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Eyes on the Fries

So goodI have a thing about people lining up for food. If I see a line, I feel a very strong compulsion to stop whatever I’m doing and get in it. Because what do those people know that I don’t know? Following the mob isn’t always the wisest of choices, but seriously, what’s at the front of that line and how do I eat it?

So when I saw a line for a place that specializes in fries called Las Fritas when I was walking around in Barcelona, I was in that line almost instantly. I had never heard of this place, and French fries don’t exactly scream authentic Spanish food, but look at that line. It must be good!

(The line doesn’t look that long in the picture; it was actually quite a bit longer when I got there.  I just didn’t take a photo right away.)

There are times when the wisdom of the crowd fails me — this was not one of those times. These were spectacular fries.

So damn good

You can choose from a selection of sauces and toppings; in an attempt to keep things vaguely authentic, I went with salsa brava, which is a spicy tomato-based sauce that’s often found on top of fried potatoes in a dish called patatas bravas.  So this isn’t quite as inauthentic as you’d think (which is what I’ll keep telling myself to justify eating this about a billion more times before I leave Barcelona).

Though the fries were supposedly Belgian-style, they weren’t quite like any fry I’ve had before, Belgian or otherwise. Thickly cut and aggressively crispy, they were almost like a cross between a fry and a chip.  They were constantly dancing on the razor’s edge of being too crispy, but without ever crossing that line. It’s a perfect balance of crunchy exterior and fluffy interior.

As good as those fries were (and they were very, very good), it’s the brava sauce that really makes this something special.  It was slightly spicy, with just the right amount of vibrancy from the vinegar, a hint of smokiness, and a mild garlicky bite.

It was an absolutely perfect dipping sauce for fries. Where can I buy this sauce? Because I want to dip everything in it.  Everything.

McDonald’s Around the World: Spain Edition

McDonald's SpainWho can say no to ham croquettes at McDonald’s?  Or chicken wings?  Well, most people, probably — not this guy.

I’m not very smart, you see.  As most people would reasonably imagine, neither of these things were very good.

Um...

The croquettes were probably the better of the two.   They were sort of okay, though the exterior wasn’t particularly crispy, and the interior was unpleasantly gummy, without much flavour other than a generic saltiness.

Or at least I thought it was salty, until I tasted the wings and learned the true definition of that word.

So much salt

I honestly think those wings might have been the saltiest thing I’ve ever eaten. They were fine otherwise — nice and crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. But holy jeez, I’m surprised I didn’t have a stroke right there on the spot. They were so salty they actually kind of burned my tongue.

Nope

I was craving something sweet after that salt overload, so I got the Nocilla McFlurry (Nocilla is basically a Spanish version of Nutella).  I had high hopes for this one; if you put enough Nutella on literally anything, it’ll eventually become delicious.  But that’s the problem — there wasn’t enough of it, and the little pieces of brownie they mixed in were overly chewy and completely tasteless.

The ice cream itself wasn’t even particularly creamy, so all in all: boo-urns, McDonald’s Spain.  Boo-urns.

On Zaragoza

MuseumNote: Thanks to a bunch of terrorist douchebags, the chronology of this blog is a bit messed up. This and the next few posts were actually written before that whole fiasco, which is why this is written as though I’m still in Zaragoza.

I wound up in Zaragoza pretty much at random; the initial plan was to go to San Sebastian between Madrid and Barcelona.  It turns out I’m a cheapo and can’t afford San Sebastian, so plan B it is: spending a few nights in Zaragoza, a medium-sized city about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona.

It’s not exactly the first place place you think of when you visit Spain (I hadn’t even heard of it until recently), but I’m actually quite enjoying my time here.

There’s a quiet to it that I find immensely appealing after the teeming hordes of Madrid.  It’s endearingly unflashy; unlike Madrid, which is just wall-to-wall tourists wherever you go, it feels like a place where real people live.

And yet it’s not without its more touristy pleasures. Statues? Yeah, it’s got statues.

Statue in Zaragoza, Spain

Old churches? And how.

Church in Zaragoza, Spain

Museums? Several.

Museum in Zaragoza, Spain

It’s very easy to head straight for the more well-known hotspots like Madrid and Barcelona, but I think there’s something to be said for going to a city like Zaragoza. It’s not as exciting, but you get a much better sense of how the locals actually live.

On Being in the Middle of a Terrorist Attack

TerrorSo I’m assuming you’ve heard the news about Barcelona by now. I’m a few days ahead with my posts, so you wouldn’t know it by reading this blog, but I’ve been in Barcelona for the last few days.

And I was right in the area where it went down when it went down.

