España Restaurant & Tapas

With new ownership since August, España offers the same delicious cuisine of Spain and Portugal, with mouthwatering tapas, fresh seafood, and the same friendly atmosphere.

Inevitably, when the subject of restaurants comes up, my friends and family rave effusively about España being one of their top choices. Local actor and devoted foodie Catherine Willford feels the same way. She joined me for dinner the other night at España to help me understand the love. Now I understand.

The restaurant is located in a red-trimmed yellow building, and in the back are red umbrellas on a large patio. Dining among the colors of the Spanish flag highlights España’s Spanish credentials. However, Portugal, two of its former colonies, and one of its islands also appear on the menu, with dishes like Gambas Mozambique, large shrimp gloriously blended with garlic, lemon, coconut milk, and a spicy hot sauce. Others include Tenderloin with Madeira Wine and the Brazilian pork dish Picadinho.

Pintxos, which sounds like “pinchos,” is the Basque tradition of small snacks on bread. Pintxos are the prize of the Basque region, which is said to have the highest per capita concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the world. As lemon, fish, and bread are three of my very favorite substances, I adored the delightfully lemony marinated anchovies, diced piquillo pepper, and parsley on crostini that are the Boquerones. The Piquillo Relleno was nearly as good, with its Piquillo peppers stuffed with smoked salmon spread, all topped with smoked sea salt.

Tapas are similar, but not exactly the same: it is a specific style of serving special dishes in small portions with several different ones shared among the table. How fun not having to commit! Catherine has had most of them and says some of her favorites are Scallops Ole and Gambas Mozambique.

Paella, Spain’s national dish, has many devotees among España regulars. Catherine likes all three paellas, but on this night, she picked Paella Rustic with chicken, pork tenderloin, chorizo, and white beans. “They use the dark meat of the chicken that has a nicer flavor. The meats are moist, as they often are not in rice dishes. The onions keep their snap and provide earthiness, the beans are firm, and I can taste the flavor of the peas.” This is a very good paella.

But what the Basque region is most famous for world-wide is the Basque cheesecake of San Sebastian, and España has a great one! Unlike New York cheesecake, Basque cheesecake is plain, irregular, and burnt, with a souffle-like mouthfeel. “It dances on the tongue like needles,” says Catherine.

Chef Phil Waddell is the face of España now. A smiling fellow who loves to talk with diners, he walks among the tables making sure everybody is happy. He loves what he does, and it shows. Because of his family’s connection with a famous barbecue place in Alabama, he “was taking orders and bringing food out at 8 years old,” he says. He went into the Navy, where he worked as a Culinary Specialist. His motto matches that of the late Anthony Bourdain’s: “To know the culture, you have to know the food,” he says.

España began its next generation in August 2024, after having opened its doors in August 2004, so expect a celebration. Open every night from 5-10 pm, España is located at 22 S. 4th St. Reserve your table in advance because demand is high.