Pan con Tomate at El Brillante

15 12 2011
Photo stolen, mercilessly, from

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.

O Valencia

24 11 2010

Three months in, and it becomes nigh time to escape the clawing clutches of Madrid’s cluttered calles.

A bumpy bus ride would save me 20€, but I opt for the comfort offered by a sleek Renfe Alaris train, connecting Madrid’s Atocha hub station with Valencia’s Estación del Nord. Hector’s invited me to a talk on Lorca he’s giving in his poetry class tonight, so afterwards I chug eastward under a thick cloak of darkness, delightfully entertained by a dubbed Meryl Streep.

Memories prickle the edges of my vision at the squeal of the brakes. I’ve returned.

Alex has managed to convince me that this will not be a regression, this will not be a replay. A place, a combination of X-Y-Z coordinates in space, only holds whatever meaning you assign. Today’s Valencia is not yesterday’s Valencia is not tomorrow’s Valencia. The inhuman neon glare of the bright lights, the push and shove of departing passengers avoiding contact, my shoulders are blasted through with poor-posture’s knots, and what’s happening in Madrid without me tonight? – boding pessimism beckons.

I spy my suddenly long-time friend break out into a huge grin at my arrival, and the wicked spell breaks. It’s 1 AM, and we’re going for cañas.

Valencia is eerily tranquil on a Friday night, particularly against a backdrop of Madrileño Malasaña. But we three – Alex has brought along a friendly beanpole known as Feno – are undeterred, and march determinedly northward. Destination: “El Irlandés,” which turns out to be a wonky sort of Spanish bar that has nothing remotely Irish about it, save a few strings of green Christmas lights. Other than two girls roosting in a corner, we are the only patrons – but the barman appears to be well-acquainted with my entourage. We are served icy Carlsbergs, which go down marvelously after our trek across the entire city, along with all variety of bar snack.

The elongated marshmallows – “nubes” – are the best. You are meant to roast them little by little with your lighter. Although the photo appears to suggest otherwise, I do not recommend consuming them with tobacco paraphernalia.

The night is seriously Spanish. At some absurd hour, we join forces with the roosting girls and enthuse about Galicia, and shrimp. Also engaged in the rapid-fire conversational swings, the barman nevertheless notes the clock with slightly more practicality than his patrons. Perhaps around 4 AM, he switches the lights to a “time to scoot a boot” deep red. Ambientación, anyone?

In this park, we hold a discussion regarding the lesser-read works of Foucault, and the growing relevance of the modern sense-datum prison.

Wakefulness arrives, beautiful and sluggish. Coffee and mini-croissants coax it along.

The months I spent in Valencia several years back leave me with little residual desire to seek out tourist destinations. Instead, and refreshingly, we simply have a weekend together. We hit up Mercadona for pasas and caldo, which I combine along with various other items rummaged from Alex’s kitchen to concoct a highly satisfying lunch.

A few unearthed items are best avoided. One plastic bag holds a mottled green sausage, which upon closer inspection appears to have at one time been bread. This, also:

Oh, Spain, honey. No.

The afternoon slips into night during a viewing of (dubbed) Malibu’s Most Wanted, highly recommended if you get your kicks from mass slaughter of your own brain cells. We meet up with a pair of Alex’s friends at a Wok that’s just opened in the neighborhood – think Mongolian BBQ but minus any trace of Scoville points – and then are joined by two more for a cortado digestif. It’s a sleepy night all around, and just the two of us end up back at El Irlandés for a tranquil beer before bedtime.

This Sunday is Loi Krathong. One year ago, I found myself lighting a banana leaf raft in the company of Alisa, Carlos, and several whiskey-swilling Thai men down a construction-laden alleyway on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. After paying due respects to the water goddess, we clambered up to a particularly attractive hotel rooftop thirty-some-odd stories high. Gobs of fireworks bloomed over the water, and Northern-style floating paper lanterns melded with the stars.

Yesterday’s Bangkok is not today’s Valencia. However, the idea that occurs to me of being the only one in this Spanish city celebrating the Thai festival is too intriguing to let slide. Alex and I hunt the chinos until deciding on a balloon raft as our best bet; I nix poinsettia leaves in favor of burgling a few specimens from Valencia’s finest foliage. Flowers are in short supply, so “yin-yang” candles will have to make do for beautification. The water goddess knows our hearts are in the right place.

My original plan is to release my krathong into the Mediterranean – I’ve been really feeling the pull of the sea as of late – but it’s way too obvious that our fragile vessel won’t fare well given any sort of aquatic turbulence. We visit a park near Alex’s place instead, where we follow our instincts – and ears – to the calmest of fountains.

