Wednesday, June 30, 2004


1967 was the Summer of Love. Not a bad idea, but then again…you can’t eat love. It was with this critique in mind that María and I designated the period June through September 2004 as “The Summer of Thai Salads."

This designation was not based on whimsy. It was, to the contrary, largely inspired by necessity.

For starters, María dictatorially decreed several months ago that all Fat Sal dinners – from now until the end of time – shall be vegetarian. Or at least substantially vegetarian. This was a well-intentioned, if not well-received, idea. Having at least one veggie meal per day, she reckoned, would bring our family such health benefits as weight loss and cholesterol control. And to her credit, I can proudly say my weight is currently the same as it was in high school. That was also true before we started this diet, but why split hairs.

But getting back to the point, this new diet posed a challenge for me as overlord of the family kitchen. There are only so many ways to fix vegetables before a crushing boredom forces one to look elsewhere for inspiration. And what better place to look for inspiration than to the east? After all, the people of Asia have hundreds – perhaps thousands – of unique ways to prepare vegetables; one or two of which might even meet with the approval of my sister.

The second, equally compelling reason was the weather. This summer has been a scorcher in Cabanillas. As I type these words on a moistened keyboard, the temperature outside is 40 degrees Celsius. That’s 104 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s the best weapon against such stifling heat? Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Monkey,” of course. But the second best weapon is the Thai salad. Light, citrusy, refreshing, and mercifully free of oil…Thai salads would be our saviour until the autumnal equinox.

By now you may be asking yourself, “Why Thai? After all, there are many Asian countries that make a damn fine salad.”

Indeed there are, but María and I consider Thai cuisine to be amongst the world’s best and most interesting. Thai food is loaded with fresh herbs and vegetables, uses small amounts of meat, and finds uses for coconut that even monkeys haven’t thought of. But the best thing about Thai food is its balance of flavors. Thais have taken the art of flavor balancing to extreme heights. It is common for a single dish to have sweet, sour, bitter, salty and picante flavors perfectly balanced and intermingled. Imagine your tongue as a trampoline, with each of these flavors bouncing about like perfectly sychronized acrobats; never colliding or toppling over the edge. That is the experience of eating a well-made Thai salad.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you of the superiority of the Thai salad, let me tell you how to make one. We’ll break it down to two elements: the dressing, and the dressed.

Thai salad dressing is simple to make. Its main components are 1 part fish sauce, 2 parts freshly squeezed lime juice, a few tablespoons of brown sugar and some chopped chile peppers (either fresh or dried). Simply heat the fish sauce, stir in the sugar until dissolved, cool, then whisk in the remaining ingredients. Does it sound fast and loose? It’s supposed to be…and don’t be shy about experimenting. Feel like something spicy tonight? Increase the amount of chiles. Got yourself a sweet tooth? Kick up the brown sugar. Does fish sauce give you a buzz? Add more. Can’t live without garlic? Mash a few cloves and toss ‘em in.

Before moving on from the dressing element to the dressed, let’s take a moment to talk about fish sauce. Fish sauce is the most important ingredient in the Thai kitchen, but many non-Thais are unfamiliar with it. And of those who are familiar with it, many feel repulsed. Fish sauce is made by lining a large earthenware pot with alternating layers of salt and freshly caught anchovies. When the layers reach the top of the jar, they are covered with a woven bamboo mat and set in the sun to ferment for a year. The salted, fermented anchovies liquefy, and the liquid is drained from the jar, strained and bottled. The result is a thin, intense, amber-colored liquid that the Thais use as a flavoring in much the same manner as the Chinese use soy sauce.

Sound disgusting? Just wait till you smell it. Fish sauce is not for the faint-hearted, but keep an open mind. When it is mixed with the proper ingredients, the result can be outrageously good. All Asian grocery stores (and many large supermarket chains) carry bottled Thai fish sauce. My favorite is Squid brand fish sauce. You will recognize it because it has a large, dry-looking squid on the label. There is no squid in the bottle; just on it. Such are the workings of the Asian marketing mind.

Once the dressing is made, it’s time to fill the bowl with stuff to dress. This is the fun part. Thai salads lend themselves to fridge-clearing improvisation. When deciding what to toss into a Thai salad bowl, be sure to keep the “flavor triad” in mind. The flavor triad (as coined by an August 27, 2003 Washington Post article) is composed of three taste elements: sweet, sour and bitter. Each element of the triad must be equally represented. If one overpowers the other, then the salad will be unbalanced (i.e., too sweet or sour or bitter).

Possible ingredients for the sweet category include red bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, peaches, apples and sweet oranges. Candidates for the sour category include green mangos and papayas, sour oranges, granny smith apples, and lemon or lime wedges. Bitter ingredients include fresh herbs (especially cilantro, mint or parsley), grapefruit, orange and lemon zest, nuts and certain leafy greens. If you are feeling frisky, then toss in a bit of grilled meat or fish. Perhaps some pork chop, chicken breast, steak, shrimp or squid – cooled to room temperature and cut on a bias into thin strips. Then simply add the dressing, toss and that’s it. Time to open a bottle of wine and eat!

If any (or should I say, either) of my faithful readers are in the Cabanillas del Campo area, they should feel free to stop by for a deluxe Spanish/American-influenced Thai salad treatment. But remember that this offer expires promptly upon the autumnal equinox. Thereafter, we enter “The Winter of Blood Sausage and Garbanzo Beans.”

Thursday, June 24, 2004


Listed below is a survey of the business establishments in our beloved town of Cabanillas del Campo, Spain:

- Six (6) bars.
- Four (4) banks.
- Four (4) anything-for-a-Euro shops.
- Three (3) beauty salons.
- Two (2) grocery stores.
- Two (2) video rental stores.
- One (1) Spanish restaurant.
- One (1) Argentine restaurant.
- One (1) Italian restaurant.
- One (1) male clothing store.
- One (1) female clothing store.
- One (1) baby clothing store.
- One (1) bread shop.
- One (1) driving school.
- One (1) English language institute.
- One (1) pharmacy.
- One (1) hardware store (whose stock of useful items is limited, to say the least).

