Madrid Checklist: Eat.Drink.Sweat.Repeat.
You know it's blazing hot in Madrid when your childhood friend says that you look like you bathed in your own sweat. As unflattering as his comment was, it accurately described Western Europe's record-breaking heatstroke (I mean, heatwave) this past July. While there are benefits to accelerated vitamin D intake, I couldn't possibly endure consecutive days of 104-degree temperatures without wanting to dive into a nearby fountain. Dunking my entire body in the Miguel de Cervantes Monument pool would have alarmed my host. So instead, I hibernated the entire week inside my BFF's air-conditioned apartment to rest my overly taxed sweat glands. Such a pity since he lives in a central apartment just 20 stories above Plaza de Espana. From a location standpoint, it can't get better than that since the Royal Palace, Julia's Travel, City Sightseeing, metro station, shopping districts, and several mouth-watering tapas bars were only steps away. If it weren't for these sweltering conditions, I would have happily galloped for miles visiting multiple tourist spots.
What does one do in lieu of outdoor exploration in sweltering heat? Eat. Drink. SWEAT. Repeat.
Madrid was one of my stops during my unforgettable 2007 worldwide backpacking trip. It wasn't as hot back then so I was able to visit many popular tourist destinations. Re-posting that link here if you're looking for first time visitor recommendations. 8 years later, not much has changed except I discovered 2 indoor food markets that could easily satisfy every possible craving. A girl's gotta eat, and these 2 hotspots can definitely quench insatiable appetites like mine.
Hotspot #1: Mercado de San Miguel
This market is extremely popular, attracting roughly 75,000 visitors each week. It's located several blocks from the highly trafficked Puerto del Sol and to the right of Plaza Mayor (depending on which puerta you exit). Once inside, you're instantly flooded with gastronomic stimuli. This place is a food lover's haven and caters to those that enjoy sampling Madrid's finest treats under one roof. Each row leads to multiple purveyors of small bites, big bites, beer, wine, cocktails, desserts, paella, gulas al ajilo (baby eel with garlic), empanadas, mozzarella, olives, fresh fruit drinks, and other palate-pleasing morsels. I can actually feel my belly contorting (a digestive process called migrating motor complex) since food memories trigger a pronounced, visceral reaction, especially when I'm hungry.
Here are several standouts:
Paella Y Ole: For only 7 euros (tapas portion), you can sample your favorite paella - Arroz Abanda (tomato, red peppers, calamari, prawns), Arroz con Costra (carne and chorizo), or Arroz Negro (black paella). A simple menu means shorter lines so you'll have paella in hand within seconds of paying. I was STARVING at this point so shoving rice kernels into my mouth quickly prevented an imminent hypoglycemic attack.
The Sherry Corner: Sadly I missed out on this one since a happy customer holding a glass of sherry wine occupied every square inch of their booth. These guys are popular, and I can see why. They offer sherry flights (in a Moroccan style serving tray) paired with tapas to enhance the flavor of these carefully selected tastings. For additional information, visit http://www.sherrywinetaste.com/
Cocktail Cart: This cart had the coolest retro vibe. The TV series, Madmen, immediately came to mind. Cocktail options include: Mojito, Capiroska, Gin Fizz, Margarita, and a Daiquiri (8 euros). Ordered a strawberry daiquiri and captured the cocktail making process on video. The bartender had that "why are you filming me" look, so here's a snapshot instead.
Caviar Cart: How could I possibly resist salmon + caviar on brioche toasts? I couldn't so I ordered one of each: salmon con caviar rojo (red) and mariscos con caviar negro (black)
Meat Stand: I can't remember the official name of this stand since I was mesmerized by the vast cured meat display.
The stand is the first one you see to the right of the main entrance. Here, you can order a cone of Jamon Iberico for only 9 euros. This was a steal since this type of ham is extremely expensive at most Spanish dining establishments. They don't skimp either so make sure you grab one of these cones for the road. I didn't take a photo of my cured hog cone cuz it disappeared within 5 minutes. Satisfying my hunger supersedes snapping a blog photo any day. Here's what jamon looks like before it's sliced to perfection.
Hotspot #2: Mercado de San Anton
Mercardo de San Anton in Chueca is a little more subdued since there were less people and food options overall. I was surprised to hear that they have been around for 70 years. Could have fooled me since everything (decor, stalls, structure) looked quite modern. Once inside, you'll take an escalator to the 2nd floor marketplace housing fresh fruit, meat, seafood, and olive oil stands for gourmet enthusiasts. The upper tier features several fast food kiosks including my FAVORITE - Foie. The risotto de foie y hongas (3 euros) and foie fresco a la plancha (4.30 euros) were so decadent that I had this exact meal two days in a row. I even studied the metro map that second day so I could make one last trip to Chueca before heading back to San Francisco. I am still thinking about that melt-in-your-mouth foie even though it's already been 2 months since my visit.
