Patatas a la Riojana and a Complaint About “Tapas”

Tapas y Pintxos, Madrid

It’s widely known that humble ingredients prepared with simple techniques often produce the best dishes, and it’s becoming more widely known that this philosophy lies at the very heart of Spanish cooking – a cuisine that has, in the last five or so years, become one of the most celebrated “new finds” of foodies everywhere. As a result of this, there has been a great deal of interest in tapas and the cuisine and culture surrounding these small plates/finger foods. All of which, in my view, can only be a good thing, even if many of these new “tapas restaurants” (itself, again in my view, an oxymoron) serve few, if any, authentic Spanish dishes.

Indeed, and here lies the rub, in their rush to capitalize on the latest food trend, it seems everyone is trying to outdo everyone else on the cleverness factor. Expanding their menus to include all sorts of dishes resembling “tapas” only in the fact that they are served in small quantities. It’s almost as if the tasting menus of high-falutin’ restaurants have become conflated with “tapas” so that you get tiny dishes and are charged through the nose for them.

Now, we here at, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, are not against experimentation or new dishes in the slightest. Quite the contrary, in fact, we are always ready to try new things. However, and again, this may just be our view, so feel free to comment disagreeing, we feel that developing all these new and complicated dishes and calling them tapas is fundamentally against the spirit of tapas as a style of eating, outlined above.

Patatas a la Riojana

The term tapas, as I’m sure many of you know, is derived from the Spanish word tapa, meaning a lid, and originally connoted a slice of bread or cheese that certain tavern owners used to serve across the top of the drinking vessel, perhaps as a way of keeping out unwanted bugs. Over the centuries this has developed into a wondrous variety of small dishes, now commonly on plates and cocktail sticks, as well as on rounds of bread, that are served to accompany su caña – whatever you are drinking at the bar. Indeed, it has become so refined a practice that many bars, while they might serve a lot of different tapas, are famous for one in particular, a signature tapa, that those in the know only eat at that one bar. So, as you can see, tapas has come a long way from its beginnings as a humble drink lid. That said, the original ethos of simple but tasty accompaniments remains.

black wine, Besalu

We’ve traveled extensively in Spain and eaten, it must be said, an obscene amount of tapas over the past several years, and the consistent theme has been that the ingredients and the simple, time-honored preparations and take center stage, not the ego of the preparer. And this has never been more true than in the case of patatas a la Riojana. So, so simple, unbelieveably good. Really. Potatoes, chorizo, onions, garlic, sweet paprika and water, combine to create a dish that is without a doubt my favorite tapa. And, if I may name-drop shamelessly, I am not in bad company when I say that. Legendary chef and father of nouvelle cuisine Paul Bocuse, no less, while at a culinary convention in Spain in the late 1970s, described patatas a la Riojana as among the “greatest dishes created by man.”

And here is the interesting thing. If Bocuse, a man whose entire reputation was built on small, artfully-plated dishes, found this humble and rustic dish such a revelation, why is it that so many lesser chefs of today are trying so hard, and in many cases failing, to improve upon these time-honored preparations?

piquillo peppers

Nearly everyone knows that La Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine appellation, but it is also known, mostly inside Spain, as being the origin of many good things to eat. Piquillo peppers are the regions’ second best known export, and together with wild mushrooms, chorizo, river crabs, bream and trout they combine to make many dishes synonymous in the Spanish stomach with La Rioja. In fact, it is the inclusion of a typical Riojan dry chorizo that makes this preparation “a la Riojana” or Rioja-style.

Personally, I would eat this dish three times a week, but if my recommendation that you try making it isn’t good enough for you, then I’m sure you’ll pay attention to the wise words of Monsieur Bocuse.

