Madrid has been described as the most Spanish of cities – a capital who, like a mother, gives up her own identity and ambition for the sake of her children. There are very little things you could call Madrileño. Maybe churros, the callos de Madrid, cocido Madrileño and a few other dishes. For the rest of it Madrid is Spain.
The best flamenco and bullfighting outside Andalucia can be found in Madrid. The best Galician seafood can be found here. The best Rioja outside of Rioja and Navarre. The best pinchos outside the Basque region – and it goes on.
This admixture of regional influences makes Madrid unique purely because it isn’t unique. Again, like a mother, Madrid takes on all these varieties and gives them a buzzing, safe, explosive home! Madrid has the most bars per capita of any European city, has a nightlife that doesn’t stop until 5 am, has bustling gay areas and an arena for the best flamenco and bullfighting in the country.
And the diverse nature of Madrid doesn’t stop there. Let’s not forget, Madrid is the Royal city, (Real Madrid, after all, means just that, Royal Madrid); she is the mother not just of all Spain, but she was once the mother of all of Spain’s manifold overseas colonies. Since the early 16th century Madrid has been the capital of Spain, which, at the time, was one of the most expansive superpowers of the world, controlling most of the Americas, the Philippines and parts of North Africa. And despite the acrimonious fall of the Spanish Empire (all colonial empires eventually fall) a lot of people from the former Spanish Empire now call Madrid their home. And this also helps make Madrid the exciting city that it is.
Indeed, throughout my stay there, I found the Latin American influence on Madrid one of the most exciting things about the city.
As you’re walking the busy streets and squares of Madrid a large majority of the faces that look back at you make you feel as if you’re walking through the Andes or the Caribbean. There is a large community of Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians in Madrid and, though they don’t show up much in the demographic statistics of the city, a lot of Cubans and Mexicans too. And some of the best times I had in Madrid were in restaurants and clubs run by and for Cubans.
The highlight of these was the La Negra Tomasa, a Cuban restaurant and bar in the Calle Espoz y Mina. A street with a variety of bars, pubs, some with tables out on the pedestrianised streets – yet even here, La Negra Tomasa’s façade stands out like a North Star in an urban night. It’s bright, colourful facades, full of bold reds and blues, advertising Mojitos and everything Cuban draws you in without your knowing it.
As you walk in, you are met by a large, Afro-Cuban man, who works as bouncer, waiter, runner (and dancer?), asks you how many people, he gives you a menu and with a stern finger tells you to wait by the bar. You feel like a child who’s done something wrong. It’s intimidating. You look at the menu and you say yes, of course, we’ll go for it, and he sits you down, you say many thank yous, and the waitresses come. Cuban girls dressed in a kind of 1950’s chequered dressed with frills around the neck, legs and shoulders exposed.
Over the three nights we went there we tried a variety of dishes, all of them Cuban, the best of creole cooking, cooked by, from what we could see, a lovely old Cuban, grandmotherly cook. All the Cuban classics are there: the guajira, ropa vieja, fried bananas and yuccas, cojimar, etc. Most of the dishes are meat-based served with white rice and black bean sauce. The food is unpretentious, homely, and exciting. We were never disappointed. And if we had been, we would have washed away our disappointment with copious Mojitos and Daiquiris (by the way: this place is an alcohol-lover’s dream, but not really for wine-lovers).
By half past eleven, a band begins to set up on the stage, and the waitress comes to inform you that from now on drinks are more expensive because people who come in now have to pay a 10 euro entrance fee. We said we didn’t mind, and nor, it seems, did most of the Cuban population of Madrid. As the bands started, flocks of people began drizzling in.
The bands there play beautiful, typical Cuban music (though not once did I hear Guantanamera) and as soon as they start, the tables empty and the dance-floor fills. Suddenly, it feels like you’re at a bullring except the matadors are all salsa dancers. At first you think, come on, how cliché, and I’m not one for dancing: but the dancers were mesmerising!
They were clearly aficionados, regulars, people who came not just from Cuba, but from Madrid and the rest of Spain, people came in pairs but end up dancing with everyone in the place. It’s a surreal feeling, one minute a guy is sat having a beer, the next, he’s salsa-ing like a pro! Or, a woman at the bar looks like she’s making fun of the dancers, the next, a guy offers her his hand, and she’s off!
Even the big, black bouncer was dancing away, suddenly looking queer and magnificently happy! The only thing that could stop him dancing was when he saw a Cuban wrestler win a bout in an Olympic fight – he and a few others stopped and shouted, under their breath, Viva Cuba!
