On a family trip last year to Spain, my teenage daughter developed an obsession with paella. In five nights in Madrid, we went to five restaurants famed for their paella. In five nights in Barcelona, we had another five paellas — or at least, she did; by that time, my wife and I had moved on to other dishes such as zarzuela and fideo.
Back in the United States her love of paella — a dish named for the pan in which it's served — has continued, and perhaps even thrived. That is why I recently took her to Sevilla, in the pulsing heart of Long Beach, a restaurant that, since 1987, has offered what may well be the best Spanish food in Southern California.
The history of Spanish restaurants here in SoCal is not pretty. Many have come, and many have gone. La Masia and Toledo on the Westside, Tasca in Hollywood, Cava near the Beverly Center have all disappeared. La Paella on San Vicente manages to survive and new on the scene are Taberna Arros and Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica, along with Racion in Pasadena. But it's Sevilla that's the big dog; the alpha restaurant that brings Spain to our shores.
It's a restaurant that does much to define the complex cuisine of the Iberian Peninsula. (There are other branches of Sevilla in Riverside and San Diego.)
Those of us who have been to Spain know that dining there is a fairly befuddling experience, not that the food is hard to fathom as it's quite accessible, and very tasty. But the rituals of the meals are more than a little confusing. Breakfast is a casual, almost perfunctory affair. Lunch, by contrast, is a big meal, a long meal, a meal accompanied by many bottles of wine — followed, of course, by a nap that fills the rest of the afternoon.
At the Long Beach branch of Sevilla, neither breakfast nor lunch are served. Instead, it cuts right to the tapas, which are not just served in the early evening, they're served all night long. It is a bit like a Chinese restaurant serving dim sum throughout the day — it's untraditional, but it's well appreciated.
About half the menu at Sevilla is built around tapas, which makes this the most accomplished “tasca” in town. Tasca is a generic term, simply meaning “tapas bar.” I've long found tasca to be a pretty name, a melodious word, that hints of sultry summer nights filled with flamenco music, gypsy guitars, endless pitchers of sangria and a seemingly boundless assortment of foods.
The only factor that defines tapas is that they're smaller than entrees. The word comes from the verb tapar, meaning “to cover,” a term that derives from the old habit of covering the mouth of a glass of wine with a slice of sausage as a complimentary treat. Tapas can be anything from a plate of cheese to some olives, some peanuts or grilled shrimp. About the only other factor demanded is that they be somewhat Spanish in origin.
Essential are the tortilla Espanola (not a tortilla, but a tart made with potato and onion), the jamon Iberico cured ham, the meatballs in a sherry sauce, the mussels escabeche, the fried calamari, the shrimp al ajillo, the grilled selection of Spanish sausages, and the queso fundido of chorizo, manchego and goat cheese.
Now that's a meal of small bites that demands a big pitcherful of sangria to wash it all down!
If that's too much to think about, there are four preset tapas platters; order just a couple and you'll be stuffed.
There's much more, but it was the selection of well prepared paella that brought us in. There are five types — the Valenciana with mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, scallops, chorizo and chicken; the seafood model with mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp and scallops; the meat paella, with pork, beef, chorizo, morcilla sausage, chicken and lamb; the seafood black paella “en su tinta”; and an option called “spicy paella” (available upon request).
These paellas reek of saffron, which is a good thing. This is rice gone to heaven. It's a dish my paella-obsessed daughter declared as good as what she tried overseas. Even as good as the one that was scooped out of a giant pan on a stovetop in a bar at the end of an alley. That's high praise. But then, this is Sevilla.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 140 Pine Ave., Long Beach.
Cuisine: The premier destination for Spanish food in Long Beach, and very likely in Southern California, this lively cafe offers a taste of the Iberian Peninsula in a setting right out of Madrid, with a fine selection of tapas, paella and more.
Hours: Dinner nightly; brunch on Sunday.
Details: Full bar. Parking in nearby lots. Reservations essential.
Prices: Tapas, $6-$27. Tapas platters, $17-$36. Entrees, $18-$52.
Cards: MC, V.