There we are at Bodega Carlos, enjoying a homey and delicious batch of crispy fried anchovies and succulent stewed pork cheeks, when we suddenly hear birdsong. We look up, but neither canary nor nightingale can be seen flying around the high-ceilinged bodega-restaurant.
But then the birdsong instantly switches to a sound we can best describe as a falling whistle, like the one that accompanies Wile E. Coyote as he falls from a cliff. Is it a bird, is it a plane, or is it a smartphone ringing with infinite improvised melodies? No, it is Carlos Estrada Roig, the owner of this friendly neighborhood bodega and an expert whistler. You’ll often find him, smile on his face, whistling a classic tune while making a carajillo (coffee with liquor) at the bar or serving glasses of vermut to a table full of customers.
Bodega Carlos is a local treasure located on a short street in Sants that, in the summer, is shaded by the trees that line it. But this street and these trees are in fact younger than the bodega itself. This humble and endearing restaurant was opened in 1900 as an inn where merchants and wheelwrights, many of whom came to bring their cattle to the slaughterhouse that formerly stood nearby, could spend the night when the gates to the city had already been closed (at that time, the area that is now Sants neighborhood was situated outside of the city walls).
Today the bodega occupies the space where the inn’s main dining room used to stand. Over the decades, walls were demolished and the space was transformed. Initially populated with smaller wine casks, the bodega was fitted with bigger barrels in the 1940s. These are still standing today, full of wine and preserving the history and personality of this humble spot.
Carlos counts on the wise hand of Lourdes in the kitchen to create the bodega’s traditional Catalan and Spanish dishes.
Prior to Carlos, the bodega had three different owners, although little is known about them. Carlos began working here in 1974, back when it was called Bodega La Escala, and eventually took over ownership in 2013. He changed the name to Bodega Carlos and decided to repaint, clean and bring a new shine to the place. This process involved improving not just the space, but also the service and the food. Now you can find impeccable homestyle dishes, including many traditional classics. There’s also a great daily special lunch menu (menú del día) for €8.50 that has four options for first and second courses, house wine, bread and coffee, and offers seasonal choices, like the gazpacho, salads and fish dishes we saw on our most recent visit in July.
Currently Carlos counts on the wise hand of Lourdes in the kitchen to create the bodega’s traditional Catalan and Spanish dishes that feed the workers and families who come for a hearty “fork breakfast” or lunch. She whips up classics like bacallà a la llauna (baked codfish with red peppers and paprika), bull tail, Catalan-style fava beans, conejo al ajillo (rabbit with garlic), ternera a la jardinera (beef stew with vegetables), pig’s feet, callos (tripe), cap i pota (beef leg and head stew), grilled xistorra (a type of thin chorizo), plus a whole variety of cold and warm bocadillos.
The wine barrels are still in working order, with four different types of wine to choose from: red Priorat (one dry and one sweet), a golden Gandesa and a white from Penedès. Don’t forget the vinegar and sweet muscatel that are also available to take away. For an aperitif, Carlos has a great vermut from Reus and the iconic siphon bottles ready to add a sparkling spritz to the drink (and the day).
But it looks like all these delectable tastes and all the history behind these walls, tables and casks may not last for much longer: Carlos’ lease agreement is set to expire in a year, at which point there will likely be some dramatic changes, namely the razing of the whole building.
“I have a five-year agreement that ends in one year, and all this will be demolished. The building’s owners want to sell it to a development company that’s planning a new construction,” explains Carlos, with a bittersweet smile on his face. While not subject to the same rapid gentrification occurring in the city center, Sants is slowly changing as more buildings are renovated – construction companies are always in the wings, waiting for an opportunity. Carlos is attempting to negotiate with the building’s owners and find alternative solutions, but is unsure about what can be done. “I have just six more years to retirement age [65 in Spain] and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he trails off. “This place is my life.”
Before we leave the bodega, Carlos confesses that once he gets some needed dental work, he will be able to whistle an even more amazing birdsong – another reason to return soon. We also want to enjoy the place as much as we can before Carlos’ retirement, and are hoping to find this bodega open and sparkling for at least six more years, instead of just one.