Here I was in Spain, three bites into a tasty ham and cheese bocadillo (a sandwich made with baguette type bread). You know the kind: oozing with melted cheese, topped with thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth ibérico jamón (ham), and soft, thick bread encasing all of this fatty goodness. It was the kind of sandwich that, when you bite into it, oil seeps out and, if you’re not quick enough, dribbles right down your chin.
All of a sudden, my small, oil-saturated bar napkin slipped out of my hand and fell to the ground. I leaned down to pick it up. "Just leave it there,” said Pia. “The bars love it when you throw your napkin on the street. The more, the better! It shows everyone walking by how popular they are.”
I had a feeling I was going to like this place!
It was my first night in Rioja, and I was strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets of Logroño, the capital city, with five other wine writers and Pia, the trip leader. We had arrived early that morning, four of us from the United States and two from Girona, Spain. Despite a long day of travel, the lively atmosphere of the narrow alleyways had an invigorating effect on the seven of us. The tiny, centuries-old restaurants and wine bars were tempting us at every turn with fragrant scents of simmering stews, eggs and potatoes baking, and peppers, garlic, and onions roasting.
No trip to Rioja would be complete without at least one night wandering the charming streets of Logroño. Every night, from about 8:30 until midnight, (also at lunchtime between 1:00 and 3:00) the main street, Calle del Laurel, and several adjacent streets, are crowded with locals and travelers out having fun, hopping from one tapas bar to the next, sampling their favorite small dishes — each place specializes in one or two dishes — accompanied by a copa (glass) of Rioja wine.
During the Middle Ages, Logroño’s streets were filled with pilgrims in need of sustenance as they walked the famous Camino de Santiago that passes through this part of Rioja. Nowadays, people gather in the medieval streets and place their orders at the bars’ little windows that face the street. When the food and drinks arrive, people spill out onto the street and eat while standing up, shoulder to shoulder. The whole place feels like one big party.
TAPAS, PINCHOS, OR PINTXOS?
What is the correct word to use when referring to these small plates of food? According to Eduardo Muga of Rioja’s renowned Muga Winery, even Spaniards do not always agree. “What these small bites are called varies according to region,” says Muga. “The word Pinchos is used in the Basque and other northern regions of Spain, but in San Sebastián it’s spelled Pintxos. Nowadays the words are quite interchangeable but originally, pincho was a small portion of food on a piece of bread, sometimes with a toothpick in it. These days a pincho is a small bite of food displayed on the bar, while tapas are usually bigger, a half or third portion of a dish.”
FAVORITE LOGROÑO BARS
Insider tip: Don’t eat too much at one place. There are about 50 different restaurants packed into the area and you will want to try the specialties of as many as possible.
And, don’t forget to throw your napkin on the street in front of the following bars!
BAR SORIANO, Travesía de Laurel, 2. Everyone in Logroño comes here for the thick slice of bread topped with a stack of garlicky, grilled mushrooms and juicy prawns. One chef spends all evening cooking mushrooms! Definitely worth the wait in line.
GASTROBAR A TU GUSTO, Calle de San Juan, 21. This bar, bigger than most, has tables with seats if you’re tired of standing. The wide range and quality of tapas offered here is impressive. This was the first tapas bar I went to in Logroño and it set the standard very high for the rest of the trip!
BAR LA TRAVESÍA, Travesia de San Juan, 10 - Stop in at this tiny bar on a side street for delicious tortillas (a traditional Spanish omelette made with egg and potatoes). We had the tortilla as our last stop of the evening with a classic white wine made from viura grapes.
UMM NO SÓLO TAPAS, Calle Marqués de Vallejo, 10. “Umm” means “Yum” in Spanish and you’ll be saying it over and over again at this modern-style tapas bar. Try a classic “gilda” (pickled guindilla peppers, green olives and white anchovies on sliced bread), and the delicious croquetas, crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside.
LAS CUBANAS, Calle San Agustín, 17. Don’t miss the house specialty, cochinillo crocante (roasted suckling pig), the bodega's claim to fame. It’s perfectly crispy on the outside, and perfectly tender on the inside. Another specialty here is risotto with blue cheese.
EL CANALLA, Calle Albornoz, 1. This bar is a little bit tucked away with only a small door, but the pinchos here are worth the extra effort in finding the place. Don't leave without trying the “egg explosion,” one of the best pinchos in Rioja!
PATA NEGRA, Calle del Laurel, 24. Delicious ham and cheese bocadillos and more. There’s an excellent selection of wines by the glass and by the bottle.
MESÓN JABAGO, Calle Alfonso VI, 1. I tried three desserts here and they were all fantastic (rice pudding, tiramisu, and a chocolate cake). We also splurged on a bottle of R. Lopez de Heredia’s white wine, Vina Gravonia. Amazing!!
LOOK FOR THESE RIOJA WINES ON THE TAPAS TRAIL:
Read more about Rioja’s wine tourism in my article, “Wine Tourism in Rioja, A Traveler’s Playground“ on Grape Collective.