We were told this place was tiny and would be packed. It took no reservations and seated 20. So we hustled over to be at the door when they turned the key. But to our surprise and dismay they had inexplicably opened up about five minutes before we got there and the entire place was seated, which means everyone who was parked on the stools, were just lookingat menus. And unlike any other tapas bar they would not serve you at the sliver of a waiting bar on the wall behind the lucky seated folks. All I could bite was my lip. I studied each group of mostly twos and fours and selected a younger couple that sipped a single draft beer each and kept their back bags on while they ate. They seemed the most likely to be making a shorter meal than the noisy foursome to the right that had 3 bottles of wine just opened in front of them. But I wondered if there still might be yet another option.
Cal Manubens is the chef/proprietor of Cal Pep. The guidebooks will tell you that it is “a superb place for seafood”. You can see various species of it in the prep station that sits squarely in the middle of his tiny kitchen, which is all fully on display. You can also see some in a glassed-in case toward a miniscule back dining room that no one was sitting in!
I squeezed past the last four bar stool squatters and began to look around at this miniature, beckoning and secluded oasis. White tablecloths, cutlery, wine bottles on display and chairs! I could get off my damaged feet in here! One of the line cooks shot back there when he saw me stalking around…(me), hoping for some miracle to occur and for Janet and I to get a seat before throwing in the towel and heading back, defeated, into the dark cobblestone corridors of Barcelona. He acted like I just thumped my way into the Pope’s private bedroom! He spoke in a torrent of the kind of Spanish that reveals a coalescence of many tongues. I tried to tell him that if he had a “no show” we’d be there happy replacements. But he bulled me back into the crazy much more illuminated kitchen/seating area that I really preferred to be in anyway because, while this room was nice I really wanted to watch “Pep” cook. I wanted Janet to be happy. I wanted what I wasn’t having…yet.
I ordered one of the best whites on their list to show them I was serious. But they were all cooking there assess off already…trying to shovel the freight just like cooks all over the world do when the dining room fills up in less than 15 minutes. I sank back against the wall and eyed the backpackers, drank my wine and hoped.
Janet was getting that “final” look on her face. It was going to be far too late for her to eat…or so it seemed. And then magically the male backpacker dug out his wallet and eased off his barstool smack dab in the middle of the counter. His girlfriend swiveled off her stool and gathered up her things and Janet slid her self right into place, took my wine glass, placed it down to mark my spot and the other parishioners realized that they’d be waiting for theirshot at redemption a little while longer. We were in!
Chef Pep’s voice wells up from a broken pipe. Something is wrong in there. Perhaps it’s the burping painful contortion of a victim of throat cancer. But his voice seems to have more scale and his emotion pushes to volume level “high” when he needs it. He needs it a lot. He is the engine and he calls on that voice to make his route understood to the cooks around him.
He goes from a horrified gasp at a cook leaving a dish of just-perfectly-cooked tempura on the side of stove to a banshee-like laugh when another cook nearly topples over as Pep reached into the pans the cook was working to add salt, lemon, herbs, God-who-knows-what that Pep suddenly discerned was absolutely necessary. The cook laughs too and they mock-swat at each other.
Pep works the middle. He wears glasses that I might expect to see on Sir Elton but it’s right on Pep. His hair is somewhat long and threads of silver show he’s been at this as long as me. His chef coat receives the constant swipe of his ceaselessly waving, cutting, cooking hands. He grabs a mix of fish and rolls them in a flour mixture. He partially sifts them out of the dredge into a salad-spinner-like object and then shakes the piss out of that. Next he drops the seafood into the hot oil of the fryers behind him and he shakes the baskets too. Moments later its on a plate and arriving to the gentleman on my right.
Janet has been watching the men cook. She has had her eyes on some sausage and she could smell the meat. It dissolved the malaise she was beginning to feel when we were still trapped and waiting on the wall. A smile crossed her face.
A server in a checked shirt and apron comes up with a worried look. He is here to take our order and I got the impression that he was concerned it might take us a while since we were not from around here. He had a look I see on Robert De Niro’s face when his character is anxious. He seems to go from looking at us to checking the door to see if someone unexpected might be there. He looks back at me, questioningly, nervously. I ordered a bottle of Artadi Pacos Viejos, 2001…then the Fried Mixto, the butifarra sausages Janet craved, a tortilla and a dish of hake. “De Niro” beamed brightly, happily and came back quickly with the wine. I managed to tell him in my version of Spanish that we have restaurants in the states. I handed him my card. He yelled to Pep and Pep croaked back peering over his glasses. He grabbed the card and saw that we have a place in Orlando. He spoke enough English so that I could understand he had a niece there now. We now had a quick “chef bond”. Then it was back to work. The plates started to arrive. We were rewarded with a bowl of just steamed clams that we hadn’t ordered, impossibly small, sweet and delicious. We saw them in a market the next day and learned they are called “fallarinas”. We saw some others that are nearly as small called “rosellanas”. We wanted them sent to our home. But that was ridiculous and we could only stare and crave them.
The man on my left said, “so tapas…a new concept for your LA place?” He was slim and well dressed. He was a few courses ahead of me and his face shone with contentment. He dabbed his chin with a napkin. I conversed with him about how we’d been doing tapas for a long time but it was not the mania that it is in Spain and it forced me to be in a position to teach more than I wish it did. He introduced me to his wife and his 84-year-old Mother who was munching happily on her fish. Her white as paper hair framed blue eyes that danced in a well lined, tanned and padded face that had known a lot of living.
He traveled to LA for his business and once again the demonstration of how the shared communion of a table can bind strangers touched me. I gave him my card and he returned with his. He was a banker now living in Switzerland.
Pep slid a steaming version of the classic Spanish Tortilla in front of us. It was not the cold or room temperature tortilla one often finds stacked in a tall cheesecake height. This one was only about the circumference of one’s hand, an inch in height, wobbly and slathered with homemade garlicky Allioli. The mayonnaise-like sauce on the hot eggs made the peasant dish a bit luxurious. The sausages and beans with bits of foie gras arrived too. We drained some of the Artadi, “De Niro” refilled us and we dug in. What a soul satisfy combo these beans and sausage made. We wanted to take some butifarrahome…along with a tractor-trailer load of the Black Footed pig meat that we had been treated in Spain, but are still banned in America. Those last three words don’t make sense to me either.
We fell silent for a while and just ate and drank our wine. The languages swirled around our ears but the message came in one true voice. Good food is good food and you can have it sitting on a bar stool just as surely as you can have it in a multi-million dollar salon. But you always need the passion of a person like Pep somewhere in the mix.
I wanted to say good-bye and give him our respect. I held up my camera. He held up his hand as if to say “no”. But actually he wanted us to wait a moment. He raced around the counter and wrapped his arms around our shoulders. One of his cooks took my camera and we smiled. Everyone was smiling. Everyone had a place to sit now and the world was a better place. Pep saluted me and smiled broadly. I saluted back and we walked back out into the warmth of a Barcelona night and the hope to return to the place and passion of Cal Pep one day before long.
Copyright © Norman Van Aken, 2005