I was in a big department store called Corte Engles in a hugely popular area called Plaça de Catalunya, and I was heading out onto the street when everyone started running and screaming. This was a huge crowd — maybe like a hundred people or so — and this wasn’t just “hey, is something happening?” screaming.  They were the screams of pure terror.

I had no idea what was going on, but obviously I ran, because holy shit. Hopefully you’ve never been in a crowd that’s screaming bloody murder and running for their lives, because let me tell you: it is terrifying. It might have been the scariest moment of my life.

Waiting in a department store

The crowd flooded into the department store. After a couple of minutes, the security gates were shuttered and the place was locked down. No one seemed to know what was going on; it hadn’t even hit the news yet.  I texted a few friends and relatives to let them know I was okay, and I could barely even type — my hands were shaking so much from the adrenaline.

The square outside, normally packed with hundreds of people, was now eerily empty, save for the police and their cars.

Scary

We eventually learned that some stupid fucking idiot drove a van into a crowd, killing and injuring dozens.

About an hour later they let us out; we were escorted to a police barricade where hundreds of concerned onlookers and journalists were congregating.

Waiting

My cousin is actually in Barcelona, and by sheer horrible luck was in the same area, on the other side of the square. We couldn’t get to each other at this point, but we arranged to meet at her apartment, which was about ten minutes away.

As I was heading there, the sidewalks were packed and the roads almost empty, save for the occasional cop car or motorcycle screaming by. My Google map was updated with a big red circle labeled “terrorist attack.” It was marking the exact spot I had just come from.

I’m sorry to be swearing so much in this post; I’m not a big swearer, but non-profanity just doesn’t seem right in this situation.  Holy fucking shit.

I got to my cousin’s place and we hung out there for a while. I had a knot in my stomach for hours. For most of the evening, we could hear sirens outside and helicopters overhead. We kept anxiously checking Twitter and various news sites to see what was going on. Eventually, things seemed to calm down and I headed back to my Airbnb on the outskirts of the city, promising to text my cousin as soon as I got there. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be staying in the suburbs. It sounds stupid, but I felt uneasy in the city.

Panic

I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way; near the subway station around my Airbnb, there’s a main road that heads out of the city. It was bumper to bumper. This was around 10:00 PM. It was like something out of a movie.

I have one more day here before I fly out, and I don’t even know that I have it in me to head back into the city tomorrow. I might just hang out around the Airbnb.

I wish I could say that the terrorists have failed; that they haven’t scared me. But that’s not true. I’m rattled. I’m more than rattled.

I wasn’t exactly where it happened. I was nearby, but (thankfully) I was never in immediate danger. I didn’t have to witness the grizzly aftermath. But being that close to it is hugely unsettling.

To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s tempted to cancel the rest of my Europe plans and head straight to Asia.

Hey, terrorists, here’s an idea: why don’t you stop being stupid jerks?

Sweet, sweet grease

When I got back home, I went to the Spanish equivalent of a greasy spoon near the apartment and got a plate of fries, bacon, and eggs.  Because after a day like that, you need a big greasy plate of comfort food and a beer to wash it down.

Yikes.

Anyway, back to silly food posts starting tomorrow.

Well, They Can’t all be Winners

I don't get itI’ve been eating a lot of really great meals on this trip; here’s one of the not-so-great ones.

I went to a restaurant in Zaragoza called La Migueria that specializes in a dish called migas; it’s a Spanish dish that consists of seasoned breadcrumbs that are fried around with ham or bacon, and served with meat.  In this case, it came with chorizo sausage.

It’s an odd dish; you look at the picture above and you think, oh, there must be something below those crispy breadcrumbs.  Well:

  1. No, there’s nothing under there but more breadcrumbs.
  2. They’re not crispy.  Not even a little bit.

It tasted like they took plain white bread, ran it through a blender, mixed in some tough little pieces of meat, then dumped the whole thing into a bowl and plopped a sausage on top.  If it was seasoned with anything, you couldn’t tell.  So I can safely say that I’m thoroughly confused by the appeal of this dish, but then I strongly suspect it just wasn’t prepared very well.

The chorizo was fantastic, though, so there’s that at least.

Great Pastry, or Greatest Pastry?

THE BESTThis wasn’t something that I thought would be particularly blog-worthy; just a quick (and unhealthy) breakfast thanks to a random recommendation on the internet.  “Hey,” the internet told me, “the napolitana de chocolate at La Mallorquina is actually pretty good!”  Okay, internet, I’ll give it a shot.

The bakery turned out to be in a super touristy part of town, so my expectations weren’t very high, to put it kindly.

Then I took a bite and my whole life changed.

Wait wait wait. Is this as delicious as I think it is?

I took another bite.

