Standing at the counter in a bar eating a thick wedge of tortilla de patatas is one of the quintessential Madrid experiences. You can call it Spanish or potato omelette if you like, but for some reason that doesn’t really convey just how good it is. It is the simplest of dishes, but one that arouses the most fervent passions. Just about everyone in Spain claims their mum, auntie or grandmother makes the best, but there are some pretty good ones being served up in bars too – and it is on offer just about everywhere.
Despite the deceptive simplicity, there is a lot to argue about: should the potatoes be sliced or diced? Should it be runny or solid as a doorstop? Some purists claim that adding onions is an abomination but others are adamant that they are an essential piece of the tortilla jigsaw. How can something made with so few ingredients become so much more than a sum of its parts? With just eggs, potatoes, oil and those controversial onions to play with, each element has to be top quality as there is nothing to hide behind.
Some places offer a deconstructed version, with raw eggs and bits of potato in layers in a glass, some add peppers, chorizo or spinach, but it is the traditional version that is a constant in bars throughout Spain and particularly in Madrid.
Although it is between the oh-so-cool Malasaña district and the boutiques of Fuencarral Street, the Ardosa dates back to 1892 and is a much-loved institution in the city. With its red paintwork and smoked-glass sign, this is as Madrilenian as it gets. You either sit on stools around barrels or dive under the bar to one of the secret tables at the back. Rows of dusty bottles are stacked onto shelves and old photos decorate the walls. Open from breakfast time till late, more often than not it is packed out with people having a beer or two and some tapas. Here the fresh tortilla is rich and soft, made to the owner’s mother’s recipe with gently fried pieces of potato and slices of onion. If you are feeling adventurous, order the version with tripe. Have some artichokes too, a few croquettes with Cabrales blue cheese from Asturias and some spicy chorizo. The Ardosa is also renowned for the quality of its draught beers and there is a range of wines by the glass and draught vermouth.
At the ever on-trend Juana La Loca the tortilla is all about the onions, which are slowly caramelised and mixed with very chunky pieces of potato. The finished product is darker than usual with a texture that is gooey in the extreme. The place is always packed out – it’s a favourite haunt of actors and musicians – with people crowding around the bar scooping tortilla into their mouths. It is perfectly acceptable to slurp in this case. With its tiled walls, steel bar and round marble tables, Juana La Loca is stylish yet casual, which fits right in with the Madrid mindset. Hipster beardage is rife among the barmen, who have the pizzazz to carry off snazzy paisley bow ties and beige aprons as they serve glass after glass of Mahou classic draught beer and pour out Albariño, Ribera del Duero, Toro and Rueda wines.
One of Madrid’s medieval city gates, Puerta de Moros, used to stand just about here, opposite San Andrés church in the oldest part of Madrid. You might recognise the square from Pedro Almodóvar’s film The Flower of My Secret, as the main character, a writer called Leo, lives nearby. Lucky woman, you might well think, having Juana La Loca on her doorstep and being able to pop in for a slice of tortilla whenever she fancies.
If you want to try a twist on the traditional, just work your way through the list of tortillas devised over the decades by the Redruello family. The standard one is the Velazqueña, served in an earthenware dish, which is fluffier than normal but has no hint of stodginess. Making a tortilla with crisps rather than pieces of potato gives an interesting texture, particularly when you mix it with salmorejo, a thicker version of gazpacho that is a speciality of Cordoba. There are also versions with octopus, squid, truffles or tripe, which sort of covers all the bases, but the most intriguing is the one with cream of garlic soup, which admittedly sounds a bit odd. The thick soup arrives in a no-nonsense iron pot and is ladled into a pan containing fried onions and potatoes, raw eggs and pieces of Ibérico ham. It is all mixed together in front of you with a fork and a spoon so the egg breaks up and cooks in the heat of the soup, forming an incredibly tasty if rather unlikely form of tortilla.
If you were visiting Madrid for just a few days, you would be unlikely to find yourself on Espronceda Street in the Chamberí neighbourhood unless you happened to know someone who lived there. And even if you were walking down Espronceda, you would probably walk straight past Sylkar, as it just looks like a typical local bar. Stop and peer more closely however, and you’ll notice that there are several certificates on display in the window – all awards for the best tortilla. They start chopping and frying the potatoes first thing in the morning, as some customers want their tortilla for breakfast, or when they pop out from their offices around 11. It is always fresh and very squidgy with big pieces of potato. You might have to elbow your way to the bar but it is worth persevering. You can have the classic version, with or without onion, or go off-piste and order the one with pisto, which is the tasty Spanish take on ratatouille. This calls for a glass of Rioja, and they have some great ones by the glass, such as Baigorri or Sierra Cantabria.