From this list, we can make the following generalizations about the needs, wants and priorities of our town’s inhabitants (affectionately known as, “los Campesinos de Cabanillas”):

- Buying booze is three times more important than buying food, and six times more important than buying medicine.

- Licenses are only granted to restaurants representing countries with good soccer teams.

- Personal bank accounts are either very large (because most things in town cost only one Euro), or very small (because townsfolk can only afford things that cost one Euro).

- Enrollment in driving classes and English classes are roughly equal. Presumably, this is because Spanish student drivers are confused about the four-letter English word printed on those red octagonal signs.

- Men, women and babies are generally well-dressed, whereas children and teenagers roam the streets nude.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


The Spanish “menú del día” would be a miserable failure in the United States. After all, you can’t eat it while driving a car or typing on a computer. In Spain, however, the menu del dia is the centerpiece of each workday – and depending on one’s job satisfaction index, it may be the highlight.

A menu del día (or “Menú” – with a capital M, to show my deepest respect) is a fixed-price, three-course lunch that nearly every bar and restaurant in Spain offers Monday through Friday from 1:30 to 4:00pm. Each course provides two to five choices, from which you select one. First course typically consists of soup, salad or a vegetable. Second course is meat or fish, usually cooked a la plancha (i.e., fried on a skillet with a little olive oil) and accompanied by French fries or other vegetables. Dessert offerings might be fruit, flan, rice pudding, yoghurt or ice cream. And the charge for such an extravagant feast? A paltry 7-12 Euros, depending on the establishment’s location and level of snootiness. I should further mention that this price includes a basket of bread and a drink. We’ll talk more about the drink later.

Price is a big factor in the popularity of Menús, but it’s not the only one. We must attribute some credit to the food. I can assure you from four gluttonous years of experience that the food quality at Menús can be impressive, although I would caution against harbouring any delusions of Dover sole or Piedmontese white truffles. Menús also reflect regional culinary specialties. You are likely to find cocido Madrileño at a Menú in Madrid; or lamb chops with garlic mayonaisse at a Menú in Barcelona; or hake with green sauce at a Menú in the Basque Country.

Another reason for the popularity of Menús is cultural. The bars and restaurants offering Menús have stepped into a role that was previously filled by the home. In past years, when Spaniards were less mobile and agriculture was Spain’s main industry, most workers ate lunch at home. Many still do; especially when compared to the US. But Spain is now a modern, industrialized country in which accountants and management consultants are far more common than shepherds. These 21st century workers simply don’t have the time or desire to trek to and from home for lunch. But this is where the lunchtime similarities between Spain and the US end. Spain – mercifully – has not embraced the US-style practice of inhaling a Frito-Lay product from its plastic packaging or worse yet, skipping lunch altogether in the interest of increasing shareholder value or picking up the dry-cleaning. Spaniards are, like the French and Italians, a Mediterranean people who take eating seriously. Even the busiest, most nerve-frazzled Madrid executive will accept nothing less than a full, sit-down lunch when the clock strikes 2pm. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that most companies here allow their workers a generous 1 ½ to two hours for lunch, and many provide lunch vouchers as a perq.

Or maybe it’s that Spaniards just love being in bars.

Speaking of bars, let’s return to the topic of the drink that’s included in the Menú price. This is one aspect of a Menú (or indeed, any lunch in Spain) that may shock the puritanical conscience of the average US observer: Namely, the presence of alcohol. Most Menús include a small (approx. 7oz.) glass of beer or a ½ liter of wine. A half-liter of wine! The wine tends to be well-chilled (to take the edge off) and comes in two categories: Vinegary and not vinegary; the latter of which is highly prized. And with the exception of pregnant women, odd is the partron who does not have at least one glass of something alcoholic with lunch. This would be unthinkable in the US. The returning worker would likely, upon the first sniff by Human Resources, get reprimanded (at least) or fired (at most). He would also be branded an “alcoholic” by colleagues and encouraged to follow whichever twelve-step counselling program is currently in vogue. Suffice it to say, the attitude in Spain toward the responsible consumption of alcohol during midday meals is more relaxed.

Of course, Menú diners who are not in the mood for a midday snort may instead choose a bottle of water. All Menús offer this option. Curiously, few offer soda. I think this is a good thing.

Lunch is typically followed with a cup of coffee. This is a wise move, considering the lethargy that’s likely to result after downing a half-liter of wine. Some Menús include coffee within the price, but most don’t. It is the coffee course that amuses me most. Why? Because it is common for Spanish lunch diners to either infuse or follow-up their coffee with…MORE alcohol. After all, what’s a meal without a digestif? Typical candidates are anis, orujo or brandy; each tipping the scales at 80 proof. These may be added directly to the coffee to create a carajillo, or drank straight from a snifter with or without ice.

If this doesn’t explain the continued popularity of post-lunch siestas, then I don’t know what does.

Monday, June 21, 2004


My sister Nina is not an adventurous eater. Her philosophy toward food can be summarized in five words: “Chicken good; all else disgusting.” To be fair, she does enjoy prime rib, Italian sausage and the occasional crab leg. I suspect, however, that she views these foodstuffs not for what they are, but rather as a form of genetically modified chicken.

Nina and I have had penetrating telephone discussions about our positions at opposite ends of the eating spectrum. Such discussions tend toward the following:

“What are you doing?” she’d ask from her home in Illinois.

“Just finishing dinner,” I’d respond from my home in Spain.

