I once spent an evening at a Madrid tapas bar with six of us crammed around a counter drinking Cava and eating sardine toasts. We ordered gambas al ajillo, shrimp dripping in paprika-stained garlic oil and crusty bread to sop up every bit. That kicked off a tapeo — a tapas bar crawl — in which we snacked all night on ham, meatballs, and more. With three new entrants to the city’s modern tapas scene, care to join me on a Chicago tapeo?
Begin with the best: Mama Delia (1721 W. Division St., East Ukrainian Village). Chef Marcos Campos and his crew replaced Black Bull with this fabulous drag queen of a concept. The pink patio beckons, the velvet, brass, and walnut interior startles, and the menu (each section named for an Almodóvar movie) brims with luxuries. As at Spain’s high-end tapas bars, the kitchen loves playing with premium conservas, cured meats, and seafood to create two-bite masterpieces. Try the matrimonio — white boquerones and brown anchovies laid over crisp bread with feisty garnishes — or the ridiculously lush scallops with Ibérico ham and arugula cream over wasabi rice crackers. Though classics, like pan con tomate, seem like a hasty afterthought, a great selection of sherries keeps the party moving.
Then it’s off to Jaleo (500 N. Clark St., River North), the latest outpost of chef and humanitarian José Andrés’s tapas spot. Here, the pan con tomate (bread rusks rubbed with fresh tomato and garlic) is in its ideal form. But the kitchen is off compared with other locations of Jaleo I’ve visited: The pricey paella had no socarrat crust and, like other items, was fiercely salty. Give this place time, but for now, grab a good gin and tonic and snack on the unparalleled selection of Spanish cheeses and cured meats.
Save your appetite for Boqueria (807 W. Fulton Market, West Loop), a New York–based chain that offers a reliable menu of tapas standards. This spot will keep you quite happy with lamb meatballs, crispy patatas bravas, and boquerones over roasted eggplant escalivada. Get the paella and scrape down to the socarrat for primo crunch. And look — you’re in Fulton Market, and the night is young. Tapeo on, dudes.
Gambas al Ajillo Smackdown
All three spots offer takes on the tapas classic. Here’s our ranking.
1. Mama Delia
Six extra-plump, snappy shrimp swim around in deconstructed ingredients, but wait until you discover that garlicky oil at the bottom. $21
Ten shrimp bathe in brandy, lobster reduction, and plenty of oil, which you’ll want to spoon over everything. $19
Seven shrimp combine promisingly with gobs of sweet, gently cooked slivered garlic, but drown in a salt overload. $15