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Tasty Tapas

Christopher Gardner

Tapa Dance: Chef Sergio Espino shows off the specialty of Picasso's, in the fine tradition of Spanish art and dining.

Bargain Spanish specialties and drinks make a strong argument for exploring Picasso's, a new downtown San Jose restaurant

By Andrew X. Pham

ORIGINALLY, IN SPAIN, the little dishes known as tapas (derived from the verb tapar, which means "to cover") were humbly served compliments of the house--perhaps a slice of jamón serrano (cured ham) or chorizo (spicy sausage) placed over the mouth of a wine glass. Now, tapas recipes number in the thousands, and a new downtown San Jose restaurant showcases scores of these Spanish specialties.

Picasso's (formerly Mexico Lindo) is something of a cross between the typical tasca and the restaurant mesón-style tapas bars. Tucked in the basement of a building, the establishment throbs with a mixed selection of Spanish guitars and Top 40 pop. Red neon, pink walls, black trim, shiny brass, Picasso prints and a mirror-banked bar create a clubby feel inside the expansive establishment. On the other hand, the primary dining area seems a little more sedate with linenless Formica tables and paper placemats.

A round of citrusy sangria ($3.50 a glass) alleviated our thirst as we perused the lengthy litany of tapas. The kitchen offered predominantly simpler fare with full meal options. With the arrival of our first tapa, ensalada de bacado ($6)--cold cod salad--we opted to go traditional with generous pours of a chilled, very dry fino sherry ($2.75) from Andalusia, where the tapas tradition began in the 19th century. The fino boasts a nice bite that does well against most tapas, with the exception of shellfish, which fare better with beer or white wine.

An olive oil­heightened toss of diced cucumber, bell pepper, olives and onion on a bed of boiled potatoes, the cod salad serving provided enough for three. Stringy slivers of salted cod crowned it all, adding the real flavor to this refreshing salad.

Speaking of flavor, this is the place for garlic lovers. Huge garlands of bulbs draped over Picasso prints hinted at pungent house specialties. We had garlic shrimp ($6.50) as well as mushrooms sautéed in garlic ($3.75). Both arrived in copious portions, though the shrimps were on the small side and the mushrooms slightly overcooked. A better choice was the deep-fried anchovies ($5), salty and crispy, which we chased down with cold beers. For extra body, we savored these lightly battered, finger-size fish with some olive oil, raw garlic and crusty bread.

Our first entree, pimientos del piquillo ($11), excited us with four petite but luscious Spanish red peppers, stuffed with miniature shrimps, chopped mushrooms and scallions, and escorted by a smooth spinach béchamel (white cream sauce) and tomato-infused rice. While the peppers came across a bit well done, the creamed spinach couldn't have been better.

The grilled mussels, the ropa vieja (chicken, beef and chorizo sautéed in tomato sauce) and the rabbit stew sounded promising, but our waiter sold us on paella de mariscos y carne ($26, serves two), a pan-cooked dish of rice, vegetables, meats and seafood. The name comes from the method of cooking all the ingredients in a shallow iron pan called a paellera. Fat short-grain rice, similar to the Italian arborio rice, simmers slowly in the pan as water is added gradually. Roasted pork spareribs, sautéed chicken, scallops, squid, red snapper filets, clams, mussels, shrimps, tomato paste, olives and vegetables turn this panful of heartiness into a veritable medley of colors and tastes. Prepared to order (35 minutes' cooking time), our paella came to the table in a pan steaming with fragrances and crusty on the bottom with burnt rice and caramelized juices. The seafood was fresh and served in ample portions. Garnished with cilantro and lemon wedges, this fun, wholesome dish is a meal in itself.

Our only regret was that the classic paella valenciana wasn't on the menu. This saffron-gilded rice stew has no equal and would have done more justice to the seafood.

The beer roster looked weak with only Bud, Heineken, Dos Equis and Anchor Steam ($2.25­$2.75); however, the list of imported Spanish wines, both red and white, compensated with several decent and affordable vintages (most at $2.75 a glass). Fino, Amontillado and manzanilla sherries ($2.75 each) rounded out the options nicely.

The food is simple, the presentation minimal, but the prices are noteworthy. Bargain tapas and drinks make a strong argument for hiding in Picasso's during rush-hour traffic.


Cuisine: Spanish (tapas and paellas)
Ambiance: clubby casual
Menu: tapas $3­$9; specialties $7.50­$17; paellas $26 for two
Hours: Lunch daily, 11am­3pm; dinner daily, 5pm­closing (variable)
Address: 325 S. First St., San Jose
Phone: 408/977-1130
Extras: Spanish wines and sherries

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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