Alex, professional mechero man, lights the candles, then places our makeshift krathong on the water’s glassy surface. She only lasts a minute before being capsized by a stray gust, but it’s time enough to reflect, to give thanks, to consider what it means to be open to that which is gifted. I give voice to my gratitude:

Gracias, o diosa del agua.
Gracias por el flujo en que andamos todos.
Gracias por el cambio, por las diferencias, por insistir en movimiento.
Gracias por lo complicado que ha sido ayer,
y gracias por la infinidad de posibilidades que nos presentas para mañana.

It feels unabashedly good to give thanks for these regalos de la vida. More soon to come – after last year’s passivity, I’m ready to dive into some serious seasonal cheese.

Massive gracias must also go to my host and very good friend Alex, who entertains my whims even when clearly fueled by a lack of logic.

O Valencia. Hold tight. I’ll be back in December, and with family.

Reina Sofia

24 09 2010

El Prado may be masterful in many ways – you gotta love Goya’s Black Paintings, and it’s jaw-dropping to picture the labyrinth of scaffolding required to attempt some of the 10+-foot-high works casually displayed along its hallowed halls. But look – and I’m well aware I’m a philistine in this respect, thank you very much – room after room after room of solemn portraiture alongside bleeding Christ figures bums me out.

Because we’re all about un poco de todo here at con tomates, it is overtly obvious that the even closer Reina Sofia coyly beckons for our patronage. In a manner of speaking, anyway; Sunday late mornings from 10 AM – 2:30 PM offer totally free entry to seekers of the disturbingly bizarre, the beautifully macabre, the subtly unsettling, and the straight-up funky.

Gargantuan B&W bacon informs us that we are in the right place. Our grupito consists of Leah, Emily, Marta, Hannah, and myself, and we agree that we ought to take advantage of the proximity of our piso to the museum, and as such take it slow. We’ll try for just one floor today, and aim to reconvene next week to explore the next.

Museums don’t tend to work so well with this large of a group, and we quickly part ways – which is dandy; this way each can view con calma the works she finds most intriguing. A small selection of what I feast my artistic (non)sensibilities on:

The following three are all details from the same enormous canvas:


Pisando Fuerte!

11 09 2010

Morning breaks, and it doesn’t appeal. Late last night, I realized that my tossings and turnings were directly linked to the same silly StressBeast that enjoys concocting ulcers in its spare time, and that it was feeding off fear of not finding a piso.

As such, I coffee, and fiercely. Propelled by determination, I load and reload Idealista. Today is the day. Today is Piso Day.

The best of Idealista’s been plumbed; on a lark I switch to the more Craigslist-esque Loquo – fewer photos, less ability to narrow a search, but plenty of cheap listings. I’m opening fourteen tabs at once.

Yesterday, I may have scoffed. But today – today is Piso Day. I peer around – almost all the Fulbrighters have cleared out, either having already moved in to their prize piso or out hitting the pavement themselves. Emily remains, seated on a nearby couch with her own laptop, listlessly clicking refresh. We’ve introduced ourselves earlier, but no further attempts to bridge the gap have been made – until I pipe up, “Soo… you wanna live together in an attic?”

A major score for both homeless souls – a searchmate! We giggle our way to the Lavapiés metro stop, attempting all the while to convince ourselves to be very open minded. It looks like you can paint on the walls from the photos – we will be artists-in-training! No toilet upstairs means community will congregate on the lower level!

We march up five flights of stairs plus one ladder, then right back down again. I am relentlessly optimistic (“Maybe I’ll get a cute lockable trunk for my stuff since there’s no door!“), but luckily Emily is more practical. We refocus at an internet cafe near Atocha equipped with wi-fi and Spanish coffee, and once again we peruse the dankest marshes of Loquo.

We call every number that looks vaguely possible – excluding one piso listed at least five times that looks like they hired a vampire decorator – and make a series of appointments for this afternoon. Suddenly, one listing glimmers in the blazing sunlight: “330 € – atocha 3 habitaciones INTERNET BALCÓN EXTERIOR salon amuebladas:):):)” The sweet scent of destiny hovers in the air. It could be the “balcón” – Emily mentioned earlier her fantasy of a Madrid balcony overlooking the cutest tree-lined street one could wish for – or it could be the smiley faces. Either way, we schedule a visit at 12:30, in a mere hour’s time.

We pass the wait roaming the barrio surrounding Calle de Las Delicias, which is bustling with vitality. It’s hard to believe that this cheerful, breezy neighborhood is just five minutes’ walk from the somewhat ghetto-esque Lavapiés. The main streets are brimming with light and the tangential smaller calles are, indeed, tree-lined. We spy a nearby pharmacy, park, optician (you never know), polideportivo, and approximately fifteen (super)markets. It’s also five minutes from the Atocha Renfe station, where both of us need to catch Cercanias to head to our respective schools. As if that weren’t enough, we spy an extremely sexy orange Vespa – how’s that for a divine signal? We are going seriously bananas.

