. Rather than mixing the egg and milk together and then browning the bread in butter, a Torrija is made by soaking slabs of day old bread in sugary milk, and then drenching them in egg before sliding them into a hot puddle of olive oil. After frying, it’s left to cool before being sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. The fact that it’s also served cold seemed strange, until I broke through the sugary crust and tasted the moist milky mass.
It took me around 30 minutes to finish the last bite, after which I sank into my chair and waited for digestion to commence.
Torrijas are meant to be filling of course, as they were made – and still are for the most part – only around Easter, using up left-over stale bread in the absence of meat. These days though, the Easter-only policy is probably maintained just so fewer patrons don’t keel over in the upstairs salon. If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, are a wuss, or just aren’t in the mood to polish off something the size of a slipper, try either a Napolitana or even better, a Palmera…
Not long after Silvia and I moved into a 320 square-foot
apartment room up the street from La Mallorquina, she started a tradition called, It’s-Sunday-go-get-me-a-Palmera. And so, every weekend, when I shuffled down to the newspaper kiosk in Puerta del Sol (at times in my PJ’s) to get a copy of El País, Silvia would call out from under the covers, “que me traigas una Palmera!” My pre-delivery payment was a large bite out of hers, since I never bought one for myself (or at least that’s what I told her).
Palmeras start with flaky outer rings that become softer and more buttery towards the center. Chocolate-coated and glazed versions exist, but the toppings only mask the light and delicate flavors of the pastry. Besides, these last two remind me of the stale versions that sit eternally in the windows of late-night package shops.
There’s nothing stale at La Mallorquina though. Isabel, who runs the whole show from her swivel chair behind the counter, assured me that what little is left over at the end of the day is replaced the following morning with freshly prepared versions.
As for the affection that so many Madrileños have for the place, it stems partly from their own childhood, when a weekend metro ride to el centro meant visiting La Puerta del Sol, its surrounding shops, and often a stop at La Mallorquina for a well deserved snack.
In the past, La Puerta del Sol was the center of Madrid’s cafe society, and La Mallorquina was one of many cafes that surrounded the square, cafes that often hosted intellectual gatherings known as Tertulias, where artists and writers would discuss their latest works or the defining issues of their time. And although these days, La Mallorquina is the square’s only remaining cafe, and its discussions have shifted to retirement pensions and doctor’s visits, the pastries are as good as ever.
So the next time you’re in Madrid, stop by La Mallorquina before you go anywhere else, or you might find yourself staring longingly at the shop window, wishing you hadn’t just bought that cheap cardboard croissant now crumbling in your hand.
La Mallorquina – calle Mayor 2 (with entrance in Puerta del Sol as well). Open 7 days a week, from 9am til 9pm. Metro Sol (Lines #1, #2, and #3)
Last update: March 7, 2014