Ingredients: (serves 4)

  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
  • 1 small onion (or half a large one) finely sliced
  • 7 ounces (or 2-3 links) chorizo, sliced into rounds
  • 1/2 pound floury potatoes (idaho or similar), peeled and cubed
  • 1 tsp pimenton dulce (sweet paprika)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt, or more, to taste
  • 1/2 – 1pint (1/2 liter) cold tap water
Patatas a la Riojana

Recipe: (adapted slightly from Jose Andres’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America

  • Warm olive oil over medium heat and add garlic.
  • Cook for about a minute until golden before adding onions, and sauteing them gently for 20 minutes or so, until light brown.
  • Add chorizo and cook until this also is browned, about 2 minutes.
  • Place the potatoes in the pan and stir to coat with oil. Cook for 10 minutes.
  • Now sprinkle over the pimenton and pour in enough water to almost cover potatoes and chorizo. Put lid on pan and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half.
  • Serve immediately with lots of crusty bread and a hearty red Rioja. Unbelieveably delicious. Trust me.
  • Unsurprisingly, this is quite a filling dish, but fear not, as left-overs, eaten either cold or reheated the next day are even better as the flavors continue to meld together.

34 thoughts on “Patatas a la Riojana and a Complaint About “Tapas”

  1. Mmmmm, you are in love with Tapas chicos… first gambas al ajillo and now Patatas a la Riojana 😀 I couldn’t agree more with you… I simply love them too!!! Not only their taste and flavour but also the simplicity of the recipe. Buen provecho 😀

  2. I have no problem with twists and turns for a classic but for God’s sake, please make the pretty & such but don’t forget the dish has to taste good.

    There seems to be a disjoint between food styling and cooking basics.

    Chorizo and patates would make the B-king get a stiffy. 😉

  3. I hear what you’re saying about ‘tapas’ turning up everywhere. At least McDonald’s hasn’t created a tapas menu yet. Those piquillos in the can look amazing!

  4. Those potatoes sound awesome! I just recently had my first Rioja wine at an awesome Tapas place here in Saint Augustine. I have yet to try a Piquillo pepper, but have been wanting to for some time – they look awesome! 🙂

    Thanks for the great post! I hope one day I can eat an obscene amount of Tapas too! 🙂

  5. While I understand “where you’re coming from”, I don’t think you can expect the chefs/restauranteurs to limit themselves to TTTT (tried, true, traditional tapas) when the rest of the world is just exploding with a whole new culture based on food. Look at us — blogging away the hours cooking, photographing, writing and reading about food. Who would have thunk?! I do agree with you that simple TTTT are the best and that’s what menus are for…for me, it’s jamon serrano, chorizo, morcillas, tortilla espanol, pan y vino. Oh yes, and patatas bravas!

  6. I’ve suspected that it’s a business decision for some restaurant owners … pricing with human psychology in mind: it is easier to charge a little bit more for many small dishes… leading to a whopping bill at the end… than it is to charge a whole lot for a single plate even though that plate could have more and better food! Granted I love tapas, but I’ve definitely walked out of tapas places feeling like I got the same amount of food as non-tapas restaurants of equivalent quality, for a whole lot more in cost.

  7. I am looking forward to giving these potatoes a try! I haven’t been to Spain but it is at the top of my go list. So far my best tapas experience has been at Toro Bravo in Portland.

  8. Hi All, re-reading this post, I feel like I didn’t express myself that clearly, but you all seem to have understood anyway. My issue is not so much with culinary experimentation and development of new dishes (which is one of the cornerstone reasons why I love food), rather it is that the word “tapas” is being bandied around by anyone serving small dishes, but that just using the name does not make it so. Tapas is Spain’s principal cultural and culinary gift to the food world, and in spite of all its wonderful variety, a small plate of ponzu-marinated silken tofu, shaved dicon and microgreen spring rolls is not a tapa. My point is stop using the word tapas for stuff that’s not Spanish!!

  9. We started getting these “small plates” joints popping all over Portland some years ago, too, but I think they were mostly opened by people who, like you, had eaten tapas in Spain and wanted to share. So we’d get more stuff like little dishes of olives, marinated almonds, piquillo peppers with cheese, or pulpo instead of some bullshit trendy fusion foolishness.

  10. Heather – just wait for it, I’m sure it’s coming soon. But glad you have places doing the ordinary things the right way. Honestly, when I want tapas, I want Spanish flavors, not asian ones, and vice versa, it’s that simple.

