If we compare afternoon drinking traditions the world over, few rise to the ebullience of the Spanish tapas experience. In Spain, patrons pour into tapas bars for a short glass — a caña — of beer and a snack in the afternoon, which could be a slice of ham, a croquette, a pile of potatoes, a piece of toast slicked with tangy tomato sauce, or some sort of tinned seafood. In some establishments, these snacks are free; in most, they're priced low to encourage daily participation in the ritual. And people participate: By twilight, tapas bars are usually standing-room-only and operating at shouting volume.
In America, even the most faithfully executed Spanish restaurants seem hard-pressed to capture the spirit of the tapas experience on the Iberian peninsula. Blame the health department, perhaps, as there are stricter rules against how you can dole out and store food. Or maybe it's our early supper hour, since tapas time in Spain is really a stopgap between the midday meal and a late dinner. It could just be our dining culture; if we're not at a cocktail party, we're less okay with consuming bites without being seated, and we're always looking for portion sizes to build a meal.
Ultreia, which our critic Gretchen Kurtz already reviewed in full, caters mostly to those American preferences at its Union Station location (1701 Wynkoop Street): Everyone gets a seat, and lunch and dinner menus are built so that diners can build a proper meal, even as they're navigating a list of small plates. But during happy hour, which runs Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m., they've implemented a menu that has the potential to edge us toward embracing a more Spanish-style experience.
During these hours, a short board of pintxos — the Basque form of tapas — rings in at $3.06 per item. (That six-cent tack-on goes directly to the kitchen, in an effort to better align salaries between the front and back of the house.) And these items are truly snacks. You might start with two slices of the restaurant's pan con tomate, the thin tomato paste infused with good, fruity olive oil and garlic and slicked on crusty white bread. The chef's choice pintxo platter buys you some interesting nibbles; ours recently included a thick coin of chorizo paired with a thin pickled pepper and a cube of sharp sheep's-milk cheese. But we'd have skipped the half-moon of tempura-fried eggplant also on that board, given the choice — it cooled too fast and became mealy, which made it feel a bit like a sad consolation prize. If you just want a drinking snack, consider the dish of marinated olives or nuts and seeds. The hungrier should look toward the grilled octopus bedded with deeply savory XO sauce.
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It feels almost like sacrilege not to order a caña of beer during a tapas hour, and you can get a short pour of Estrella lager here for $2.04. If beer isn't your thing, though, pours of red, white and rosé will set you back just $4.08, and red or white sangria and a seasonal gin tonic round out the drinks offerings. The red sangria comes in on the dry side, unlike fruitier, more poundable versions more typical of happy-hour boozing. But we'd happily shell out $4.08 over and over again to taste the gin tonics. A recent version was "more like gin and juice," per the bartender, with housemade tonic and a splash of orange juice. Served in a goblet, it was a generous enough pour to beget a healthy buzz.
Perhaps it's the generous pour that's infused this happy hour with extra effervescence; by 5 p.m., Ultreia's bar is usually packed with lively snackers — a little like it would be in Spain.