Words can't really convey how much I enjoyed these 2 markets so I took numerous photos to add visual life to this dining experience. Warning, don't view this album when you're hungry. You will hate me for it: http://on.fb.me/1Uu7kmk
It wasn't all about food stands and markets. There are 2 restaurants that I highly recommend as well.
El Senador (Plaza de Espana) is known for their specialty dishes: roasted suckling pig (Segovian) and roasted lamb (Castilian). My friend offered one bite of his suckling pig dish, and I immediately regretted not ordering one for myself. Roasted lamb was great, but that hog was even better. Make sure to order their homemade foie and goat cheese appetizer, which I had them later package for in-home consumption. I'm a wine connoisseur so ordering "house red" isn't the norm. Not sure which bottle the waiter opened, but my glass was filled with one of the best reds I've tasted. I should have looked at the wine label, but I was too busy savoring that glorious red nectar and succulent meal.
If you need a break from Spanish cuisine, Korean food is a strong alternative. Gayugum is just around the corner from Puerto del Sol and within walking distance from the metro station. Since we didn't know whether the food would be tasty or bland, we decided to splurge anyway by ordering their "50 euro, 2 person" special, which includes 10 side dishes, 2 entrees, and sizzling tofu soup. It was worth the risk even though portions were overwhelming. To sum up: Eating here completely trumps eating at any of the authentic Korean restaurants I frequented while in Seoul and Busan. Huge props to the owners for creating a savory Asian dining experience that Spanish locals and tourists can savor. Kimchee tapas, anyone?
Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Hemingway, politicians, writers, athletes, and the Hollywood elite have all hobnobbed at Madrid's oldest bar - Museo Chicote. There are countless photos of these famous faces at the entrance of the bar dating as far back as 1931. Definitely had elbowroom to look at each picture since 9pm is way too early for most locals. I read somewhere that it gets pretty crowded around midnight once locals have finished dinner. I'm usually in bed by then so an earlier cocktail hour works well for this old fogey.
The cocktail menu is extensive - 43 options, each priced at 9 euros unless you order a non-alcoholic beverage such as the virgin mojito. Rather than trying something different, I gravitated towards my 2 favorite drinks: Old Fashioned (Bourbon, Terron De Azucar y Angostura) and Sazerac (Whiskey de Centeno, Pycheaud bitters, Absenta y Azucar). My friend, on the other hand, ordered a much sexier drink: Porn Star Martini (Vodka, Vanilla, Fruita de la Pasion, Frambuesa, Pina y Cava). We stared at this last drink since we couldn't identify the fruit floating in the middle of it. All three drinks were fantastic and worthy of all the hype this cocktail lounge receives.
I wasn't the only one working up a sweat in Madrid. If you want to watch professional dancers generating on-stage heat, then you should attend a live flamenco show at Torres Bermejas near Plaza de Callao. This venue opened in 1960 and is marketed as "the best place in Madrid to discover the art of flamenco". There are several beautifully choreographed routines on an elevated stage, where musicians, singers, and flamenco dancers showcase their incredible artistry. Reservation tip: Book your tickets online to receive a 10% discount. There are several seating options depending on whether you want dinner or just drinks: http://torresbermejas.com/en/horarios/ If you book the "drink only" option, make sure to look at the drink menu if you decide to order a second round. First drink is free, but the second one could be as high as 26 euros for a glass of sangria.
The solo performances were intense, but my favorite one showcases a male/female-dancing duo. The foot stomping staccato movements are simply electrifying. Muy Caliente!
Due to scheduling issues, I actually had to pass through the Madrid airport 6 times during my 10-day European visit. That's a lot of repeat trips to and from Barajas airport. To soften the financial blow of traveling back and forth, I recommend using the metro (only 5 euros each way) since the station is conveniently located in one of the terminals. Taxi rates aren't bad either at roughly 30 euros, but I would rather spend cash on other activities such as Julie's Travel tours and the City Sightseeing Tour Bus. Unfortunately since the heat was unbearable, the open top bus was not a viable option. I only boarded the double-decker once since too many passengers were vying for highly coveted seats under the canopy. Sitting on any other seat was akin to sitting inside a blazing furnace. So 2 hours was more than enough time to cruise around Madrid before severe dehydration kicked in. I'm usually a fan of these tour buses (see "Bus Lady Myra Does Lisbon"), but this time was a rare exception.
Despite the weather, repeat visits are highly likely since Madrid will be my European home base (thanks to my amazing buddy) for the next year or two. Flights from Spain to other European destinations are much cheaper than booking separate flights from the US. I couldn't ask for a better second home. Hace mucho calor en Madrid, so next time I will return with an empty stomach and a portable fan.
Original trip date: July 13 - July 17, 2015. Next blog post: Canary Islands and Toledo.