Although modern tapas bars have achieved wildfire popularity—inspiring all sorts of other pricey small-plate places—old-guard Spanish restaurants are largely a thing of the past. Many of Gotham’s best examples originated in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and provided a dark, romantic dining experience for couples who tucked into broad paelleras of seafood-studded rice, greenish pools of garlic shrimp, and chorizos dramatically set aflame in brandy, served by waiters in starched waistcoats and red cummerbunds. Though a few places remain open in Manhattan and still limp along, gone are the days when James Baldwin famously dined at El Faro, and Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and midtown were thronged with Iberian establishments.
But the genre is being kept alive in the so-called Outer Boroughs, where Spanish immigration continues at a low ebb. What is really driving the trend are Spanish speakers from the Caribbean and South America, who look upon Iberian food not only as an ancestral birthright, but also as one among a range of Latin cuisines they’d like to consider when dining out. Enter El Mio Cid. Named after the epic poem commemorating the retaking of Spanish territories from the Moors a millennium ago, the Bushwick comparative newcomer is located in what is still largely a Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, despite incursions from hipsters—who, unlike the Moors, are not going to be beaten back anytime soon.
The exterior is decorated with potted plants and a mega-mural of a bullfight. Inside, there’s a colorfully dressed dame dancing flamenco on the wall in one corner, while a castle surrounded by jungle foliage splays across an opposite wall, even though Spain is largely arid. More incongruously, a tin bas-relief of Vincent van Gogh in a straw hat glowers over the bar and reminds us that this neighborhood was once Dutch. The walls are deep red and the tables well spaced.
Consistent with their popularity, tapas—tiny plates of food invented long ago to cover your glass and keep flies from drowning in the wine—are the things to get. The portions are way larger than fashionable, so five or six will easily feed three hungry people. The chorizo ($8) arrives not aflame exactly, but sputtering madly in a crock with gravy. Use the excellent French bread to mop the remainders. The tortilla Española—what English speakers might call an omelet—has been expertly turned out, the surface crisp and brown. Rather than being jazzed up, this refreshingly simple dish contains only eggs and potatoes.
Three to an order, the sardines ($7.50) are some of the biggest fatties you’ve seen lately, sautéed head-on and sprinkled with fresh parsley. Squeeze on the lemon before raking the flesh downward from the flanks—the bones stay behind. Torpedo-shaped chicken croquettes are more poultry than potatoes, making the fritters exceedingly fortifying. For vegetable lovers, there are several invented tapas that still fall convincingly within the canon. A casserole of stewed leeks and mushrooms seems more French than Spanish, and a mélange of lightly cooked eggplant reminds you of the parallels between Moroccan and Iberian cooking.
Of the two octopus presentations, the one attributed to Galicia—a region in northwest Spain to which many Dominicans trace their roots—is the most interesting. Pulpo a la Gallega ($10.50) deposits spongy tentacles and spuds in a milky broth. But while the octopod is memorable, the soup called caldo Gallego ($5.50) is wan and watery. (It’s often superb in Dominican cafés.) Finally, El Mio Cid offers some cooling salads that constitute modern additions to the Spanish menu. The one featuring shaved fennel in an orange dressing is well worth ordering.
Like a house of cards in a full gale, the menu falls apart profoundly when it reaches its entrées. Although copious, the paella marinera ($18) lacks zip and frankly tasted reheated one evening. While the vegetarian version of this iconic dish is a boon to those who eschew flesh—roasted beets standing in nicely for red meat—it, too, would have benefited from a large dose of garlic. And though the main-course menu offers plenty of pork, chicken, and seafood, the selections we tried tended to be duds. Worst were a small swatch of overpriced salmon in berry sauce (“This is Spanish?” a friend exclaimed) and a trio of spongy veal cutlets in a nut glaze that tasted like sweet-and-sour pork from a bad Chinese carryout.
Then again, maybe the mains are aimed principally at the invading hipsters.