I may have been too excited about the opening of Taberna Arros y Vi. They are a Spanish restaurant that describes itself as “your neighborhood tapas and paella joint,” intending to bring Los Angeles authentic Iberian Peninsula food. This is exciting for me as it immediately takes me back to a trip I took in high school, nearly ten years ago, across Spain. I saved up an entire school year to afford the trip, one that was marked by getting to drink fancy wines, try crazy tapas, enjoy paella that came out of two foot wide pots, and see wild buildings by Antonio Gaudi and classic, Spanish paintings by Francisco Goya and El Greco: it was an enlightening experience for a seventeen year old stuck in rural Georgia. Taberna brought back these memories and provided local twists on classic Spanish culinary treats: if you are a fan of Spanish culture or are curious about the food culture, Taberna Arros y Vi is where you need to be.
The restaurant is on the outside block of the Promenade, on 2nd Street just South of Santa Monica: it’s far enough from the crowds that they won’t annoy you but close enough that you will be provided with excellent people watching as you dine. The space is a moody, candlelit Spanish lodge that has lots of printed leather signs and chairs branded with the restaurant’s name. There is a laid back Spanish pub side where a wall sized wine rack and deer antlers frame a football (Ahem, *soccer*.) playing television. The other side of the restaurant, beyond an elaborately wood carved host stand, is a glowing recessed dining room that provides the feeling that you are eating in an Andalusian cave home.
The place is very casual though, the LA laid back attitude obviously marrying well with the gregarious and celebratory Spanish style. When you walk in, the host and bar service members give you a “Buena!” greeting, an obviously laxed colloquialism used to shorten “buenos dias.” You’ll notice the staff’s shirts match the leather Taberna branding and that it vaguely, funnily reminds of the Jack Daniels branding. Everything here is very comfortable, most notably the modern, couch-y chairs that some tables have. The menu is comfortable too as it is both totally affordable and full of Spanish comfort food items like cured olives, braised octopus, pig ears, and—obviously—paella.
They have sangria, too. Dodging the cheesy, anglicized fruit filled pitcher of cheap wine and sugar, Taberna’s sangria comes in waved glasses that are experimental riffs on the wine based formula. There’s the golden Honey Grapefruit Sangria that tastes of nectar and melon atop of an effervescent grapefruit and prosecco mix. There’s the Beer Sangria that is a crazy mixture of pear and orange juice with Estrella Damm beer. The Burgundy Sangria is the most traditional with its big, red wine character serving as a base to riff off strawberry and citrus flavors. We did try one non-sangria drink: the Salted Watermelon, a seasonal libation that embraces over the top watermelon flavor and eliminates all traces of the Petrov spirit. The salt rim helps to cut the sweetness and will make you feel like you are drinking an alt-Mexican margarita.
The menu is mostly tapas made to share in addition to a few rice based (“con arros”) items and bigger dishes (“comida”). Tapas are made to share and bring people together: they’re casual bites intended for late night snacking or off-meal-time sharing. They are indulgent and fun and should be paired with lots of drinks. Of all the small plate and “tapas” places in Los Angeles, Taberna is the only one that gets back to the core idea of a tapa being an off-meal food intended to bring people together. They don’t over charge you with a twenty five dollar small plate nor do they skimp on their serving sizes. They give you honest, good little dishes all under eighteen dollars and with a median price of eleven-ish dollars: you can get a lot of food and you won’t feel guilty of overspending.
All of the tapas come out very quickly and all of it is from local producers, too. If Chef Verite Mazzola doesn’t get the food herself at the Santa Monica farmers market, she’s ordering it directly from local farms whose produce dictates what goes onto the menu. This explains the presence of asparagus dishes and pickled beans, the latter of which we had to try as a starting item. The pickles have a strong dill relationship attached to a vinegar kick. The vinegar somehow comes off surprisingly passive given the freshness of the dill.
We had to order the Crispy Pig Ears and Spicy Potato Skins to start as both sounded like a mashing of American and Spanish comfort items. The ears are these fatty, chewy, almost jerky like pork rinds tossed with lots of red pepper. They have an interesting rough/soft texture and are prepared in a way that makes them straw-like. They come with a chipotle reminding harissa aioli and a trufflish, umami inserting salsa verde. The potato skins are a weird-good hybrid between french fries and potato chips: they feel like fancy bar food. They are like a vegetarian cousin to the ears as they are tossed with red pepper, come with harissa aioli, and even look similar to the other dish. A note on them: order one or the other as you can easily fill up on these. We opted to take them home so that we could try more of Taberna’s offerings.
