Cafe Society

The 9th Door offers a tamer version of Spain's tapas scene

Two short pours of beer get you a free plate of tapas at El Tigre, a dark, dungeon-like bar crammed into the heart of Madrid. The place is always packed, with people jostling each other as they order a drink from one of the bartenders, then try to nab a spot where they can rest their glasses and those plates of tapas in the standing-room-only space. The food's not complicated — eggy tortilla Española; meatballs; slices of glistening, fat-laced jamón Ibérico; crisply fried potatoes dusted with paprika and doused with tangy salsa brava, a spicy mayonnaise-and-ketchup blend that makes me forget my aversion to mayonnaise — but it's all well prepared, and it pairs perfectly with the drinks.

It took about three days for that grimy tapas bar to become one of my favorite restaurants in the world: El Tigre was the ideal spot to start, continue or finish a night; grab a quick snack in the meantime; and find a free meal when I was running out of money near the end of my trip. And the food was my favorite embodiment of the most famous subset of Spanish cuisine.

According to food lore, tapas were invented by a crafty bartender who figured out how to make a free snack that would keep flies away from a beverage when placed on top of a glass (hence the name tapa, which means top or lid) and also encourage patrons to keep imbibing by coating their palates with salt. From those humble beginnings, tapas evolved to incorporate all of the Moorish and Mediterranean influences of the Iberian peninsula in just a couple of bites. Still, tapas remained cheap and relatively simple, especially when compared with the rest of the Spanish canon, which is heavy on seafood and pork in paella and stews.

Here in the States, tapas underwent more of a transition, eventually spawning the full-blown, and ongoing, small-plates trend now embraced by all kinds of restaurants that recognize how diners like to sample a mélange of dishes — and how this is also a good way to get people to order more food. But even as that kind of eating became more popular, actual tapas restaurants serving real Spanish cuisine became harder to find.

My search for tapas in Denver led me to the 9th Door, a dark but far-from-dungeon-like bar crammed into the heart of LoDo. When the 9th Door opened six years ago, veteran chef Michel Wahaltere was called in as a consultant, and he created a menu of Spanish favorites, meant to be mixed and matched and made into a meal. To go with this inviting lineup, the cavernous spot was decked out in coppery hues and dark woods, with a plush red banquette along the wall and a bed in the middle of the dining room, gimmicky enough to make you feel like you've entered into some adult theme park. The decor remains; the chef does not. Today Kevin Marquet controls the board, though he's kept a lot of the original Wahaltere creations; the menu is divided between hot and cold tapas, all of which combine such traditional ingredients as olives, ham, and manchego and goat cheeses with varying levels of complexity.

When I stopped in for dinner one recent Friday, the dining room was mostly reserved for dates and weekend gatherings. After some consideration, the chilly, pretty hostess tucked me into a corner booth, where I waited for my companion while listening to bumping techno and pouring red sangria from the carafe I'd ordered. It turned out to be a dangerously potent blend of alcohols — triple sec, gin, brandy and red wine — well masked by fruit juice. My friendly, if not particularly enthusiastic, server refused to give me the complete "top secret" recipe, but hearing that much was enough to make me set the drink aside until my food started to come.

And what a start: The membrillo, manchego and Serrano appetizer, a sweet and savory snack, was just about perfect. The thick-cut ham had been fried until it had the crunch of a cracker, which gave it enough weight to support the honeyed, fruity cube of quince paste and a slice of manchego. Almost as good was the Ibérico ham, famous because it comes from Spanish acorn-fed pigs and has only recently been available in the States; it was decadently cured, silky and fat-laced — though I wished the kitchen hadn't shaved it so thin and piled it in a ball on the plate, since it broke apart when I attempted to pick up a slice.

From there, though, the meal went downhill. The tortilla Española was a fairly textbook, if under-seasoned, version of the dense omelet layered with slices of potato; a thin, watery tomato sauce did nothing to perk it up. Other dishes were missing key ingredients altogether. The mint in the mealy albóndigas was a mere suggestion; I couldn't find the promised goat cheese in the dátiles, dates wrapped in Serrano ham. And rather than coat the patatas bravas in that tomato-mayonnaise blend, the 9th Door serves the spuds with dipping sauces: chunky, pungent blue cheese; garlicky aioli and earthy, red-pepper romesco. The sauces packed a punch — and they needed to, if they were going to knock out the horror of the potatoes. The slices all had the deep caramel color that suggests they were about to burn — yet they were undercooked in the center and mushy around the edges.

At our server's suggestion, I'd eagerly ordered the carne de cerdo, ribs coated in pineapple brandy sauce with crispy onions, but while the meat was tender, the ribs were so candy-sweet they were practically dessert. I decided to take that as a hint that our meal was over, and we abandoned our plates, focusing instead on the sangria.

When I'd sufficiently recovered from both the drink and the disappointment, I returned with a friend for happy hour, when the 9th Door serves an assortment of discounted Spanish and non-Spanish cocktails, wine, and red and white sangria, as well as a list of snacks that cost no more than $5. An after-work crowd was beginning to filter in, with office types grabbing seats at the massive bar first and late-comers letting the same chilly hostess lead them to tables.

I ordered the red sangria again and a round of snacks, starting with tostas truchas, crunchy rounds of toast covered with smoky trout that had been puréed, whipped and augmented with chives — but none of the horseradish promised on the menu. Nor could I find the tuna in the aceitunas rellenos, briny flash-fried olives that were supposed to be stuffed with the fish. And the tostas setas, described as toast topped with a sautéed-mushroom-and-goat-cheese blend, were actually topped with lightly sautéed mushrooms that needed pepper or butter or vinegar or any other flavor that would revive them — and some goat cheese would have been nice, too.

Though they didn't come with happy-hour pricing, I'd ordered the patatas bravas again, hoping that first round had been a fluke. The potatoes were better this time, though still undercooked and still very much not patatas bravas. More successful were the tostas jamón, crunchy baguette slices layered with a thin slice of Serrano ham, a sweet, oily piquillo pepper and a toothpicked olive wrapped in an anchovy — a combination that smacked deliciously of fish and salt. The best happy-hour tapa of all, though, was the simplest: thick, triangular slices of dry, sharp manchego dabbed with a little salty tapenade and drizzled with mild olive oil. It was straightforward and delicious, even if I wished the olive oil had the vegetal, almost peppery bite characteristic of the Spanish stuff.

Then again, I wish that the entire 9th Door scene had the bite of the Spanish original.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk