Not-so-small plates

Not-so-small plates

Boqueria offers healthy portions in a casual, group-friendly atmosphere.

Tapas and other small plates have become less a trend and more a downright tradition in Washington, and Boqueria adds to the scene with a casual atmosphere that’s ideal for groups.

The New York-based restaurant opened its first D.C. branch on M Street NW, just steps from Dupont Circle’s bars and clubs, providing a convenient location to gather before heading off on a downtown adventure.

Tourists and locals made up the crowd on a recent visit to the jam-packed — and extremely loud — dining room. Named after Barcelona’s famous maze of a food market, Boqueria welcomes you at the entrance with slabs of jamón (complete with hoof), cheeses and other treats behind a glass wall, preparing diners’ taste buds for what’s to come.

Chalkboards surround the bar with tapas and cocktail suggestions, but the knowledgeable staff help diners figure out the best way to enjoy their meal. Tall booths and tables lift guests off the ground, and the bar is a people-watching paradise. 

In for just a quick bite? Opt for a cheese plate and some jamón and one or two tapas. Need something to eat before hitting another bar? Add a few more tapas. Looking for a full meal? Throw some paella into the mix. The variety allows the restaurant to be whatever diners want, from a birthday celebration with a gaggle of friends to an outing with out-of-town guests or a casual date night. Servers encourage diners to order everything they want at once, and the kitchen sends out the dishes as they are ready. 

The flavors and seasonings taste a bit more Americanized than what you would find at other tapas favorites in town, but from the hard texture and nutty flavors of the Manchego cheese served with bread and tomato puree (known in Spain as pan con tomate) to the saffron in the paella and sugar-coated churros, the dishes hold onto as much Spanish flavor and tradition as they can.

The sangria comes in the house red or house white, but there’s also a “sangria of the day.” Two recent options were pink grapefruit and cherry lime.

The white sangria is strong, but not strong enough to keep drinkers from having more than one glass — the drink’s must-have pieces of fruit absorb some of the alcohol. For those who don’t love fruit in their cocktails, the restaurant offers plenty of wines by the glass.

For the more traditional tapas, the patatas bravas are double-fried potato chunks served with a spicy tomato-based sauce. They are a far cry from what you would find in even the most touristy spot in Spain — Boqueria’s are darker and crunchier than the original version — but they’re still tasty when paired with the peppery red sauce and a drizzle of garlic mayonnaise.

The gambas al ajillo, or garlic shrimp, arrive in a small pool of olive oil and roasted garlic. The large shrimp are perfectly cooked and carry a potent garlic flavor. Just as powerful is the fish flavor of the fried cod fritters. The breaded balls of finely minced fish and spices melt in your mouth.

The paella de mariscos has the necessary socarrat — the crusty rice along the bottom of the pan — with a generous portion of rice, monkfish, squid, shrimp, clams, mussels and the signature golden saffron hue. The fish tastes amazingly fresh, and an order for two people more than satisfies a party of four after a steady stream of tapas.

Other favorites from a recent visit were lamb skewers covered with cumin and a green salsa, and peppers with oxtails in a rich sauce. The menu is subject to change, and the server will describe the most recent additions to the list.

For a raw-oyster special, the server was sure to mention that only three oysters came in an order, giving us an option to order one additional bivalve to make sure everyone in our group of four got a bite. The oysters came covered with finely diced onion and tomato. The toppings overpowered the oyster slightly, but the briny ocean taste still slid down just fine. 

The menu lists pimientos de Padron, but considering that these are incredibly difficult to find outside of Spain, a plate of nearly neon green Shishito peppers arrives. They taste similar and are roasted to a gritty, delicious char and sprinkled with salt. Our server warned that about one in every 10 is a hot one, so the plate becomes a bit of a game. The peppers have an earthy, grilled profile, like a tastier, spicier green pepper, and as warned, a few on the plate packed a spicier punch than the others. The spice was not habañero hot but more in the jalapeño range.

Churros are a classic for a sweet ending. There’s also the torta de chocolate, a warm, dense chocolate cake served with a Marcona almond ice-cream to give it some Spanish flair. The crema catalana clásica, another regional staple, is a caramelized creamy custard similar to a creme brulee — it even has a crunchy sugar top.

The tapas portions are larger than other small-plates offerings elsewhere, making them great for sharing. A group of four can easily be satiated with eight dishes.

Though Boqueria is not the first tapas restaurant in the city — and likely not the last — it is a welcome, casual addition to the dining scene.