“What was for dinner?”



“You ate Thumper today?”

“No. We ate Thumper last week. Today we ate his cousin.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“It’s not disgusting. Rabbit tastes really good. You should try it.”

“Right. I’m sure you’ll say it tastes like chicken.”

“But it DOES taste like chicken.”

“You say that about all disgusting foods.”

“Fine. It doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like frog legs.”

I had long considered it my brotherly duty to open her eyes, mind and palate to the wide array of food experiences that await even the mildly adventurous. I’d neglected this duty for years, however, because she was a reluctant participant. Plus she had a tendency to yank the shorthairs on the back of my neck when annoyed, and I wished to avoid this fate. But alas, an opportunity arose through which we both could be redeemed. She and her husband came to Spain for a visit.

Now she was on my turf. And thanks to a recent haircut that rendered those tempting shorthairs un-yankable, I confidently launched into a well-crafted plan of action. It began with a tour of Barcelona’s largest and most famous fresh food market, La Boquería. Here she was bombarded with stall after stall of lustrous fruits and vegetables. Each morsel oozing with that magical perfume found only in produce that has been picked when perfectly ripe. She marveled at the fish stalls. Glistening whole fish in diverse shapes and colors, all clear-eyed and smelling of the sea, were neatly arranged on mountains of crushed ice. She stared transfixed at the shellfish stalls sporting heaps of succulent percebes (barnacles), cigalas (Dublin Bay prawns) and navajas (razor clams) recently plucked from the icy waters of Galicia; the likes of which have never graced the shelves of A&P, Price Chopper or Safeway. She stood nose to snout with cochinillo (suckling pig) from Segovia, cordero lechal (suckling lamb) from Aranda and cabrito (kid) from Alcarria. Fresh meat that had not been sandwiched between a Styrofoam tray and a sheet of bar-coded plastic wrap? What a concept! I sensed her growing enthusiasm toward the bounty that lay before her, and wisely decided to forego a visit to the offal stall. A morning’s worth of accumulated enthusiasm might evaporate at the first sight of lamb’s brain.

Having fed her eyes at La Boquería, it was time to feed her tummy. We thus embarked on a rolling feast through Barcelona’s smoky tapas bars. Nina’s world began to expand. She delved into espinacas a la catalana (spinach with pine nuts and raisons), a dish that epitomizes the mixture of sweet and savory that is a hallmark of Catalan cuisine. She expressed profound love for the grilled green onions known as calcots, whose tender hearts are pulled from the charred outer husks and dipped in a nut-based Romanesco sauce. She sampled mushrooms, fava beans, flans and the grappa-like digestive called orujo. But she refused to budge at jamon ibérico (Spain’s famous cured ham), salt cod or the aforementioned cochinillo. This was troubling. She was a good sport up to a point, but that point ended where the “critters” food group began.

To overcome this hurdle, I asked for and received her husband’s blessing to serve a special meal on the eve of their departure…rabbit stew. Rabbit is the perfect meat for an unadventurous eater. Its flesh is firm, white, mild and lean. And yes, Viridiana…rabbit DOES taste like chicken. It even looks like chicken when cut into pieces. As such, I stealthily prepared the stew, brought it to the table in a steaming earthenware pot, and heaped a generous ladle over a Nina’s bowl of Valencian rice.

“What is it?” she sniffed.

“Oh…chicken stew,” I non-chalantly answered while sipping a glass of Rioja.

She inspected the bowl with exacting precision. Hmmm…carrots, onions, mushrooms and chicken-esque chunks of white meat. All seemed in order. She slurped the tomato and white wine broth, nibbled on a small chunk of the meat and then, visibly relaxing her shoulders, emptied the bowl and requested a second. At meal’s end, she asked the unthinkable.

“Can I have the recipe?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed her the cookbook opened to page 130.

“Sautéed Rabbit with Herbs?!”


She looked at me with the eyes of a jackal. “That’s disgusting!”

“Come on! It wasn’t disgusting three minutes ago when you finished your second bowl.”

“I didn’t know it was rabbit three minutes ago. You are so mean.”

“No I’m not. I’m just trying to…”

“I’m going to be sick.”

The visit ended the next morning without hard feelings. I felt satisfied that Nina had finally pushed the gastronomic envelope, and Nina felt satisfied that she had an amusing story to share with the folk back home.

Nine months later, my wife and I made our bi-annual trip to Illinois to spend Christmas with my family. On Christmas morning, Nina and husband arrived at my parents’ house bearing gifts. She handed me a wrapped square gift box. This was exciting. Whereas a rectangular gift box usually means a shirt, sweater or other boring item, a square one offers the possibility of martini shakers or Monty Python DVDs. I tore into the wrapping paper, opened the flaps and parted the red tissue. The booty lay before my eyes: a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine, a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and a package of Twinkies.

“Good God,” I barked. “Boone’s Farm? Twinkies? Kraft Mac & Cheese? What? Why? This stuff is disgusting.”

“You should try it,” my sister smirked. “It tastes like chicken.”

Monday, June 14, 2004


When people discover that I'm an American expat, they always ask the same darn question: “What do you miss about the US since you moved to Spain?”

My typical response is, “Besides my family, not too much.” After all, Spain isn’t exactly a third world country.

Not everybody is satisfied with this response. Some even mistake it for sarcasm. To the contrary, my response is one of optimism. I’m quite happy living in Spain, and shouldn’t be made to feel sorry for it.

But I am also a team player and as such, I’ve compiled the following shallow yet well-intentioned list for the benefit of those nosey folk who insist that there must be something…ANYTHING…that I miss about the US.


- National Public Radio: Yeah, yeah…I know that I can hear a live stream through the Internet, but it isn’t the same. Morning Edition should be savoured in a moving automobile; not through the tinny speakers of a Dell laptop.

