Photo stolen, mercilessly, from about.com.
El Brillante is a Madrid institution, famous for its bocadillo de calamares (just ask them). I’m here writing about it never having tried the acclaimed sandwich, nor having been tempted, nor anticipating sampling said squid in any foreseeable future. The gaudy, neon-coated front is just outside Atocha metro station, a stone’s throw from la Reina Sofia, and neighbor to 100 Montaditos. It appears specifically designed to lure in the tourist crowd fresh from out the museum, eager for a Real Madrileño Experience.
All this slagging has a point. Friend Sevi, not nearly as over-the-top jaded as I am with regards to the local/tourist divide, insists several times that’s she’s located the best pan con tomate in the city. She calls it her “dirty old man bar,” in which the misplaced modifier ought to be taken as innocently as possible – less lechery, more stainless steel counters, kept sanitary through the age-old tradition of dropping used napkins directly on the tile floor.
At 11 AM, the scene is chaotic. Newcomers pause in the center clearing, uncertain of their destination, while scores of late breakfasters, folks on their merienda break, and unmistakable Old Spanish Men crowd the bar stools lining the walls. The ceiling is ringed with dated, unappetizing photos of what’s available: gray boquerones in a thin soup of vinagre, traffic-cone orange mussels pursed like wrinkly relatives’ lips, congealing brava sauce blanketing pasty potato chunks.
As soon as the aged crew behind the metal counter notices our entrance, they call out a hearty: “¡Hola, jóvenes!” Untrusting trepidation ever-so-slighty eased, I shuffle up behind Sev to just-freed barside seats. Contrary to characteristic Spanish style, we’re immediately asked what we’re having; the mood is affable but all business. The drinks – I go café con leche in lieu of my usual cortado – are made at the bar, and the chapatas con tomate order is projected vocally across the room to the kitchen, walled in by transparent plastic sheets.
The best part is almost the people-watching. The barmen are a serious spectacle in themselves, high energy just on the verge of hectic, calling out orders and greetings in between trading day-to-day remarks with what seem to be regulars, all while slinging hot coffees and keeping the rapidly moving counter clear. The crowd isn’t all tourists like I was picturing – perhaps about a 50/50 split at this mid-morning hour – and, despite ample opportunity for foreigner confusion, everyone is playing it pretty cool. Families split raciones of the patatas (which, thankfully, bear little resemblance to their unfortunate photo representation) and strollers mingle in the open central area. The ghost of cigarettes past hangs nearly palpable over the mellow regular crowd, who read newspapers and sip caffeine and/or booze (SEE: carajillos).
But the scene isn’t the best part, not to me. Not two minutes of acclimation go by when our breakfast is carted over to the bar, complete with miniature plastic salt shaker and a Trina bottle filled with olive oil. I make a move to unscrew the lid and am practically leapt upon from across the bar – “No no NO, hay ajugeros en la tapa, ¿¿ves?? ¡Si la quitas todo va a salir a la vez!” Somehow missed those ingenious little holes poked in the metal lid, yes. Not that the bread needs any more oil anyway; it’s come already inundated, yellow and toasty, crowned with a healthy smear of garlicky grated tomato.
And yes, this is the best part. The crunch and the yeast and the heat of the bread, air pockets bursting with nutty, earthy olive oil, rounded out by sweet and fragrant tomato essence, concentrated and rich, accented by salt granules and invisible garlic. The bread absorbs the oil’s potentially objectionable slickness and amplifies instead its flavorful depth of character. The textural contrast digs in its hooks and doesn’t let go. I’m normally a very light breakfaster, and these two fat slices simply vanish.
Beginning the day this way FEELS wholly Spanish, regardless of tourist presence, irrespective of arbitrary judgements of authenticity. We’re not in Cataluña, home of the original pa amb tomàquet. We’re not in some hole-in-the-wall that lay simply waiting for discovery. This is El Brillante, shiny like a quartz diamond across the way from internationally famous Atocha train station. And this is me, re-evaluating what it means to live here, how I’m seeing and interacting with Madrid, what kinds of assumptions are worth swallowing along with totally unfounded pride.
Are their famous bocadillos any good? Still couldn’t tell you. They look okay; I would try them if prompted. Hear they’re pricey, though.