Travel Madrid: A Madrileño's food guide for the turista
Madrid is one of the top destinations for tourists. It has one of the best museums in the world, according to former director of Tate Liverpool Lewis Biggs, a sentiment he shared to me and my artist wife. It certainly has, with its Golden Triangle of Art composed of The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and Museo del Prado. Another part of its main attraction is the good food.
But whenever I go to Spain with my wife and family, I notice how the tourists fall into a lot of awful choices for food. Many go for easy and cheap fast food since it's probably the most familiar to them.
This is why I am writing this, to share the best dishes that you have to try when you're in my city! I'm a Madrileño born to a Spanish father from Córdoba and a Spanish/Italian Filipina mother. I was raised in Madrid, Spain. And since I am partly Filipino, I definitely have an idea what the Filipinos might like when it comes to getting good food without emptying the pockets.
Plaza Mayor’s roasts
First one on the food list is the "cochinillo" (suckling pig roast). You can find this delicacy in Plaza Mayor (Main Square in English).
Plaza mayor is the central plaza of Madrid. This place is a sea of people when the day starts to cool off. It has a lot of shops and cafes under its porticos and it is easy to be lost and overwhelmed with choices.
Look for Las Cuevas de Luís Candelas (The Cave of Luís Candelas), a restaurant that has been serving cochinillo as its main specialty since 1949. The restaurant is named after the Spanish equivalent of Robin Hood in the 19th century, Luís Candelas. It is located in one of the ancient caves where Luis Candelas hid his stolen loot.
Naturally, upon entrance to this historic restaurant, you’ll be greeted by a guy wearing Luis Candelas bandit costume. Here, two can share a portion for one. The cochinillo is served with the super crispy skin waiting to be cracked open to reveal the soft savory meat inside. While you’re at it, get the leche frita, too. I do not have to say more, it’s fresh milk, fried as well.
Then there is the cordero (suckling lamb roast). For traditional cordero, go to Posada dela Villa. Posada refers to the traditional inns of Madrid and this restaurant is located in an authentic posada dating back 1642. It serves the best cordero cooked the traditional way in the old Arab oven – tender lamb meat slowly roasted for hours. It isn't surprising to discover later one that my favorite football team dines here, and so do a lot of politicians and celebrities.
Not far from Las Cuevas Luís Candelas is another famous restaurant, Botin. Founded in 1725, it is the oldest restaurant, according to Guinness Book of Records. I feel it's become more of a tourist venue these days, although my wife loves the tarta San Marcos in Botin.
Tarta San Marcos is a traditional Spanish sponge cake and the one in Botin is different from most tarta San Marcos in Madrid. The outside of the cake is encrusted with caramelized nuts, the mousse and filling inside is much creamier than the usual. Definitely a must-try.
If you go further down the road, you can't miss Casa Lucio. Built in 1974, it is one of the oldest restaurants to offer home-style local cooking, the best of which is the huevos rotos, a warming dish made of fried potatoes, fried eggs, topped with chorizo sausages. Huevos rotos is one of the tastiest Spanish tapas.
After the heavy meals in Plaza Mayor, you can walk your way up again to very heart of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun). It is the best-known public square in the city and also the busiest. Here, you'll find San Gines, a churreria operating since 1894. It has been visited by football players, politicians, and celebrities, as you’ll see on framed photos decorating their walls.
San Gines is a churreria, but instead of churros or fried-dough pastry, order as the Madrileños do – order porras. Porras is bigger than the churros and this is breakfast for most locals, eaten early in the morning with chocolate or cafe con leche. Luckily, San Gines is open for 24 hours. On our last visit, we discovered San Gines opened an ice cream shop right across their chocolateria.
Founded in 1894, La Mallorquina sells traditional Spanish sweets. I grew up eating here. I brought my then-girlfriend Nikki in here. I came back with her after we got married. Then I brought Alandra, our daughter, here. This place is like home.
No matter how crowded it is, the people behind the counter are quick to spot us, never failing to greet us with warmth. They know how loyal we are. Honestly, there are no words to describe the gem of sweets that they create, such as the napolitana with cream or, Nikki's favorite, the chocolate.
