Saturday, June 23, 2018
Dining

On a quest for Spanish ham in Tampa Bay

Pork. Salt. Time.

In theory, that's all it takes to make mouth-watering "jamón" (or dry-cured ham), the pork pride of Spain, and the country's answer to Italy's prosciutto.

Yet, creating thin, melt-in-your mouth slices of jamón is an art form, a waiting game, a delicate dance. The meat should be rich but not greasy (a food oxymoron?). Visually, you should see a depth of color and a glistening surface. And finally, there's taste (which we'll dive into later).

Throughout Spain, and we mean just about everywhere, you'll find jamón hang-drying (a process that removes any dangerous pathogens) in the windows of butcher shops, bars and tapas joints. And after a few bites, you might just understand why the Spaniards go through the trouble.

On a recent visit to Spain, we ate jamón and then some. It became our bacon. We even visited the Rick Steves-approved Museo del Jamon (a.k.a. the Ham Museum) in Madrid, a logical next stop after the world-famous Museo del Prado, which houses artwork by legends like Raphael and Goya.

This Christmas season, after my travels, the ham I'd seek wouldn't be of the honey-baked variety. My quest would be for Spain's salty goodness. So, I disregarded daily sodium allowances to find and share the best options in Tampa Bay. Vamanos!

Nestled between a hookah lounge and a karate studio in a New Tampa strip mall, Cafe Olé was a surprise standout. The Tabla Olé dish served at lunch and dinner boasts buttery aged serrano jamón with just the right amount of marbling. It's complemented by chrorizo Cantimpalo, Manchego cheese, a sheep's milk cheese that's well-developed but not too strong, and topped off with marinated olives imported from Spain. The space's warm, rich red interior and a friendly wait staff only elevated my experience with the Tabla Olé, a bargain at around 10 bucks.

Carrollwood's Vizcaya on Dale Mabry is more of a white-tablecloth option for excellent jamón. The charcuteria plate offers assorted cold cuts, including serrano jamón direct from Spain. For a hot option, the croquetas de jamón serrano were fried, oval-shaped balls of awesomeness with jamón and béchamel. There were plenty of Spanish speakers dining near my table, always a nice reassurance that you're in an authentic space. At night, I was told the piano in the middle of the room really gets going. So, if you're down for dancing and hamming, we'd recommend this one highly.

In downtown Clearwater, where lunch options are sparse, Hispania Tapas Bar and Cafe is a top-notch destination. The serrano ham "montaditos", small sandwiches made with Hispania's homemade bread and Manchego cheese, are served day and night. The place was quiet with just a few customers, so the orchestral concerts playing on the restaurant's big-screen projector were a nice boost. In fact, I was told people often pop over to Hispania just to take in a Spanish snack and a concert on their lunch break. During my meal, Yanni played a track called Nostalgia, something I found particularly fitting. After all, I was feeling extra nostalgic about my days in Madrid and Barcelona thanks to the excellent montadito.

At Spain Restaurant and Toma Bar in the heart of downtown Tampa, the cafeteria-style offerings work particularly well for the busy weekday lunch crowd. My butcher paper-wrapped jamón serrano sandwich came in a flash. It was topped with tomatoes, lots of garlic, a splash of olive oil and nicely nestled between a baguette with a good, light crunch.

Finally, some jamón honorable mentions go out to Soho's Sidebern's and Ceviche in St. Pete and Tampa.

Sidebern's certainly isn't a Spanish restaurant by any stretch, but it boasted the pricier, high-end variety of jamón, ibérico bellota, meat so delicious it was illegal in the United States up until 2005. (Okay, well maybe that had more to do with import rules, but we digress.) To give you some more perspective, esteemed French chef Joël Robuchon has been known to serve unadorned jamón ibérico, and when he does, it's one of the most expensive dishes on his menus.

Across town, Ceviche's jamón serrano was a tad too salty, but serving it with figs and pears was a smart way to balance out the flavor with a little acid.

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