    Peter – for everyday usage we tend to buy the Goya brand “short” chorizo, that I believe is produced domestically and this is available at all local grocery stores. When we’re feeling fancy pants we’ll splash out on some imported Palacios chorizo from Spain, where, ironically, Palacios is the equivalent in fanciness to Goya over here, though the quality and flavor is much better – raw or cooked. These we have to go to bourgeois gourmet food stores to find, but hell, given the demographic where we struggle to pay rent, these are ten-a-penny. And, when (on the very rare occasion) we’re feeling flush, we’ll order some campofrio or chistorra from La Tienda, or beg Nuria at Spanish Recipes to send us some beautiful artisanal chorizo from La Boqueria in Barcelona.

  11. There are plenty of reasons to get angry about the current crop of tapas abuse. How about people who use the word tapas as a singular? (Sort of the way I get really irked when people say things like “raviolis” or “one panini”) How about people who say taaaapas? (As in tap dancing) Certain FN personalities are very fond of abusing the word.

    I like your tapa quite a bit. I adore chorizo.

  12. There’s a lot to be said on this topic, and I’m glad you have. Almost all of my tapas experiences have been from these sorts of imposters, and its left me underwhelmed with tapas even though I know deep down, I haven’t really had them yet. The beautiful, Spanish-inspired food you show here (and in many of your previous posts) keeps me intrigued and hopeful that I’ll chance upon the real deal one of these days.

  13. Hear! Hear! I’m so sick of taking something beautiful and simple and making a “trend” out of it that ends up being a “can you top this?” kind of contest.

    This recipe also looks simply amazing, and we have a plethora of potatoes from our CSA shares now, so I will definitely be making this!

  14. I think I agree with you on the tapa usage. While I just started hearing the word like a year ago, I hear it constantly now. For a while I just thought it was small, appetizer type food. If that was the case, I guess dim sum would be considered tapas. Well, dude was I wrong. I’m new to Spanish food, but now I know if I want tapas I better do it right.

  15. I’ve got to admit, the trendiness has even fallen here… in Milwaukee, WI… small plates EVERYWHERE, it seems. Maybe it’s a bit more honest to simply call them small plates? But, in some ways it’s the same deal.

    Love the look of this dish.

  16. Reminds me of a fact (I have no idea if this is true) about slices of lime in beer bottle necks in Mexico – there to keep out the flies, rather than for flavour (we poke limes into bottles of Corona here in the UK, I’m guessing the US is the same?).

  17. Jonny,

    Great blog that you and Amy do. I am very much with your sentiment on simplicity. Traditional tapas go for this. I have spent a lot of time in Spain and love tapas as well. As for the argument of simplicity versus “overdoing it”, I am split however. I appreciate the Bocuse line (why mess with tradition, great ingredients speak for themselves)…however the innovation of doing new and wonderful preparations is also good in my opinion. I think the key is to be aware of both and enjoy them for what they are. Really great post.


  18. Yes, I do stare at those nose strips after I peel them off. For like, 30 minutes. Just kidding.

    I hear you on the tapas thing. I tapas have reached Springfield MO, then….well, they’re not very trendy anymore.

  19. I’m a little late on this one, but was cruising around your site and had to comment because I feel equally strongly on the subject (i.e. agreeing with you!). Here in the Detroit area, we have several “small plates” type restaurants (at least they aren’t calling themselves tapas) but no real authentic tapas at ALL. There used to be a very authentic Spanish place years ago in Detroit, but sadly they closed. I would love to open a traditional tapas bar here; I can’t help thinking it would go over well in the current economic climate! Small, inexpensive portions of down-to-earth food…
    Have you been to San Sebastian? Of all the places I visited in Spain, I think this was my favorite for doing a “tapas crawl”. (Although in the Basque country they call them pinxtos. But a rose by any other name…) Their parte vieja is all pedestrian and crammed with great places to eat & drink!

    1. Hello! Thank you for this excellent comment (and, of course for agreeing with us). We have been to San Sebastian and did a tapas crawl there too. so many, too little time and too little stomach room. we were only there overnight on our way to Bilbao to catch a plane. you’re right -that place is tapas heaven. if you open up a place, let us know b/c i will def. be there to visit! part of the problem w/ having a really great tapas restaurant here is all the food standards/laws/refrigeration rules, etc. that the USDA puts on restaurants – you couldn’t just have tortilla sitting out as well as all the other tapas just sitting on top of the counter for customers to point to and then munch on. that’s the part that makes it fun and the USDA kind of ruins that whole idea.

      thanks for the comment and please stop by again!

      a & j

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