They also offer cakes such as the reina de nata (pyramid-shaped cream cakes), tarte de yema (butter cake), brazo de trufa (truffle cake), milhojas (stacked puff pastry filed with dulce de leche) that are hard to resist.
We’ve tried all the pastries, and they're all good because everything is made from scratch. All the fillings like nata (which is the crème), chocolates, bonbons, et cetera, are made fresh daily. No shortcuts here and you will believe me when you have that first bite of napolitana. By 8:30 pm almost all of the pastries are gone. Make sure to go early or midday to have Pinoy-style merienda while the Madrileños are having siesta.
Around the corner in Puerta del Sol, a good two-minute walk from La Mallorquina, near the El Corte Ingles entrance, you'll see another local favorite which is the Casa Labra.
Casa Labra is a famous for its tapas de bacalao (fresh battered cod) and croquet de bacalao (cod croquettes). I also like to order here the big chunk of tuna and empanada with a tinto de verano, which is soda with wine. As prices are different when one dines inside the restaurant (read: higher prices), dine like a Madrileño standing on the bar tables outside.
After tapas, you can walk around to explore nearby sites such as the Palacio Gran Via, then walk further to the hip neighborhood of Fuencarral lined with modern independent fashion shops catering to the youth and the adventurous. Or shop some very comfy alpargatas or espadrilles at Calzados LOBO, one of the oldest traditional shoe shops in Madrid founded in 1867. We buy all our shoes here. Proudly made in Spain.
If you happen to be in Madrid on a Sunday, then you should visit the Rastro at la latina, it’s a flea market/bazaar filled street with booths and tents from different merchants from all over the world, and of course Spanish makers, too. Lots of clothes, shoes, espadrilles, vintage shops, rock shirts, traditional abanicos, shawls and anything you can think of. I am not saying it’s the best price to shop, but it’s worth to have a look at and maybe get a few unique things.
Drop by in the morning and in between have lunch at Cerveceria Los Caracoles by Calle Toledo, just a few mins walk from la latina and they serve a fantastic rich stew of snails. Or you can always find tapas in the Rastro and eat while you people watch.
Puerta Alcala’s Michelin restaurants
If you can make your way to the Retiro by the Puerta Alcala, try boating, which we do as our past time. A boat ride costs 6 euros and gives you another view of the city. Walk around the park or have a picnic. Buy Cinco Jotas or Cova brand of Iberico Jamon Serrano, pan and manchego from the El Corte Ingles grocery and make your own bocadillo (sandwich). Add potato chips, too (try the all-natural La Real for 2.50 euros a bag) and aioli, and you have a perfect little picnic.
Make sure to pass by Palacio de Cristal it’s been said it was built in 1887 to exhibit plants from the Philippines. It is majestic and calming place with all the glass and greens surrounding you.
Right along Alcala is the upscale area of Barrio Salamanca. My wife and I would shop around here in two of our favorite stores – Zadig and Kooples. We also go to Imaginarium for educational Spanish toys and books. For the best traditional Spanish children’s clothing, look along the streets of Calle Jorge Juan.
Along this road, too, is a quite affordable Michelin-starred restaurant called Vi Cool. You can order their menu Del Dia for 14 euros per person. For me, the 20 euros tapas on the menu is a must try. It's a sit down casual lunch, where you can enjoy the other side of Madrid away from busy streets and tourists.
If you have time (and stomach space!) for another Michelin-starred restaurant that's quite unique, try Kabuki. It offers Japanese and Spanish-style dishes. We ordered the degustation.
On the same road as Alcala is another Michelin-starred restaurant – La Terrazza del Casino. This is another experience. Each dish served in the degustation, in my wife’s words, was conceptual! The dishes play with your taste and mind, but every bite was definitely delicious. (Note for men: You must wear a jacket/blazer.)
This restaurant is by chef Paco Roncero, who goes out to personally greet his guests. He also opened a casual eating place, called Estado Puro. It is a 12-minute walk from Puerta del Sol on Calle Cervantes (Plaza Canovas Del Castillo), in front of the Neptuno Rotunda. Estado Puro serves traditional Spanish food, but with a spin on each dish. Must tries are the ox croquettas, pulpo with potato foam, foie gras and fig, parmesan crisp ice cream, 20th century tortilla, and more. Don't look for the boring stuff here.
