Editor’s note: We’re wrapping up Soup Week here at Culinary Backstreets with an old favorite in Gràcia that serves classic wintertime Spanish soul food.
Not far from the Gràcia neighborhood’s glittering Paseo de Gràcia can be found a completely different world of narrow, unassuming side streets. Once populated by Catalan Gypsies, the area is fondly remembered as one of the cradles of rumba catalana, a popular fusion of flamenco, mambo and rock and roll, and as the birthplace of Antonio “El Pescaílla” González, a legendary flamenco guitarist who was one of the genre’s founding fathers.
The house where “El Pescaílla” (“The Little Fish”) was born in 1926 remains unmarked, but a memorial plaque is proudly displayed from one of the walls of the venue next door – Casa Pagès, an old-school bar and restaurant that has been in business since 1982 and now serves as a culinary anchor for the neighborhood. Owner Pedro Barros is an immigrant from Galicia, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, who – like millions of other immigrants from the poorest regions of Spain – came to Catalonia during the last century, while the country was still under Franco’s dictatorship. The septuagenarian is usually present in the bar, watching over his territory like a quiet and peaceful lion, happily talking with anyone who comes in to have a glass of wine. To anyone who asks, Pedro will tell the story of Casa Pagès (roughly, “The Farmer’s House”): how, many years ago, when Gràcia was still almost the countryside of Barcelona, the place was not a farmhouse but was instead used as a warehouse and local distribution point for Estrella Damm, an iconic Catalonian beer.
Today, the restaurant retains a sense of old-time charm and atmosphere, with rustic furniture and homemade, authentic food served at fair prices. The people who come here are mostly families, neighbors and groups of friends from the area, pulled in by an almost primal desire to taste the authentic tortilla de patatas (the classic Spanish potato omelet) made by the expert hands of Pedro’s wife, Albina – a grandma who, fittingly, makes the tortilla the way Spanish grandmothers have always made it. The old alchemy works perfectly: the texture of the whipped eggs is soft but consistent, not liquidy yet not dry; the lightly fried onions are evenly distributed among the potatoes, imbuing the tortilla with flavor and giving it some heft. Albina’s talent extends to the other appealing omelets on the menu, which include spinach and tomato, ham and cheese, or mushroom and onion.
For those who prefer something quicker and lighter, Casa Pagès offers a selection of satisfying though curiously named “philosophical sandwiches.” Named after Plato, Socrates, Nietzsche, Kant, Ortega and Freud, the sandwiches are made with an equally intriguing combination of ingredients. For example, the “Ortega y Gasset” features a sweet, soft vinaigrette of honey and nuts over cured ham and brie cheese, the “Plato” combines botifarra (sausage) with artichoke, and the “Nietzsche” includes a variety of roasted vegetables. But be sure not to let your philosophical preferences dictate how you order: while you may be a fan of Aristotle, you may be less enamored of the spinach that’s served along with the goat cheese in the “Aristóteles sandwich.”
The kitchen also turns out well-made salads and tapas, which usually include the traditional lineup of cheese, ham and sausages, as well as creamy, homemade croquettes of chicken or codfish. At lunchtime, the menú del día includes house specialties of wonderful comfort food reminiscent of dishes served in authentic Spanish home kitchens. These might include mongetes a la catalana (beans with fresh local sausage), the classic caldo gallego (a Galician vegetable soup with meat, whose recipe comes from the homeland of the venue’s owners), or a homey stew made with lentils soaked overnight to which are added ham and bacon – wintertime Spanish soul food.
One can always expect to eat well (if not a lot) when going to their grandmother’s house. With its simple, traditionally made comfort food carefully prepared by expert hands, Casa Pagès takes that experience up several notches, turning “going to grandma’s house” into a culinary event.
This review was originally published on November 13, 2012.
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