Alex Raij of Txikito and El Quinto Pino Talks Tapas, Cookbooks, and the Possibility of Further Expansion

Make Alex Raij's tapas from The Book of Tapas.
Make Alex Raij's tapas from The Book of Tapas.

Alexandra Raij opened a tiny tapas bar called Tia Pol back in 2004 with partners Mani Dawes and Heather Belz. In 2007, the team, joined by Raij's husband, Eder Montero, debuted the even smaller El Quinto Pino.

Raij and Montero eventually split to launch Txikito on their own, but earlier this year returned to El Quinto Pino in exchange for their share in Tia Pol. Sound complicated? It may be, but such is the restaurant business. All that matters now is that Raij continues to turn out authentic and amazing Spanish tapas at El Quinto Pino, while specializing in beautiful Basque pintxos at Txikito. And now you can try some of her recipes in Phaidon's The Book of Tapas, by Simone and Inés Ortega.

You recently contributed to a very large tome of a cookbook called The Book of Tapas. Why are tapas so daunting to make at home?

I had the opportunity to contribute to the Ortegas' first book, 1080 Recipes, or 1080 Recetas de Cocina, as we call it in Spain. That was just a real thrill because it's like Joy of Cooking for Spain. It's a very cursory, but very broad book on Spanish cooking. When they translated it into English, they added a few adjunct recipes from cooks outside of Spain.

I was equally happy to contribute to Tapas. It was a totally different book because I didn't have this nostalgic connection to it. I thought I actually had something to say. Tapas is sort of my game. The thing with making tapas at home is that the whole experience and tradition is connected to the bar. It's a communal, convivial experience.

Should you even make tapas at home?

I find it easy to justify a tapas book because once people try those flavors [in the bar], they want to come home and re-create them. The truth is that these flavors are real and powerful, and they're worth documenting as dishes that are constantly changing. One thing that is typical in Spain is if someone invites you over they will always give you a little snack with a drink. Drink and food are very connected.

So a tapas cookbook would be more geared to entertaining?

People who are self-proclaimed foodies have become very attracted to doing elaborate dinner parties and, with a tapas party, you can include any number of foods. You can start by looking at very classic recipes, then freestyle when you feel more comfortable. One of the main reasons I haven't written [a cookbook] yet myself is, if and when I do, it will have to have some practical application to the home cook that I haven't thought of yet.

Is it something you will do, write your own cookbook?

Definitely. I don't know if it will be a tapas book or a Spanish book. It's hard to say. But it will use the same inspirations that we translate into the food we serve at the restaurants.

Speaking of the restaurants, there's been quite a bit of reshuffling among management. Are you all settled into your new/old roles now?

What was really fun was altering the [Txikito] space to allow it to reach its full potential. I think it's much more beautiful than it was. And putting the chalkboard up really speaks to the spontaneity of tapas. I know a lot of people have chalkboards now, but for us it's been really important to the story that we've been trying to tell. At El Quinto Pino, I get to return to Mediterranean flavors that I haven't done for the last two years. It was great to revise signature dishes and also improve them in some cases. But also to try new things that would have been a part of the Pino evolution if there had not been an interruption.

Are there any plans for another restaurant or further expansion?   I would love to open another restaurant, either Spanish or not Spanish. But I have a small child. I come to work every day with all these ideas, and my husband just wants to kill me. We're busy. I think we will do it one day because we're just really interested in food. But when, I could not say. No immediate plans. And to be honest, we just started to expand on the Quinto side. We want to be a little more elaborate and invite interesting chefs to visit and cook. Before, we really couldn't offer a proper kitchen to cook in. We have a little bit more resources now for them. So I think we'll just focus on trying to keep it fresh.

Is it ever difficult to work with your husband?

Maybe not as difficult as it would be for other people. We really enjoy each other. In the kitchen, we have really different skills, so we keep appreciating one another and not taking each other for granted. [Complementing each other] is really good for a marriage and a business relationship. But it's not easy, no. There's not many boundaries ... in any kitchen. Cooks function like large peasant families. It's much better if there is some love in there because, otherwise, it's like a marriage without love ... not a good thing.

What are some of the dishes or ingredients you're looking at now that summer is here?

I love asparagus right now. And when I say asparagus, I mean the green ones that they call espárrago verde in Spain. I like to see the flat romano beans, as opposed to regular green beans. They're so tender and creamy. We cook them long instead of al dente in the Spanish style. And for meat, I'm starting to think about rabbit. I'm also thinking about cold foods like gazpacho, stuffed zucchini, little avocado squash. We do a lot of greenmarket shopping, so we see what's there and try to bend it so it makes sense in our restaurants.

Stay tuned for Part Dos ...

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