It feels like it has been there forever, just off the beaten path, one of the last places standing in a building from which other businesses have made what appears to have been a hasty retreat.
There is something about Hispania Tapas Bar that gives it a pleasantly worn, familiar atmosphere. The silhouette of the bull on the sign hanging out over N Fort Harrison Avenue, the sidewalk tables, the weathered brick walls. It all lends character earned over years.
But it opened in March. The restaurant was born as an extension of paella-based dinner parties held when Elena Castellano's father-in-law, who was a chef in Spain, would visit Clearwater. Castellano says friends would constantly ask when her father-in-law was returning, so the family decided to try to re-create the experience in a restaurant.
Hispania is a tapas bar in the truest sense of the term. There are tables throughout the room, but the real plan is to sit at the bar, where there is a sushi-style glass case full of ready-to-eat bites. (Some are nearly ready to eat, needing a quick heating in the countertop oven.) It's the kind of place where the menu takes a backseat to just pointing and saying "I want that."
The food is mostly inexpensive and simple, and that's the point. Walk in by yourself for lunch and you can have a reasonable meal for well less than $10. Walk in for dinner with a friend or two and you can sample almost everything on display for less than $50.
Our trip through the available selection of montaditos — small sandwiches ranging in price from $1.50 to $2.50 — includes four cured pork products, each on a roll that we are told was made in Spain but baked fresh on premises. It is nothing but good meat on good bread. Favorites: spicy dry-cured chorizo and the Serrano ham, Spain's answer to Italy's prosciutto.
On one visit we are told that the only montaditos available are the four in the case, but on another visit, we're told they can quickly make any of the 21 listed on the menu. We ask for a few of the more obscure items listed — pates, blood sausage — only to learn they aren't in stock. But we're in luck with the fabulously funky salted anchovies!
In another display case, we find the cazuelitas, or small platters. The ensaladilla rusa ($2.50) is a tangy cross between potato and tuna salad that would be good as either and is better as both. Tuna also makes a guest appearance in the huevos rellenos ($2.50), which are decadent deviled eggs. The pulpo vinagreta ($2.50) is another cold salad, this one with tender octopus mixed with tomatoes, onions and an oil-and-vinegar dressing that wakes up the palate. Patatas alioli ($2.50) ties the server's tongue several times before the potatoes get to our plate, and the alioli — the Catalan take on garlicky mayo — should be ordered only by true garlic fans. It's a raw, creamy heat. And there is a pan of paella behind the bar, at the ready.
A few of the dishes needed some work, or in the case of the mini empanadas ($2-$2.50), less work. The fillings were fine, but the pastry dough was a little tough. The sauce on the albondigas (meatballs, $3) was surprisingly sweet. Croquettas ($2-$2.50), filled potato fritters, suffer from being precooked, then reheated. That makes for an unfortunate texture, or more appropriately, a lack of texture.
Desserts are a selection of pastries, but everyone on the staff directs you to the Santiago cake ($3), a rich almond tart. Listen to them.
Tapas evolved in Spanish bars, with small plates of food used to cover glasses of wine. (The word tapas is derived from the Spanish word for "to cover.") To that end, Hispania could use some work. There are wines available, but it was never really clear what wines. There was no list, and the staff seemed unsure of the specifics of what was clearly a limited selection. We were assured the wines were Spanish, and that there was sangria, which was sweet and full of spice. Otherwise, we were left to guess and hope for the best. There were no disasters, but a little organization and direction would be helpful to be taken seriously as a bar.
And that critique extends to the food, to a lesser degree. All of our servers were friendly and helpful. But different servers seemed to have different ideas about what some dishes were, and what was available if it wasn't at the bar.
Until those kinks get worked out, it seems like the kind of place great for a quick, inexpensive, light bite of something totally different. When those kinks are worked out, it could become a night-on-the-town destination. So stay tuned.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.