Embracing Adventure, but Finding Comfort, With Food

I wasn’t always an adventurous eater. In elementary school, I refused to eat anything other than pizza pockets and chicken nuggets. As I grew up, however, my parents started taking me to restaurants, opening me up to more sophisticated dishes.

My first experimental adventure with food was at a Spanish restaurant. I was getting to an age where I wanted to take risks and try new dishes. After experiencing the spiciness of chorizo and the richness of croquettes, I was hooked on the cuisine.

Since moving to Boston, I’ve been on the lookout for a Spanish joint I can frequent whenever I’m craving tapas—Spanish-style appetizers. Tapas have evolved into a celebrated cuisine in many corners of the world, and serve as the quintessential Spanish-food experience.  

Tapas are always served “family style”—meaning the dishes are put in the middle of a table and shared by everyone. Dining in this fashion means you get a little taste of everything. For me,

eating tapas is just as much about the company as it is about the food. I cherish sitting around a table with loved ones as delicious dishes are passed around the table and conversation fills the room.

Recently, I had been eyeing a popular Spanish restaurant in the South End that is one of Beantown’s best. Toro has been a hotspot for Boston foodies since 2005, known for its unique take on Barcelona-style tapas.

Last weekend, my foodie friends and I decided it was time to finally try this restaurant that we had heard so much about. Only my cravings for Spanish food could get me to pay for an exorbitant Uber fare from Chestnut Hill to the South End, but it seemed worth it.

Toro runs on a first-come, first-served basis. It is a walk-in only restaurant, and does not accept reservations, making it almost impossible to get a table. Sure enough, upon arrival we were told it was going to be a two-hour wait until a table was free. Disappointment set in as my friends scrambled to call other restaurants nearby, hoping for a reservation.

As we began to leave, the maitre d’ from the restaurant rushed outside saying they had a table available. “How did a table free up?” I asked. “We aren’t that busy tonight,” he replied. With the restaurant overflowing with people, I wondered what it looked like on a busy night.

Inside the restaurant, the trendy crowd of Boston’s restaurant-goers gathered around the bar, adding to the joint’s slightly chaotic atmosphere. The brick walls, steel chairs, and wooden table-tops gave the restaurant’s interiors an industrial feel.

The eclectic menu puts a twist on traditional Spanish dishes, taking conventional flavors and inventing new dishes. The first dish to arrive at the table were the gambas—shrimp cooked in oil and garlic. Traditionally, the sizzling prawns are served in a terra cotta clay pot called a cazuela. It came as a shock when instead I was presented with grilled prawns served in a creamy chilli sauce and garnished with parsley. “Are those the gambas?” I asked with confusion.

The surprises didn’t stop there. Dishes I had never eaten at a Spanish restaurant before, like setas y huevos—wild mushrooms topped with a raw egg yolk—and panza de cerdo—crispy pork belly served with thinly cut sweet potato chips—slowly trickled in to the table. While all these plates were delicious, they certainly weren’t the classic Spanish tapas I was expecting.

There was, however, a silver lining as the dinner winded down. At the end of every Spanish meal comes the foremost dish, the paella—a rice bowl flavored with saffron and filled with seafood and chicken. Thankfully, when it was brought to the table, the paella had no fancy presentation or unconventional ingredients. Even the most creative chef’s at fusion restaurants will not alter this famous dish, and so I got a familiar taste of something that reminded me of home.

Featured Image by William Batchelor / Heights Editor