My favorite tapas bar, hands down, is El Soldado de Tudelilla (The Soldier from Tudelilla), on calle San Agustín in Logroño. The bar is named after the owner’s father-in-law who lived in Tudelilla, a village in Rioja Baja . This village is known for its wines, made from the garnacha grape, prized by the wineries from Haro for blending with their often low alcohol tempranillo. The ‘soldado’ (not a soldier, but rather his nickname because he was short and stocky, apparently prized soldierlike characteristics in the Spanish army) brought his family to Logroño in 1947 and opened a bar to sell his town’s wines.
Ther bar is run by ‘el soldado’s’ daughter Jacinta and her husband Manolo and is a favorite of the locals, who stand at the end of the zinc bar nursing their glasses of wine for hours, not going from bar to bar like everyone else.
A word about tapas bars in Rioja. Unlike the pintxo bars in San Sebastian, where you can find a large selection of elaborate little dishes prepared by armies of white-aproned chefs, bars in Rioja usually specialize in one or two dishes, creating the reason to go to that particular place. In El Soldado’s case, these are a fillet of sardine and a piece of green pepper between two pieces of bread called a ‘capricho’ (a ‘whim’) and a tomato, sweet onion and olive salad made at the bar by the staff while you wait. The tomatoes and onions are kept cool floating in the sink along with bottles of young cosechero Rioja (more about that in a future post). My wife Toñica and I always get a kick out of watching Jacinta prepare the salad, throwing a big pinch of sea salt with a flourish, à la Emeril Lagasse, over the tomatoes and doing a little dance while pouring the olive oil over everything from a little glass porrón like the ones groups of people used to drink wine from in villages.
Another reason to visit El Soldado is to have el almuerzo in the back room.
Warning: health nuts are avised to read what follows with caution!
Almuerzo, or mid-morning snack, is a Spanish tradition, as breakfast is usually a quick gulp of coffee while running out the door for work and one’s stomach starts to growl at about 10. At El Soldado, you can order fried eggs (farm-fresh ones with huge orange yolks, not the ones with little yellow yolks you get at the supermarket in the USA), bacon, ham, spicy sausage, hot sauce, huge chunks of bread that you jam into the yolk as soon as the plate is served and, of course, a bottle of Rioja (one never “does” almuerzo alone, but with a group of friends). THAT really gets the blood moving until lunch time!
Almuerzo nirvana, however, is during the wine festival in September when it becomes breakfast and lunch combined, with eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, callos (tripe), wine, dessert, a shot of pacharán (sloe berry liqueur) and, as an afterthought, a cup of coffee. The streets of the old town are filled with tables of friends and families enjoying their almuerzo. One of the most popular ones is served under the bleachers at the bullring.
El Soldado de Tudelilla, San Agustin, 33 26001 Logroño. Tel. 941 20 96 24