- Buying English-language books in a store: Most large bookstores in Madrid carry several shelves of English-language novels, but they tend to be works by Dickens, Austen, and that crusty bunch. I’m not saying that being forced to read the classics is a bad thing, but sometimes – after a draining day of work – I prefer to curl up with a tale of Calvin Trillin’s latest dining adventure, rather than one of starving orphans forced to pick a pocket or two in Victorian London. God bless – but damn its shipping fees!

- The Food Network: Spain has its own home-grown version, but it’s a pale imitation. A cooking channel without Iron Chef just isn’t a cooking channel in my book.

- Pepper shakers on restaurant tables: C’mon! The infrastructure is already in place! Every restaurant table in Spain has a caddy for oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. So why is the pepper spot always empty?!

- Traffic lights located on the **other** side of the intersection.

- Light switches located on the inside of the bathroom.

- Reasonably authentic Cajun food.

- Reasonably authentic Mexican food.

- Drinks with more than two ice cubes.

- Restaurants with more than one waiter.

- Shopping from 2pm to 5pm, after 8pm, and on Sundays.

- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

- JIF, Skippy and Peter Pan peanut butters.

- Bagels!

* * * * * * *

And in the interest of full disclosure…


- Driving to buy a loaf of bread.

- Shrimp without heads.

- Advertisements containing the phrase “Low Carb.”

- News sound-bites containing the phrase “the American people.”

- Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera and Ben Affleck.

- Country music.

- Exposed breast-o-phobia.

- Shag carpeting.

[Note: I would like to have added Fox News and JLo to this latter list, but it would be misleading. The truth is that I haven't been able to escape these two irritants...even by moving to Spain.]

Sunday, June 13, 2004


We were at Bar Alcázar this morning for our sacred Sunday morning coffees and muffins. It was 11:00am. Skeletor walked in and ordered an alcohol-free beer.

We pulled bartender José aside and asked, “What gives?”

“Doctor’s orders,” José informed. “He’s been forbidden to drink any more alcohol. Haven’t you noticed how badly he’s looked lately?”

Actually, no. To us, Skeletor has looked this badly since the day we moved here. But I suppose this is the type of thing that only bartenders notice.


Twice a day, an event takes place in our little town that brings traffic to a halt. Women and children freeze in their tracks. Homeowners peer tensely through their kitchen windows with a feeling of helplessness. You see…every day at 10:30am and 5:30pm, the Milk Dud Revolutionary Brigade rides roughshod through the sleepy town of Cabanillas del Campo, Spain.

OK, OK…so maybe I’m being overly dramatic. The Milk Dud Revolutionary Brigade is really just a placid flock of three hundred sheep and goats that are herded through town twice a day to graze. To be honest, there is nothing revolutionary about them. I just thought that this adjective would spice up the story a bit. The reference to Milk Duds, however, is appropriate. These critters leave a wide, speckled trail of them all about the streets and sidewalks through which they’ve passed. Once you’ve connected the dots through the streets of Cabanillas del Campo, following the Yellow Brick Road doesn’t seem quite so impressive.

The MDRB is based at ranch located a half mile from our house, and they graze at a different field each day. I suspect, however, that such grazing is of secondary importance since most of the flock dines quite heartily on flowers, trees and shrubbery planted by homeowners foolish enough to have built a house on or near the flock’s daily route.

The flock is led by two shepherds, four well-trained (albeit unkempt) sheep dogs and a donkey. One shepherd and the donkey take the lead, the four dogs flank the flock in staggered formation, and the second shepherd wipes up the rear – figuratively speaking, of course. This second shepherd is an interesting character. He is a balding man in his sixties who is partial to wearing straw hats. He carries a cane, but doesn’t use it as a walking aid. Rather, he wields it like a Viking battle-axe, which he gleefully whacks across the rump of any sheep or goat that has wandered more than four millimetres out of formation. What initially drew my attention to him, however, was his left ear. He doesn’t have one.

How the hell did he lose his left ear? After all, sheep herding isn’t an especially dangerous profession. The usual suspects of rural limb loss – i.e., combines and other mechanized farm implements – are more or less lacking from the daily life of a shepherd. I first speculated that the ear was gnawed-off by a goat enraged by one too many raps on the fanny by that cane? I quickly discarded this theory, however. Goats are herbivores and tend not to crave human flesh. My second theory took a more psychological angle. Perhaps this shepherd had an unhealthy fascination with the works of Vincent Van Gogh and Quentin Tarantino. Unlikely! He didn’t strike me as a man of the arts. In the end, I concluded that the answer to this (like so many of life’s other mysteries) could be found at Bar Alcázar, and resolved to tactfully broach the subject to José during a future coffee break.

I suppose this isn’t the stuff of a James Cameron movie. Neither Arnold nor Leo are likely view the role of a one-eared shepherd as being a prudent career move. Still, I find the MDRB’s daily sojourn to be an exciting event – and certainly not the type thing that I experienced with any regularity while growing up in Suburbia, USA. And there is a spicy side to living in the presence of the MDRB. Think I’m kidding? How does possible deportation from the United States register on your Spice-O-Meter?

Last December, we flew to Chicago to spend Christmas with my family. As we waited in the baggage claim area of O’Hare International Airport, I noticed a sign warning that incoming travellers who had recently visited a farm abroad must report themselves to the airport’s US Department of Agriculture officer. Foot and mouth disease had recently devastated Great Britain, and the US cattleman’s lobby was eager to avoid such unpleasantness on their side of the Atlantic. I thought nothing of this at first, but then…as the realization dawned on me…I lifted my foot to examine the sole of my shoe. There, clinging to the gap between two cleats, were the remnants of a flattened, hay-flecked Manchego Milk Dud.