Why yes, it is as delicious as I think it is.

Holy crap, this thing is so damn good I can’t even stand it. The combination of the rich, buttery pastry with the intensely chocolatey filling (which is sweet, but not overly sweet) and the contrasting texture you get from the crunchy sugar on top is absolute perfection.

I wanted to run around the city pumping my fist like Arsenio. “THE NAPOLITANA AT LA MALLORQUINA IS SO GOOD! EVERYBODY GO EAT ONE!”  I wanted to barge into other bakeries and start flipping tables over, because it’s all garbage compared to what they’re serving at La Mallorquina.

For the rest of the day it would just randomly pop into my head.  I’d be walking in a park or something and then “holy cow, how good was that pastry??”  I wound up going back to La Mallorquina two more times throughout the day to get it again, and it was just as good both times.

I want to eat that pastry every day for the rest of my life. I want to shrink myself down and live inside of it.

(And yeah, in case you’re wondering why I mostly write about food on this blog, it’s probably because I have the capacity to get that excited about a pastry.)

The Worst Kind of Twist Ending

At the moviesSince I began my travels, I’ve gone to a few movies. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you traveled halfway around the world just to go to the movies?? Well:

  1. Going to the movies is a huge part of my life. Always has been, always will be.
  2. When you’re walking around all day in the heat, there comes a point — usually around 3:00 or 4:00 — when you just wanna sit down in an air conditioned room for a couple of hours.
  3. Don’t judge the way I live my life, man.

I noticed that Wish Upon was playing here in Madrid (for the unaware, Wish Upon is a cheesy horror movie that kinda flopped in the States and didn’t even bother to come out in Canada). Being a fan of cheesy horror movies, I got more excited about this than I should probably admit.

The theatre where it was playing turned out to be on the outskirts of Madrid, so getting there was a bit of a challenge — it involved multiple transfers on the subway.

So confusing

An aside: trying to navigate the Madrid subway system is a baffling ordeal. Being from Toronto (which has, what? Two subway lines? Three?) my brain can hardly even comprehend the Madrid metro’s labyrinthine, multicolored spiderweb of about a dozen overlapping lines. It’s nuts.

So I’m at the movies, the trailers start, and I immediately notice that the English has been dubbed over in Spanish. “Huh,” I think to myself. “That can’t be good.”

And no, it was not good.  I just came from Portugal, where almost all English-language films (with the exception of cartoons) are presented in their original language and subtitled in Portuguese. I sort of figured I was in for the same deal here.

It turns out Portugal is the outlier in this situation; apparently the majority of Europe plays dubbed movies.  So that’s just delightful, obviously.  Thankfully, it is still possible to see undubbed movies — they’re just not as common.

Breakfast of Champions

DeliciousThere are certain things that you just know are going to taste great; you don’t even need to try them.  One of those things?  A dish that’s actually really popular here in Madrid called chocolate con churros (which is churros with a cup of thick, rich hot chocolate for dipping).

I mean, how could that not be delicious, right?  And indeed, it is quite delicious.

The most popular place to get this is a restaurant called Chocolatería San Ginés; it’s been serving chocolate con churros since 1894.

Yes, they’ve been doing this for over 120 years, so obviously they’re doing something right.

One order costs four Euros, and comes with six churros — still warm from the fryer — and a generous mug of very rich hot chocolate.

Super delicious

It’s a simple dish, but man, it’s so good.  The churros, which are lightly crispy on the outside and just a little fluffy on the inside, are the perfect vehicle for the chocolate; the hot chocolate clings to the churros’ craggly exterior and compliments it perfectly.

The hot chocolate is far richer than what you’re used to; it’s much thicker than traditional hot chocolate, and tastes kind of like a combination between chocolate pudding and chocolate sauce.

You’d think it would be sugar-overload, but the churros aren’t sweet at all, and the chocolate is only subtly sweet; it’s not nearly as cloying as you’d expect it to be.  It’s pretty amazing.

Wait, What Country are we in?

On a bus to MadridThanks to something called the Schengen Agreement, most of Europe is essentially like one big country for travel purposes.  Completely open borders.

Of course, it’s one thing to know that theoretically, and it’s another to be sitting on a bus and realize that you crossed over into an all new country and didn’t even realize.  Because that’s exactly what happened to me recently — I was riding on a bus from Porto to Madrid (a punishingly long nine hour bus ride), and I was expecting some kind of cursory border check.  Anything at all.  But nope.

It’s super bizarre to be travelling to another country and crossing the border is essentially like traveling to another province in Canada, or to another state in the US.  No passport check, nothing.  I’m sure there was some kind of “welcome to Spain” sign, but I guess I missed it.