I should also mention a stop we always make when we visit the museums, facing the Atocha Station nearby Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. El Brillante is the only place where we eat bocadillo de calamares (squid sandwich). My wife loves the sepia con aioli (squid with garlic and olive oil sauce, ailoli).
We also get the pulpo a gallega (Galician-style octopus). They serve homemade aioli, which you can request for 30cents extra. A helpful tip is not to eat at the outdoor tables because the rates there are higher. Eat like a true Madrileño by the bar, and enjoy your food – just you and your meal.
Choosing real food over fast food
Lastly, if you have no time or still too tired to go around hunting for these wonderful places I’ve just described, don’t just make beeline for the nearest McDonald’s yet. Go to San Miguel Mercado where you will find stalls with Spanish dishes – from paella, hamburgers, olives, tapas, desserts and more. (Tip: Don't order paella where they heat it in a microwave. Personally, I don't believe in microwaves and it's not a Spanish way.)
Then, there's also Rodilla. They say it is a Spanish version of fast food but better, because the spreads are fresh and made naturally. These Spanish sandwiches come in flavors such as arugula and blue cheese, cheese and nuts, foie gras, Jamon serrano, apple and turkey ensaladilla and more. They complement the Pinoy taste for creamy sandwiches. Rodilla has branches in Puerta del Sol, Atocha, and other populated areas, making it very easy to find. So go for it instead of the usual American fast food junk.
And lastly, if you are in Madrid ("Madthriiid," Ike a real Madrileño would say it) you have to stop by el coliseo blanco (the white coliseum) Estadio Santiago Bernabeu they say it is the home of Real Madrid the greatest football (soccer) team in the world.
If you are lucky enough and in town to catch a live game, don't miss it cause it would be one of the greatest experiences you will ever have, even when you are not a football fan.
Seeing the stadium, full house, cheering for the team is just a different high (I'm already getting goosebumps just writing about it) and you will get to see the top players in the world, Ronaldo, Ramos, Bale, Modric, Kroos and the list goes on. If there aren't any games drop by the Bernabeu tour, and check out their museum for just 16€, it's the second most visited in Madrid after el Prado. And witness all the trophies they have conquered over more than a hundred years, especially the 11 copas de Europa (European cups) which is a record and that is what makes them the greatest team ever.
You will also get see many memorabilia of the team and of different players from Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas, Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian) Raul, Casillas, and the like. For basketball fans you can also see all the trophies, and the 9 Euro Cups, also a record in Europe. You will also see the Philippine flag, a kababayan played for Real Madrid. Go and find out!
At the end of the tour you will end up at the 4-floor Adidas shop of the team, everything sold is Real Madrid, from uniforms, hats, watches, key chains, shoes, balls, name tags, plates, mugs, jackets, towels, posters, sandals, baby gear, and many more Real Madrid items.
This is my list of where and what to eat, mixed with a little bit of what to see and do around tourist spots. The exchange rate is high and I would rather you get your money’s worth with quality and que Rico food.
It's frustrating to be a victim of overpriced meals that do not even represent Madrid. Traveling is more satisfying when you enjoy the culture and traditional dishes that is special to the country and special sites you truly must see. These are offered by the restaurants I’ve featured here, that have a very rich history. They’ve been around for decades – some even for centuries. They continue to be around because they must be doing something right.
Lastly, like they say in Madrid, “De Madrid Al Cielo” – once you see Madrid heaven is the next best thing. Hasta Luego! – Rappler.com
Mikee Carrion is a domesticated dad, an ally to his artist/feminist wife, ABS-CBN TV football analyst/commentator/contributor and former UFL Football coach and player from 1998-2011. His passion for family, football, and food (healthy/natural/organic) led him to operate his own blog RealFamilia.com named after his favorite team from his home town: Real Madrid. He is dedicated to breaking daddy double standards and gender roles, and sharing his everyday musings. He is the founder of KICKArt, a project he shares with his wife where he teaches football to youth victims of human rights violations in Mindanao and the urban poor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @mikeecarrion.