This may someday cost me political office, but I must admit that I was unwilling to risk a vacation-spoiling deportation for the better good of a group of wealthy cattle ranchers. I therefore unlodged that sinister Milk Dud by clicking my heels twice and muttering “There’s no place like home…There’s no place like home.” An hour later, I was raiding my parents’ refrigerator with clean shoes and a clear conscience. Neither parent has since reported any adverse effects to their feet or mouths.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


People often ask me, “Do you REALLY like working from home?”

To which I respond, “Love it!”

“What do you love about it?”

“Coffee breaks at Bar Alcázar!” is my standard response.

And I mean it. Bar Alcázar is easy to love. It is everything that Starbucks is not, and does not want to be. I make the five-minute pilgrimage to Bar Alcázar nearly every morning at 10:15. Without it, I feel incomplete, unfulfilled and, as María will attest, downright cranky. There are many reasons to love Bar Alcázar, but the main ones are listed below.

Reason #1: The décor.

When I named this web-log “Sal’s Virtual Tapas Bar,” Bar Alcázar was the image that I had in my head. You enter Bar Alcázar through a curtain of plastic beads, and then through a second curtain of cigarette smoke. Inside, the main bar area is done in colors reminiscent of Darren and Samantha’s living room on Bewitched. The lower half of the walls are covered with flat-tone beige tiles, and the upper half with dark green fabric wallpaper. Green fabric wallpaper! Doesn’t that make you want to fire up a Leo Sayer CD?

The ceiling is covered with textured, tan-colored ceramic tiles. I’m not sure if the tiles came in this color, or simply evolved to it after exposure to decades of cigarette smoke. Someday I will smuggle-in a squirt gun loaded with Mr. Clean and find out for myself.

The floor is difficult to discern, because it is usually covered with an ankle-deep blanket of litter. I have been told by a Spanish Civil War veteran that the floor is tastefully done in beige ceramic tiles, but I have no independent confirmation of this.

Reason #2: The clientele.

Bar Alcázar patrons come in three flavors: (a) shepherds and construction workers; (b) politicians and priests; and (c) drunks without borders.

Group (a) floods the bar each morning before 7:30 and again from 10:00 to 10:30. They are an impressive bunch that would cause a scandal in the US; not because of their behavior (which is always polite and orderly), but because of their diet. Without fail, each member of this group follows-up (or substitutes) his coffee with a glass of anis, orujo or brandy on the rocks. At 10:00am! I won’t bore you with an elaborate description of what these drinks are. It’s enough to simply state that each is 80 proof, and poured with a heavy hand by bar owners Antonio and José.

Group (b) appears at 11:00am. Bar Alcázar is across the street from the City Hall, and around the corner from the Catholic church. Much like at the White House, there is no separation of church and state at Bar Alcázar. Most members of this group drink only coffee, but then light up a cheap cigar to reward themselves for having the discipline to forego alcohol at such a tender hour.

Group (c) can hardly be called a group, because it is comprised of only one man. I shall refer to him as “Skeletor.” Skeletor is in his late 60’s/early 70’s, has reddish hair, pasty skin, poor posture and tips the scales at a whopping 110 lbs. He drinks a brand of red wine with which I am not familiar. I suspect that Robert Parker would be equally unfamiliar, as this wine comes in a clear glass bottle with a metal, pop-off cap. Skeletor talks a lot, although not necessarily to anyone within hearing distance. For the last two days, he has been drinking alcohol-free beer. I don’t know if I should be impressed or concerned about this.

Reason #3: The coffee.

Man, their coffee is good! It’s a creamy, almost chocolately concoction with no trace of the “essence of ashtray-water” that typifies Starbucks’s product line. I’ve often wondered why the café con leche at Bar Alcázar is so much better than everyone else’s. At first, I thought it was the machine. Bar Alcázar uses an Italian-made La Cimbali machine that looks old enough to be powered by vacuum tubes. I later concluded, however, that it is neither the machine nor the coffee nor the water that makes it so darn good. It’s the milk. Bar Alcázar’s café con leche is 25% coffee, and 75% steamed whole milk. I haven’t consulted the Spanish Food and Drug Administration’s manual, but I suspect that this drink would be classified as a “Milk Shake” for regulatory purposes.

* * * * *

Now, I know what you are thinking: “A dirty, smoky, poorly-decorated bar that serves good coffee to strange people who aren’t interested in coffee? You must be mad!”

But I’m not mad. And I am not the only one who has fallen under Bar Alcázar’s mystical spell. My prim and proper in-laws would not dream of visiting our town without a pit stop at Bar Alcázar. My own mother – a woman who normally unsheathes a samauri sword if a smoker comes within 50 feet – makes a bee-line for Bar Alcázar before her toothbrush is dry each morning when visiting from Chicago. And then there is the story of my friend Scott the Texan. Within one week after first crossing Bar Alcázar’s threshold, he marched into his boss’s office in Houston and demanded (and received) a transfer to Europe.

Bar Alcázar would indeed be embodiment of perfection, were it not for two shortcomings. First, I wouldn’t recommend eating anything that has not been sealed in plastic and opened before your eyes. Second, Antonio and José are relieved at 5:00pm by a bartender whom I shall refer to as “The Grimace.” Why do I call him The Grimace? Because he looks like McDonald’s Grimace, except that he is neither purple nor jolly. Not that I am especially bothered by The Grimace, or that I go out of my way to avoid him. It’s just that Bar Alcázar loses a bit of its charm when drinks are being served to you with a scowl.

I’ve not lost all hope for The Grimace, however. In fact, I think that he is finally warming up to us. Just last week, he barked “Gracias” as we paid our tab and left. At least, I think he said “Gracias.” Maybe it was just, “Grrrrr.”