We do our absolute best not to jump the gun; the number from the listing gets a ring at precisely 12:25. We climb two flights of stairs…

… and fall in love. Oh my god. This is beyond cute.

It’s Spanish-style compact for sure, and everything is covered with a millimeter of dust – the guy renting it out, Fausto, explains that no one’s lived in it over the summer months. He bustles around demonstrating each aspect of the place, from quality German washing machine…

… to Audrey Hepburn hanging in a purple bathroom…

… to orange shower stall…

… to a lime green salon/dining area, where we sit and enthuse. There are four bedrooms, two of which have already been rented out. The renters are present, in fact – two 25-year-old Spanish students of English philology, Hector and Marta – and we meet and greet. The empty bedrooms vary wildly – one is quite spacious and includes an exterior balcony, plus thoughtful arty touches including a painting of horses and cheetahs, while the other, although fully-furnished with desk, armoire, and bed, is closet-sized and a very pale blue.

Fausto seems doubtful that anyone would possibly want to live in the smaller room, but I adore it immediately. Not only is it supercheap (aw yeah!), it has this tranquil vibe to it that jives with me right away. Plus it’s lovingly tucked back in the corner of this amazing piso, where I am already picturing myself sizzling up chilaquiles and enjoying a glass of Spanish wine.

Fausto, a stenographer who dabbles in mixed media creativity on the side, doesn’t sleep in the piso but uses one of the rooms for his art projects. The place has this incredible feel to it – almost as though it were one of his sets, a 3D audience and ambiance awaiting its characters for this year to play itself out. We’re talking serious feng shui here; the busy creative pieces surrounded by enough calm space to give them just the right amount of emphasis.

It’s precisely the kind of spot I hoped I’d find in Madrid – arty yet functional, living with creative yet studious types, ideally including a Spaniard or two. Emily is similarly enthusiastic, and it takes all of 20 seconds’ consultation to decide that we want to accept the price immediately and move in as soon as possible.

Fausto gives us a probing look – are we certain? this isn’t just an impulse? – and there is a touch of spontaneity to it, but it’s more of an instinctual decision. Neither of us has felt so at home in any other piso we’ve visited, and this one is in the right location for the right price as well. The final sticking point is that Fausto is looking for renters for a minimum of one year, and our contract with Fulbright ends on June 30th. Both of us are absolutely up for remaining in Madrid for further time, but it occurs to me that there might be visa issues. During the time it takes me to call first Paula Ortega (line busy) and then Patricia Zahniser to inquire about theoretical legal issues, three further interested parties tour the place. I do not under any circumstances recommend looking for a place in this city at this time of year – your company is far too plentiful.

Patricia gives me the go-ahead; apparently once you have your NIE (Foreigners’ Identification Number), it is very easy to renew, and plus they generally have a valid term of a year anyway. We exclaim the good news to Fausto, and, just like that, we have a home.

Emily kindly puts down 50 € reserve for each of us (I have been cleared out of cash and must visit an ATM), then we scoot over to… 100 Monteditos, where else? The celebratory sammies are extra-crunchy, and the cold caña tastes of jubilation.

We hustle excitedly over to el Colegio Mendel Mayor for what we pray is the final time; perhaps half an hour later we are packed and in a taxi and headed… home! Unpacking takes up the better part of the late afternoon.

Light streams into Emily’s room from the balcony she’s been dreaming about.

Trees, street.

We now live on The Street of Delights.

The details I keep finding everywhere are enchanting. There are twin HombreArañas on the microwave as well.

Finally, my ChillCloset is readied. The green lightbulb casts a turquoise glow over the space, which feels absurdly calm in comparison to the turmoil it took getting to this point. Just as I thought, there is space for absolutely everything; I plan on picking up a bit more shelving so that I can further spread my clothes out, but now we’re entering the realm of luxury.

I couldn’t be more pleased. I wasn’t expecting to live with another Fulbrighter, but the company of Emily is wonderful; we are on a very similar wavelength as far as moving around Madrid goes. Fausto is an obvious marvel himself, and you may expect stories. Hector and Marta move in next week, so Emily and I have the piso more or less to ourselves at the moment, although Fausto should be by with fair frequency.

I do wish Fulbright had recommended arriving at least two days or so in advance of the orientation; it seems like the extra few days would have made this all much less of an opportunity for everyone to panic. However – I hear my dad in my head now – “Everything always works out.” Huh.