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LOCAL EATS: A taste of Spain without leaving North Van
When you try the spicy shrimp-in-sherry tapas, house-smoked olives or any other menu item at El Matador, it’s like you’re eating in Spain.
That flavour of authenticity comes courtesy of a Friday-to-Friday tapas-tasting odyssey by the North Van restaurant’s owners to the most southern province of Spain, Andalusia — which is known as the birthplace of tapas, bull-fighting and flamenco.
“I didn’t want to fake it,” explains Paul Mon-Kau, part-owner of El Matador, about Spanish tapas (think appies or snacks served on small plates).
To make sure El Matador does tapas “the way it’s supposed to be done,” Mon-Kau, a chef, and his restaurant partner Jeff Murl packed their backpacks and hit nearly 60 tapas bars during a whirlwind sampling trip in June.
They landed in Malaga, Spain and using Murl’s father’s dog-eared Rick Steves’ travel guide they hopped on a bus for a 50-kilometre trip to Nerja, a quaint seaside town on the Mediterranean coast. Tired and hungry, they dropped their packs at a hotel and asked for directions to the nearest tapas restaurants. Just a few blocks away they discovered the true taste of tapas.
Under a dusk sky they spied a narrow, cobblestone street lined with tapas bars, small shops and ornate buildings. The photo that Mon-Kau snapped as they approached the street is now one of the main pieces of art in their new North Van restaurant.
At their first stop, they had fresh seafood salad tapas and Mahou, a Spanish beer.
That evening they tasted their way through at least a dozen tapas joints.
Mon-Kau had eaten lots of great tapas in Vancouver but “hadn’t really experienced it,” until making the small-dish pilgrimage to Spain that also included stops in Grenada, Seville and Jerez.
The tapas there highlighted simple ingredients.
“It’s uncomplicated,” he says, sitting inside El Matador showing pictures from the trip on his iPhone.
A fresh octopus tapas, for instance, would be served with just olive oil, garlic and paprika, letting the flavour of the octopus speak for itself, he says.
They also snacked on two types of cured jamon — serrano, “pink meat” and jamon iberico, an expensive type of cured ham that’s made from black pigs that are fed a special diet to give the meat an intensely sweet flavour.
Along with learning Spaniards drink a lot of beer, he took note that tapas was uniformly “inexpensive,” and provided good “value for money.”
He’s taken that approach at El Matador, where all items on the menu — cold tapas, ensalada, hot tapas, jamon and dessert — are five dollars apiece.
They’ve also got craft beer on tap, wine and sangria to wash it all down.
Mon-Kau, who has been in the food industry since he was 14 (from dishwasher to bouncer to bartender to cook, and everything in between) figures there’s a blind spot in North Vancouver — and North America in general — for authentic tapas.
El Matador is the latest venture for Mon-Kau and Murl, who first teamed up to launch the popular District at 13 Lonsdale in 2007.
Located at 131 West Esplanade (under Starbucks), El Matador boasts plenty of wood — rich mahogany walls, fir and pine tables — low ceilings and a long brick wall that gives it a cozy, underground cellar feel. On the walls hang framed photos of bull fighters and the stools at the long lacquered pine table are the exact same as ones Mon-Kau sat on in Spain.
There are no TVs at El Matador. Tapas is a social food and the room is designed for snacking and talking — with guests at your table and other patrons at the restaurant.
At El Matador, Mon-Kau wants his customers to be able to come in and be transported to Spain — and so far customers are enjoying the trip.
On opening night, Mon-Kau got some anonymous feedback that El Matador is doing tapas right. Left behind on a napkin was note from a patron saying it was the best tapas he’d ever had — and the diner added he’d just returned from Barcelona.