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


People are quick to mock the Spaniards’ lisp. And rightly so. It does sound a bit odd. If a Madrileño were to enter a Tijuana bar and request “thinco thervethas,” he should not be surprised to exit with the band of his underpants wrapped around his forehead.

But what about the Irish? They have a linguistic quirk that is much more prominent than a mere lisp. You see, the Irish BURP.

By BURP, I don’t mean the audible expulsion of excess gas via the esophagus. I mean BURP as the acronym for Bad Use of Reflexive Pronouns.

For those of you who studied engineering, a reflexive pronoun (e.g., myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves) is used to reflect the action of a verb back to the performer. For example:

She cut herself with a Ginsu knife.
You bought yourself a new Fishin’ Magician.

Seems straight-forward enough. And if everyone followed these simple rules, I might now be writing about that tasty chorizo sausage that I ate in Madrid last weekend. But the Irish have ruined the sausage-fest by taking artistic license with the humble reflexive pronoun. Here is a shocking example taken from an email that I received from an Irish colleague earlier this year. Only the names have been changed to protect my ass.

“Hi Seamus,

Can you help Sal and myself out on the questions below as it was yourself that originated the P.V.B stuff.


Let’s ignore, for a moment, the shockingly omitted comma after the word “below” and focus our energies on the two (TWO!) BURPs in this twenty-word sentence. I think we can all agree on the seriousness of this matter.

So what are we to do? How can we help the Irish help themselves out of this linguistic dungeon? Simple. We must, without exception, be diligent in showing the Irish the error of their ways. And responsibility for such diligence starts at the top. From the UN to the White House to Buckingham Palace, we need to start engaging the Irish in conversations like the following:

Queen Elizabeth: “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Prime Minister. I trust you are well.”

Bertie Ahern: “Very well, your majesty. Very well indeed. And how ‘bout yourself.”

Queen Elizabeth: “BURP!!!!!!!!”

Do you catch my drift? All it takes is a little love, patience and guidance. And then, perhaps someday, the Irish will be speaking English even better the Texans.

[Note from Sal: Obviously, this post is intended to be tongue in cheek. Just poking a little fun at my Irish friends and colleagues. There's nothing in this post that I haven't told them face-to-face. In fact, I think the Irish are great. Really! Without them, we wouldn't have Irish Spring soap. So hate mail or Italian jokes!]

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


I was in Madrid last Saturday with the entire morning to kill. Maria was having her hair done, and the in-laws were babysitting Inés. This was more freedom than I’d experienced in years.

Strolling down Calle O’Donnell en route to a Hispanic grocery store, I passed a familiar figure on the sidewalk: Pedro Almodovar.

That’s it. I just passed him. I was walking in one direction, and he in the other. No chitchat. No brushing of shoulders. No flirtatious eye-contact. Still, I felt a bit giddy. He is, after all, Spain’s second or third best director (depending on your feelings toward cross-dressing).

He was walking alone; carrying a shopping bag. He wore Dockers, sneakers, sunglasses, and a golf shirt (untucked, of course). He had neither bodyguards nor an entourage. He looked totally unstressed and unhurried.

At first, I wondered if it might be a Pedro wannabe. Spain seems to breed these types. I recall that a few years ago, a woman named Rocio Carrasco injured her neck in a car accident. Never heard of Rocio? Well then, you must not be Spanish. She is the daughter of a singer and a former boxing champion. That’s her claim to fame. Nothing more. Not even a college degree. Yet every minute detail of her love life and bi-monthly vacations are chronicled in Spain’s many “magazines of the heart” (e.g., Hola, Diez Minutos, and all their imitators…many of which are accumulating on the floor my wife’s bathroom). During the weeks and months following Rocio’s neck injury, I noticed a rather sharp increase in the number of women sporting neckbraces in Barcelona. Coincidence or idol worship? You be judge.

But back to Pedro. I quickly ruled out the possibility of an imposter. While it is easy to don a neckbrace (a la Rocio), it’s entirely another matter to inflate the diameter of one’s neck to match that of the head (a la Pedro). Yep, it was Pedro all right. And I saw him in the flesh.

An hour later, I met up with my in-laws and broke the exciting news. Their response: “Pedro? Oh yeah, he lives around here.” That’s it.

From now on, I’ll leave idol worship to the readers of Hola.


I wish my enemies long lives
So that they may live to see all my successes.

[Author unknown.]


Dear Sirs and Madams:

Let’s touch base to touch base regarding the leveraging of key concepts for promulgation and nurturing of core departmental, functional, and cross-corporate/cultural pollination. Specifically, paradigm-shifts, benchmarking, synergy, envisioneering and leverage championing are at the forefront of our core challenge. Allow me to elaborate further.

That which our department necessitates is a quantitative and qualitative trading infrastructure (be it through software, coaching, brainstorming, downsizing, right-sizing, real-sizing, restructuring, reengineering, reprocessing, realization, cognitive dissonance roleplaying or otherwise) that will enable the corporate culture to efficiently and effectively implement sophisticated non-parametric trading strategies for its growing client base. Metrics and granularity will be key to this process. Dedicated subject matter experts and customer intimacy facilitators will evangelize the attributes and business imperatives of product line synergies, with the medium-term action item of kick-starting the internal/external processes that will facilitate their ultimate bearing of fruit. What is the touch-stone that will allow us to leverage this functionality to its logical conclusion? Allow me to philosophize this concept further.

This prime directive of this action plan is to rationalize, commercialize, socialize and capitalize on the various linear and non-linear discontinuous change drivers with an intense sense of urgency. Every member of our team (each of which being an essential cog driving the corporate revenue-generation machinery) must offer individual leadership and a personal commitment to achieving and/or exceeding their own set of mission-critical goals and deliverables towards building a more cohesive corporate singularity and value-chain. Accelerating the pace of change will be the key to success and a major factor behind achieving our goal of reaching “Best in Class” status by Q4. What are the metrics driving this imperative? Allow me explanitize with deeper granularity.

