Let’s All Partake Some Fish: Bar Santurce and Its Grilled Sardines

Did you know that sardines is at the bottom of the food chain of the marine kingdom? It is always the hapless prey, in other words. No wonder sad and lowly is how some describe this particular fish, a kilo of which couldn’t even fetch more than a few euros at Madrid mercados like Tetuan and Maravillas.

Just nonsense. Sardines is certainly not sad and lowly, I must retort. The fact is that if you grill it right (assuming you want to do it yourself), you have a very tasty meal. This is what Bar Santurce at El Rastro has been doing all this time – serving deliciously grilled sardines to the sheer delight of its diners.

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It’s ironic that I am an avowed fish lover, but I have yet to make an effort to know any restaurant in Madrid that serves fish as tapas or platos prinicipales. There must be tons in the city but I haven’t done any serious rounds. So far, the restaurantes I tried mostly specialize in meat dishes.

So, dining at Bar Santurce last Sunday was something new.

Actually, I learned about the place by accident last year, when I visited El Rastro’s flea market and wandered off to General Vara del Rey. It’s nothing fancy, which must be why prices are inexpensive. Still, it is hugely popular due to its reputation for serving some of the tastiest grilled sardines and sea foods in the area. I thought I must have a taste of what it offers.

(Why the love for sardines? For one thing, it tastes great, maybe because of all the fats that it has, a quality of the herring species. Sardines somehow doesn’t leave any nasty aftertaste unlike others, or at least the typical fishy flavor that makes people shun fish in the first place. Another reason is its massive nutritional value. Go sardines, and you get the necessary quantity of omega 3 and oils that are good for the heart. Thirdly, pair it with baguette and this combination becomes a delectable non-rice meal anyone can enjoy.)

It was a Sunday and so as expected, the place was full. Tourists, locals, out-of-towners – all were dining, drinking, and chit-chatting. The floor was littered with paper napkins, and bottles were everywhere. Kind of chaotic, I thought, as I was half-amused, half-stupefied by the scene. The smallness of the place only magnifies it further. I proceeded to the bar. Eager to see how the fish was cooked, I took the empty space nearest the griddle.

“Una racion de sardinas,”I gave my order to the cook, who nodded as he continued to lay the fish neatly on the hot metal plate. Within minutes, the fish changed their color from glimmering whitish silver to something of a darker hue, a signal that they are ready to be served. All the cooking created white smoke, which I thought smelled strong but not offensive. What’s certain was that it only made me hungrier.

Finally, the cook put my sardines on my plate, sprinkled some sea salt, and uttered a rushed “Buen Provecho” as he handed it to me. My bocadillo de calamares came shortly afterwards.

imageSardinas, grilled and sprinkled with liberal amounts of salt (sea salt I suppose)

Darn, it was a beautiful row that almost covered the plate. Excitedly, I finished a piece in seconds, then another, and then another, stopping only to lick my fingers or use the napkin to wipe off the oil from my hands. I continued to gobble on my meal, eating it like how you eat a corn on a cob. The other pieces, I just picked the fish meat from the bones as the latter stayed on the plate.

All this while I “dealt” with my squid sandwich at the same time. I ate until everything was gone.

While was famished when I came, minutes later I was so full I felt like I was ready for a year-long hibernation.

I’m done! Hasta la proxima, Bar Santurce!

Well, this “next time” happened to be last Tuesday.

I thought last Sunday was enough, and it satisfied my craving for fish. I thought that was the end of that, and that I couldn’t eat no more. But just a few hours later, I was wishing I had some more. This prompted me to plan another visit.

So I was back two days later, only to be surprised that the bar had no diners. Somehow, I was expecting it because I came at around 3:30PM, and the place was about to close. When I asked the cook about it, he said weekdays are slack days for most restaurants in the area as few people would visit or even pass through El Rastro.

Anyway, that Tuesday was better since I had some gambas and green peppers.  Media racion of sardinas, gambas and peppers – these are some of Santurce’s great stuff. Instead of bocadillo, I settled for a trozo of baguette. All this for a little over 10 euro – it’s such a delicious, healthy meal at an affordable price. Omega and calcium from sardines and gambas, fibre and Vitamin C from green peppers – who would protest that it isn’t?

imageI asked for just a half-order of deep-fried Gambas, and discovered they are great with bread

imagePicante? No. Delicioso? Absolutamente! Coma pimientos de padron con las sardinas. The bar recommends fried green peppers with sardines to make for a more delectable meal

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Here’s a few tips I want to share if you plan to dine at Santurce:

1. If you’re happy dining with crowds, go on a Sunday when there is a constant flow of customers during most of its business hours (9am to 4PM). Otherwise, skip sure weekend riot and choose any other day of the week instead, including Saturday. The bar is closed on Mondays.

2. Fish are served on white plates – and with nothing else. And so, diners are expected to dig in with their bare hands. For those who wouldn’t dare have their “dainty, little fingers” all oiled and dirtied, cutlery is available upon request.

3. Sardines holds its own as far as taste is concerned. I don’t know about other grilled fish lovers but for me, sardines when grilled is just everything that I could ever want – and then some. Whether it is grilled plain or sprinkled with lemon – it is just pure heaven. Like they say – small in size, big in taste.

Now having said that, remember that sea foods commonly cause allergy. Never compromise health. Before you indulge or even have your first bite, be sure to know your allergies.

4. Blatant taking of pictures is frowned upon by the staff. They will not be shy to call your attention especially if you’re taking shots of other diners. Albeit, if you train your digital camera or cam phone on your own food or the menu on the wall, this is generally fine by them. Just ask for permission, and hope for a positive response.

5.Dishes are so inexpensive, and what’s more, you can order media racion, meaning half an order. The best thing to do is to dine in groups and share everything that’s on the menu.

imageBar Santurce on a Tuesday! Had it all for myself that afternoon 

Where: Plaza Gen. Vara del Rey, 28005, Madrid (at El Rastro)

Hours: 9Am to 4PM (Sundays) 12Noon to 4PM (Saturdays and Weekdays except Mondays) Its website says they’re also open Thursday to Saturday evenings, from 7.30PM to 10.30PM. 

Call them before you visit, at 646238303.

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