With the tapas craze sweeping the Triangle, you’d think Tasca Brava, Cary’s authentic Spanish tapas bar, would be packed every night. After all, they have a lot going for them; they have been doing tapas longer than anyone else in the area, and they are the only restaurant around where you’re likely to get a truly Spanish experience. But more importantly, beyond the faddish nature of the current tapas trend, Tasca Brava is making some of the area’s best and most exciting food.
So it surprises me that they are a little slow. Perhaps it is the Cary strip mall location, with a lighted sign above it that says only “Cafe.” Perhaps it is the decor and atmosphere–the space was obviously not meant to house food of this caliber. The dining room feels like it’s part of a strip mall, despite the owners’ efforts to give the place a Spanish flair. The first time I went I was a little disappointed from the outside; my boyfriend and I were out for a special date, and the place looked a little to me like a pizza place. So much of the tapas trend is about the kind of casual dining people are looking for–many new tapas restaurants insist on calling themselves “lounges,” trying to evoke the feeling of a swanky bar where you can eat. And that is one aspect of tapas that is so appealing, and something that the feel of Tasca Brava does not exude from the get-go. But once we sat down and looked at the menu, all my disappointment melted away.
Goat cheese, piquillo peppers and house-made chorizo dotted the menu, which lists almost 50 tapas, as well as 10 entrees and four sandwiches. The mostly Spanish wine list with over 50 bottles was more exciting than many of the Triangle’s upscale restaurants. On the worst side of this tapas trend, I’ve seen small plates of mediocre pasta with red sauce passed off as tapas. A small plate is cute I guess, and the idea of making a meal out of many small dishes has always appealed to me, but when I think of tapas I yearn for the exotic, the sexy, all those things that Spain embodies. Tapas at Tasca Brava are no gimmick, no collection of vaguely European dishes served up on small plates.
Tasca Brava’s owners, husband and wife Juan Samper and Marta Brewer (Marta is the chef, Juan runs the front of the house almost completely single-handedly), understand the drawbacks of the space they are in. In fact, they have been looking for a new space, perhaps in Raleigh, where the atmosphere can better reflect the Spain they evoke so wonderfully in their food and hospitality. They would also like to find a space that would better house their monthly flamenco night, on the last Sunday of every month.
Brewer and Samper started the restaurant three and a half years ago, both leaving the corporate world to immerse themselves in a life dedicated to food and wine. Both of them exude a hospitality that I would go so far as to call loving, especially when they recognize a true food lover in their midst. Their passion is infectious at the table, as Brewer takes 10 minutes to describe in detail each of the 10 to 14 cheeses on the cheese plate, the regions of Spain they come from, the type of milk used and the complexity of flavor, or as Samper goes over the label of a sherry, explaining the significance of the style and maker.
If I was around this much good food all day, I’d be passionate too. Brewer makes her own Spanish chorizo, filled with spicy paprika imported from Spain (she’ll sell it to you by the pound, but be careful–you might end up with a habit). You’re likely here to find combinations of food that you’d never think of, but which are quite amazing, like the Pulpo a la Gallega, a tapa made from boiled octopus, goat cheese, mashed potato and the finest paprika and olive oil. I recently recommended Tasca Brava to a friend, and afterward she said to me, “I may not ever be as happy as I was eating that food.” I’ll admit, this is a friend who tends toward the dramatic, but she made the comment in all sincerity. On the menu last week they had an antelope stew and a smoky artichoke soup with goat cheese. They are experimenting with a wild boar sausage, something that I hope becomes a regular menu item. And for Valentine’s Day, Brewer is planning on making olive oil ice cream, which she swears is incredible. I can’t wait.
The tapas craze will run its course, and the restaurants that were good in their own right will stick around; the ones that were just trying to ride the fad’s wave will turn into sushi bars or nightclubs. I hope more people discover the delights of Tasca Brava, be it in the current location or a new one. Seeking out good food in unexpected places is my job and my passion, but it’s rare to come across something this good and this under-noticed. Perhaps they will have to move to downtown Raleigh and get some swanky furniture to get the recognition they deserve, but I’d be happy to eat this food in any location.