We need a degree of autonomy with processes in place to sandbox our activity within acceptable constraints. Hopefully this will allow us to ring-fence our previous value-enhancing competencies and exorcize any recalcitrant empressorial hobgoblins, so that all internal gatekeeper, loss-leaders, task-masters and image-enhancers will be singing from the same hymn-sheet of synergistic profitability facilitation. The imperative mission of such non-diluding change agents is to get into the psychological profile of the perceived customer, to gain a tri-dimensional visual perception of them in their given base environment, and enhance customer intimacy within the perceived framework of EBIT maximization. Of course, this will require that we monetize some under-utilized physical assets, as well as leverage various tactical and strategic partnerships in a synergy of blue-sky intra- and extra-box thinking in order to develop a big picture of client-partner activities for symbiotic development through effective touch-base communication.

These themes are critical to our success in 2003 as we continue our journey towards a services grid model, with high-availability systems underpinned by a robust standards base; as we continue to decouple vertical silos and move closer to "real-time"; as we disaggregate bundled and archaic cost structures and reaggregate them by asset class, thereby providing our business with the nimbleness, flexibility and responsiveness they need; and as we reduce product proliferation and increase straight-through-processing. You will hear more about this in Q1 ’04.

Let's throw this one up the flag pole and see if anyone salutes it. Let's action the action items and touch base in Q3 via a non verbal communiqué. I look forward to partnering with you on this roadmap, in order to cultivate a synergistic and mutually-beneficial win-win scenario.

Best regards,
Fat Sal


Madrid and Barcelona have a rivalry as intense as its NY/LA counterpart; only worse. At least NY and LA speak the same damn language. This rivalry certainly extends to matters of the tummy, and I anticipate a rash of complaints that my Madrid restaurant recommendations below should be followed by a listing of prime Barcelona eats.

Because the “country” of Catalunya is rightly proud of its culinary heritage, because Catalunya is home to 50% of Spain’s Michelin three-star restaurants, and because my own lovely daughter Inés is Catalan, I am compelled by a sense of fairness and diplomacy to list below my favorite restaurants in Barcelona (and one in Sitges).

Pg. Maritim de la Barceloneta 30 (in Port Olimpic)
Specializes in paella. Right on the sea. Reservation required.

Perill 33 (in Gracia neighborhood)
My favorite restaurant in Barcelona. "Market cuisine." Cash only.
Reservation highly recommended.

Plaza de les Olles 8
Specializes in fried fish. Best seats are at the bar. If you go for
lunch, get there BEFORE they open and wait. Otherwise, you will never get a seat.

Torrent de l'Olla 3
Great restaurant with refined cooking.

Deu i Mata 125
Great Catalan "home cooking." Restaurant looks like your aunt's living room. Note that all the waitresses look exactly the same.

Passeig de Gracia (near Casa Batllo, but on other side of road)
Great tapas. Large selection.

Passeig de Gracia (near Casa Batllo, but on other side of road)
Great Basque pintxos.

Ramon Turro 13 (Tel: 93-221-3206)
Napols 272 (Tel: 93-162-2250)
Second best chicken in Europe. The best is a place in Lisbon called “Bon Jardim,” but that’s a subject for another post.

Valencia 324
Grilled meats. Cheap prices.

Villarroel 101
Barcelona's best pizza. True Naples-style pizza. Run by Italians.
Pizzas cooked in wood-burning oven.

Mallorca 442
Basque "asador." House specialty is roast monkfish. Close to Sagrada

Marimon 20
Awesome Basque restaurant. They have a great multicourse set menu
(dessert and wine included) for 25 Euros per person; at least, that was the price in 2002.

Platja Sant Sebastia
Port Alegre 17, SITGES (note: This is in Sitges, not Barcelona).
Very good paellas.


I would be the world’s worst food critic. I like almost everything that I eat. Who, in their right minds, would read a dining column in which every restaurant is awarded four stars. I suppose that’s why Gourmet magazine won’t return my calls.

Although I do like everything, I like some stuff more than others. So…for the info-tainment of my loyal virtual tapas bar patrons, I list below (in no particular order) my restaurant recommendations for Madrid, Spain. Before running out and requesting a table, please remember one important factoid: People START eating dinner at 9:30pm in Madrid. Any earlier, and the restaurant will probably not accept you (unless it is a tourist trap). No, Toto, you ain’t in Kansas anymore.

La Bola Taberna
Bola, 5
Tel: 91 547 69 30
Metro : Santo Domingo
*Does NOT accept credit cards.

La Castela
Doctor Castelo, 22.
Tels: 91 573 55 90
91 574 00 15
Metro: Ibiza
This place has a bar in front that serves some of the best tapas in Madrid. The restaurant is behind the bar (i.e., go through the doorway that is on the left-hand side of the bar), and it’s outstanding.

La Hoja
c/ Doctor Castelo, 48
Tel.: 91 409 25 22
This is an Asturian (northern Spain) restaurant. Everything here is great. The house specialty is Fabes Asturianas. They also have some interesting game dishes.

Casa Pello
c/Doctor Castelo, 2
Tel: 91-574-0103
Order the Cocido Madrileño. It’s the house specialty.

Asador Velate
Jorge Juan, 91
Tel: 91-435-1024
A Basque restaurant specializing in roasted meats. I highly recommend filet mignon with foie.

c/ Barbieri, 1
Metro: Gran Via & Chueca
Tel: 91-523-1142
Our favorite Morroccan restaurant. Not pricey. You will need a reservation.

