The March 22, 1939 issue of the Ellensburg (Wash.) Daily Record — tagline: "Center of the Northwest's Greatest Irrigation Development" — includes an Associated Press report on the scene in Valencia during the Spanish Civil War, which would end 10 days later: "Most shops are shuttered and rations are scanty, but better than those in Madrid. Bars sell orange juice and dishes called 'tapas' made of boiled vegetables. Inferior grades of wine are available."
Some 70 years later, tapas have fully recovered their depth and are raising hell in Colorado Springs. Other restaurants offer small plates — notably Motif jazz bar and The Broadmoor's West Lobby Bar — but Dave Brackett's Barcelona-inspired TAPAteria is the first venture devoted solely to the roughly 700-year-old Spanish style.
Brackett's got his own established history — his neighboring Old Colorado City spot Pizzeria Rustica is routinely packed, with TAPAteria now acting as a sort of overflow. And while the nearly two-month-old restaurant is still coming into its own, it comfortably fills the small space that formerly held a trendy clothing store. Thick, rough shelves teem with square porcelain plates, wine glasses, kitchen implements, heating apparatuses and glass jars of ingredients. A small deli case full of cheeses, vegetables and packaged charcuterie bulges from the front of a counter that acts as a barrier and seating option between the food prep area and the tight dining room of tables and high-tops.
This feels like a good place to eat a habit-forming bowl of tart and chewy stewed figs paired with small, firm and smoky chorizo ($6). It's but one of the 32 choices printed on placemat menus, which are broken into four categories: "snacks," "vegetarian," "seafood" and "meat." In addition, there are rotating daily specials such as the quiche-like chickpea and spinach tart ($7), served with a tangy, dark orange smoked tomato soup, all fitting as a light lunch.
Menu items such as the grainy and wonderful cilantro-rich gazpacho shooter ($3) are supported by house cocktails and a solid list of mostly Spanish wines, like a $4 taster of the deeply earthy 2005 Montecillo Rioja Crianza red. A light and cleansing Portuguese Vinho Verde ($3) is great for cutting through thick lumps of rich and tender Basque escargot ($5), or the lukewarm garlic-topped mushrooms ($4, infinitely better when the button mushrooms are not almost completely raw). The sublimely clean and fresh wild salmon tartare ($7) pairs nicely with the lightly bitter and cigar-y Brazilian caipirinha ($7), a cocktail made with rum-like cachaça, sugar and lime. Lastly, a pleasantly pungent blood orange sangria ($3) is cold and strong.
While chatting in passing during our dinner, Brackett (who, it must be noted, knows us) said his new restaurant follows the same eco-friendly standards as Rustica, and that the menu breaks down as 75 percent gluten-free, 50 percent vegetarian and 25 percent vegan. Impressively, the first goal — thanks to bread from gluten-free bakery Outside the Breadbox — is nearly unnoticeable. The pan con ajo ($3) of grilled bread brushed with garlic is hugely flavorful, and only a little sticky on the teeth.
Some sampled vegetarian options include dolmades ($4) and the Spanish classic tortilla Española ($4). The grape-leaf-wrapped rolls are mild, creamy and nicely light on mint, while the Española tastes less impressive — instead of being a study in contrasting textures between egg and potato, it's lukewarm and unremarkable.
We ran into other heating issues as well. A bowl of otherwise tasty baby calamari ($5) is probably more interesting and complex when the broth has more stove time — a problem Brackett says he's fixed since our first conversation — and three dry-ish tortilla rounds of carne adobada ($7) are juicy and spicy enough, but ours were only warm. These issues were more noticeable because all our plates arrived at the same time; they'd been better staggered during our previous visit.
Otherwise, it's hard to find fault with the place. The thin bison carpaccio ($8) is creaminess incarnate with intense bursts of capers, and a charcuterie plate ($10) of peppers, olives, smoky stuffed red pepper, marinated apricots, and cheese and meat selections from the deli case could not be improved.
So grab a bitter café con leche ($3) or espresso-like cortado ($2.50) with a wonderful cinnamon gelato with amaretto cookies ($5) or flan ($5) for dessert, sit back and soak up just how addicting long-perfected recipes can be.
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