3801 Grand Ave. S.
They call it Rincon 38. I call it tapas heaven. It’s one of the Divine Trinity of cafes saluting Spanish small plates showcasing the genius of chef/owner Hector Ruiz and his home team, on a winning streak in the tapas playoffs. (Its neighbors on Grand Avenue include Hector’s Café Ena at 4600 and La Fresca at 4750, with a fourth sibling newly opened at the corner of 35th and Bloomington, La Ceiba.)
In a tiny, nine-table storefront with an even more microscopic kitchen, Rincon offers a scorecard (excuse me: menu) of over two dozen tapas—small plates with a Spanish accent starting at $6 a pop. It’s my mission to consume every last one, starting with the traditional bar food I favor in Madrid, like gambas al ajillo—the ridiculously delicious marriage of langoustines and garlic—and albondigas, which translates to meatballs.
But Ruiz doesn’t simply trot out these staples, beloved as they are: He creates more work for himself, and pleasure for the rest of us, by composing complex texture and flavor inventions that could pass for performance art. Those meatballs, for instance, come bathed in a creamy manchego cheese sauce, accented by lusty olives marinated in manzanilla sherry, and accented with a length of garlic bread. Call it dinner, if you can bear to stop here.
Nor are Hector’s potatoes simply the patatas bravas—those traditional chunks of spuds with a hot pepper/garlic sauce—I devour on a daily basis in Madrid, but potatoes glorified with asparagus, chorizo, roasted artichokes and pimento-garlic sauce, all drizzled with saffron aioli. Likewise, queso frito—fried Manchego cheese—doesn’t waltz out naked, as it’s usually served, oh no! Here, that melty goodness comes gilded with a perky fennel slaw, sherry glaze and boutonniere of micro greens.
The one thing that’s different from tapas in Spain is that these are created in Minnesota-Nice proportions. Choose one as an app, a second as entrée, and your meal is complete, even if your wish list isn’t. Yet they’re clearly built for sharing. If you can bear to.
Tears come to my eyes, however, at the mere thought of parting with even a bite of the plate called Serrano, a sophisticated composition of confit asparagus spears wrapped in paper-thin Serrano ham, stuffed with creamy goat cheese and served atop a subtle truffle-almond sauce, all drizzled with balsamic, sweet as syrup. It’s my fave among favorites on Rincon’s menu.
Crave something meatier? The paella Sevillana combines pork, beef, chicken and more, more, more in an over-generous, and beyond-traditional, version of this rice-based Spanish specialty. (Likewise the seafood variation.) Consider, perhaps, the entrée-like portion of pork tenderloin, a bit overcooked under its thyme dusting, served over braised potatoes, roasted artichokes and cauliflower in a wake-your-palate chorizo-Manchego sauce. Even better: a pair of scallops, sweet and tender as a love song and nearly as big as tennis balls, plated with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and a wake-up zing of capers under a drizzle of brown butter. Another winner: the composition of crisp-fried, saffron-poached cauliflower, tossed with palate-cleansing parsley and pimento in that suave citrus aioli. Could be dessert.
Instead, we continued to the dessert list itself ($6), celebrating all things rich and sublime, from panna cotta to tres leches and, our choice, a flan that proved more solid than quivering at a spoon’s approach under its mantle of sherry-caramel sauce. But mighty tasty.
Rincon’s wine list (tastes beginning at $4 as well as BTG and bottle) favors food-friendly Mediterranean labels. Viva, again. Eating on Grand Avenue is grand, indeed.