And why not Viva Cuba! The place is filled with pictures of your usual Cuban paraphernalia, Che Guevara, Havana, the flag, Hemingway; but there was nothing staid or forced in the place. Here were a group of people, a nation, who has to struggle so much over the years, dancing like only they could dance, celebrating their freedom, drowning in it, and you begin to wonder, what must they have seen and been through, and you begin to admire them, their passion, their joie de vivre, and you can’t help but fall in love with them! (Of course, not enough for me to try any salsa dancing!)
I left that place, and indeed Madrid, wanting to visit Cuba more than ever before!
And it wasn’t the only Cuban place we visited in Madrid – it wasn’t even the first. Cuando Sali de Cuba is a restaurant just off the Plaza Callao, in a very small, quiet side street which it dominated. Although there was also live music here later on in the night this was more of a restaurant, more food-orientated.
The starter I had was one of the most beautiful things I have ever eaten. It’s simple. Greasy. Fattening. Will give me cholesterol faster than a deep-fried Mars bar. But I can eat it all night. They fried pieces of pork rind, an unbeatable combination of juicy fat and crackling. A meat-lover’s Kama Sutra! In fact, I had to have more of them, so as a main I ordered more fried pork rinds served with white rice, black bean soup and fried slice bananas. To be honest, I could hardly finish the plate after filling up on pork-erol. Even after a strong glass of golden liqueur, I couldn’t go on. And believe me, I wanted to go on.
Later on we moved inside. The place was dark, old and charming. A two-piece band was playing. A group of people were dancing near the bar and I had a Cubanero, decent-quality Cuban beer. We stayed there until midnight and it certainly wasn’t as busy as La Negra, but I could have eaten there every night I was in Madrid. Except that, I was in Madrid, and you know, I had to do some Spanish places! But Cuando Sali de Cuba showed me that you don’t only drink and dance well in Cuba, but you bloody eat well too!
And they certainly know how to eat well in Mexico too! I’ve always been a Mexico-phile and I made it a point to sample some genuine Mexican cuisine in Madrid. What I found was something better than Quetzalcoatl, or the Day of the Dead, or Carlos Fuentes: I found Taqueria Mi Ciudad.
In the Calle Hileras just off the busy Calle Arenal there is a small taco place run, again, by and for Mexicans. The staff are mostly male, all charming, helpful, and they serve mostly tacos, not more than 2 euros a piece. I had some with pork and vegetable fillings, and then I had one more, to crown it off, a beef-tongue taco! Served with such food, Corona beer doesn’t actually taste too bad.
I also had a tamale, which was like a pudding cooked and wrapped in banana leaves. It was soft, creamy and beautifully textured. After we asked for our ridiculously cheap bill, the waiter put in front of us two shot glasses, opened a bottle of tequila, and poured us what he called tequila con Jamaica – all complimentary! With good Mariachi music playing in the background that crimson tequila went down happier than any shot I had ever downed – and I was in love with Mexico all over again.
And for those in Malta and elsewhere, a little warning: if you go to a Mexican place that isn’t run by Mexicans, run a mile. The bludgeoned ‘Mexican’ food you get in most places in the world is a dire parody, a cliché, more American, Tex-Mex than Mexican! It is a butchery. If you get the chance, try real Mexican food, and you’ll appreciate it as much as you undoubtedly appreciate their tequila!
There were many other Latin American restaurants we wanted to try in Madrid, but of course, time was pressing. To name but a few, there is the Vaquita Argentine restaurant near the Teatro Real, the Chincha International Peruvian restaurant in Calle Melendez Valdes, the Casa Jaguar a Caribbean/Peruvian place also near the Teatro Real, and Casa Ecuador near the Paseo del Prado.
The best thing about these places is not just the food, but the people who serve it, cook it, dance around it – it shows you the charm of the Americas and the motherly charm of Madrid that hosts them.
Post-holiday blues will inevitably kick in when I’m back in Malta. And the thing I’ll miss most about Madrid, more than the Puerta del Sol or the Museo Reina Sofia, is a good taco or an excellent Cuban fried pork rind!
On a footnote: it’s not just about the food. In the Puerta del Sol we happened across a rally that was being organised by Peruvian women who were campaigning against domestic and gender violence against women. It was heart-warming to see those women, dressed in red, shouting out, singing, speaking out against machismo, with slogans saying: “you touch one of us you touch all of us.” Truly, a chiaroscuro culture that never fails to tug at your heartstrings.