Buen Gusto
Pº Santa María de la Cabeza, 60
28045 Madrid
Tel: 915-30-50-62
Our favorite Chinese restaurant. Confirmed authentic by the friend of a friend who lived in China.

Entre Suspiro y Suspiro
Caños del Peral, 3 (Semiesquina Pza. Isabel II)
28013 Madrid
Tel: 91-542-06-44
Perhaps the only great Mexican restaurant in Spain. At least, the only one that I’ve found.

Tandoori Station
José Ortega y Gasset, 89
Tel: 91 401 22 28
My favorite Indian restaurant. Vibrant flavors abound. Serves a Chicken Vindaloo that set me adrift on waves of eye-watering, nose-dribbling, tongue-throbbing ecstasy.

Other notes:

Central Spain is known for roast meats. Try “cochinillo” (roasted milk-fed baby pig) or “cordero lechal” (roasted milk-fed baby lamb). Madrid has two specialty dishes: Cocido Madrileño (multi-course stew of garbanzo beans and other stuff), and “Callos Madrileños” (tripe stew). Casa Pello has a great Cocido.

Spain is also known for its sherry. You can order a glass in any bar. There are various categories. From lightest/dryest to darkest/sweetest, they are: Fino; Manzanilla; Amontillado; Oloroso; Pedro Ximenez.

Do not, under any circumstances, order sangria. You will get the cheapest, most vile, low-quality wine in stock…flavored with enough juice, fruit, and other additives to make it barely palatable. If you want sangria, come to my house and I will make it for you.

Wines are typically categorized by aging. This varies by region, but is generally true. Categories are:

Joven (youngest)
Crianza (aged longer in barrel and bottle)
Reserva (aged longer still)
Gran Reserva (aged longest)

Stick with Crianza or Reserva, if you have the choice.

Spain has a ton of different wine regions, but my favorites are: Somotano (My favorite region…great wines at reasonable prices); Priorato (strong, dense wines…also expensive); Ribera del Duero (Spain’s second largest wine region…with unique smell); Rioja (Spain’s largest and most famous…great stuff, but you can find it anywhere in the world); Toro (powerful, purple wines that are becoming trendy…but are still quite reasonable).


Friends, Romans and clones of Dr. Funkenstein:

Greetings from the plains of Castilla-LaMancha, Spain…and welcome to the first posting of my blog. There were many challenges to be surmounted in bringing this blog to you.

Challenge #1: Figuring out what the hell a blog is. I’d heard this term used with increasing frequency in the US media during 2004. Blog-mania hit a fever pitch during the democratic primaries. Each candidate seemed to get two things in his “I Wanna Be President” starter kit: A US flag lapel pin, and a copy of “Blogging for Dummies.” Dean did it. Kerry did it. Gephart did it. They all did it. Well…actually, none of them really did it. Their “people” did it for them; but delegation is the sign of a good manager, so we won’t deduct points.

But what is a blog? Sounds like something one drinks from a pewter mug. I turned for answers to the oracle of our generation: Google. A blog, as it turns out, is a web log. An Internet dumping ground for people’s thoughts, observations, recommendations and other ramblings…no matter how banal they might be. The digital wasteland done found itself a ‘nuther niche. So I got one. If you've got a niche, scratch it.

Challenge #2: Figuring out why I needed a blog? Truth be told, I don’t. Between changing diapers, cooking meals, grocery shopping, working out (when I feel sufficiently motivated to resist the snooze-bar’s siren call) and that work-thing that constantly conflicts with my sunbathing schedule, I didn’t really need an additional item on my plate. What I did need, though, was some kind of respite from the dryness of my daily existence. Spending forty hours per week (Editor’s note: If you are reading this, Paul, I meant to say sixty hours) staring at contract clauses in eight point type and debating the most prudent placement of terms like “hereinafter,” “thereby,” and “notwithstanding the foregoing” does cause one to seek a creative outlet of sorts; and Spain’s warm climate seemed to render butter sculpting impractical. Plus, my lovely wife Maria travels on a weekly basis, and there are just so many times one can watch the same Sopranos DVD Box Set before going bonkers.

Challenge #3: Naming my new blog. I thought this would be easy. Just think up a clever word play by substituting the word “blog” for “dog,” “hog,” “cog,” or any of its brethren. I churned out a healthy list of candidates: Sal’s Blog Cabin; Sal’s Blog Day Afternoon; Goin’ Whole Blog with Sal; Sal’s Three Blog Night; Blog Wild with Sal; etc. Feeling proud of my sharp wit and powerful mind, I decided to do a quick Google search to confirm my belief that no one on earth had ever coined any of these magnificent titles. Well, my confidence was a bit unfounded. Truth be told, the least used of the bunch yielded no less than 17 pages of hits. That’s the problem with the Internet age. It reinforces the fact that nobody on this planet has had an original thought since Jimi played Berkeley. In the good old days when people actually went to the library to do research, I might have operated under the delusion of my own cleverness for years before stumbling upon a DesMoine Star Register clipping that mentioned “Cooter’s Blog Cabin” in the “For Singles Only” column. In the Google age, however, delusions of grandeur are measured in nanoseconds. In my own defense, however, one of my phrases did register a startling zero hits: “Sal’s Triple Blog Dare Ya’.” I’ll bet there will be a hit tomorrow morning. In the end, I decided that word play is the domain of burned out ad execs and opted for the geographically relevant title, “Sal’s Virtual Tapas Bar.”

Challenge #4: Deciding what to write about. Indeed…the toughest challenge of all. I’ve no answers for this one quite yet. But I have faith that my masterful typing skills, combined with Spain’s plentitud of cheap yet outstanding wines, will lead the way forward. Take this first posting, for instance. I’ve barely finished a glass of wine, and have already spewed 1,127 words.

Your blog author. So that you can put a face with the idiocy. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Posted by Hello

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