Coming highly recommended from our super sweet waitress were the Mussels. They’re prepared in a spicy butter and tomato broth and served with chunks of spanish queso and chorizo. This dish is one that you will want to lick until there is nothing left (Mind the shells, though!) because it does everything right for you. They take mellow mussels and celebrate their flavor with assertive, spicy chorizo, rich tomato, and blue cheese-like queso that is all sprinkled with lemon. There is an incredible energy and relationship between these ingredients and this dish serves as a statement of seasonal food themes to expect in other dishes.
The Paprika Shrimp exemplifies that idea of seasonal relatives. You have fat shrimp that are based in a spicy, sweet paprika and tomato dressing complimented by a spicy chorizo ending. Served alongside the same crostini you get with the mussels, you see that these are coming from the same basket. These two dishes in particular make you remember that you are a couple of blocks from the ocean, too.
Moving on to more meatier, heartier dishes, we had to try the Rabbit Rillette and Miataki Mushroom Blossom. The rabbit comes with crostini for you to spread it across along with some Marcona almond sprinklings and apricot slices. The effect of the dish is similar to a chicken liver and is much smoother and richer than it appears. The addition of the apricots provide an almost bubbly texture, too.
The Miataki was also highly recommended and is one of those things that appears on the menu as long as the farmers are providing it. (Note: the menu changes every few days due to what is at the market.) This dish is the most beautifully presented as it is a flowering, tiered mushroom nest sprinkled with parsley and edible flowers set before an “osso bucco marmalade.” If you are familiar, it kind of looks like it could be a scene from alien nature video game Pikmin. The mushroom is very relaxed with a fresh taste that is very subtle in its “mushroomness.” The osso bucco beef shank adds a fatty, meaty, party-like element to the natural mushroom. The collision of the delicate and rough flavors could come as the result of a hippie and frat boy culinary summit: it is as light as it is weighed, as ritzy as it is homey.
Exiting tapas territory, we had to try one of the paellas: you cannot go to a Spanish restaurant without trying a paella. Have not had paella? First off, shame, shame, shame. Second, you are in luck because Taberna does it quite well. The dish is known to be a rice and saffron mixture of seasonal items that basically abides by the “Throw everything in there!” mentality. The dish usually has sausage and chicken and shrimp and mussels and shellfish and whatever else you have lying around paired with some peas, carrots, and more. The Taberna version is streamlined to ensure various dieted Angelenos can try it: there is the meat based Paella Valenciana, the fish based Seafood Paella, and the vegetable only Paella de Verduras. The Valencianana was nearest to the most authentic, which meant our ordering it. (Truth be told, we wanted to combine the three of them together but that was not an option.) The dish comes in a foot wide low pan that was baked until the rice on the edge was appropriately crisp to serve. The saffron flavor is appropriately omnipresent in the rice, serving as the assistant to very fatty, ridiculous chicken pieces that fell from bone to bowl and thick, baked choirzo slices. While the seafood note was missing, the addition of strong lemon flavor and big lima beans added in that curious alternative flavor. They also represent the local gifts from the market, too.
While what we had already eaten was likely enough for four people, we spoke with Chef Verite and were convinced by her to try some of their staple desserts. The first we probably would have ordered without prodding: a bread pudding Chef Verite made because she wanted a very homey dessert. The dish is honestly perfect as she ditches the always unwanted raisin for cozy chocolate chunks. It’s warm, bready, cinnamony, caramely, and topped with a fat scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s unbelievable. A funny swing at the classic Bocadilla is the other desert option: a sweet sandwich filled with the kitchen’s take on Nutella. Using Marcona almonds and bitter caramel, Chef Verite made a paste that she slipped into two pieces of bread. This dish is ironically bigger with bread notes than the Bread Pudding and feels a lot like a buttery churro or french toast. The chocolate ganache dip you get with it too adds a little cut of the sweet, too.
Taberna Arros y Vi definitely brought me back to being in Spain and really, really made me—and probably you and anyone else who has been there—want to go back. It has a wonderful European quality to it, which may or may not be because it’s all the way out in the other world that is Santa Monica. Taberna has effectively fused Los Angeles’ local, natural food leanings with Spanish comfort classics. You have the option to go for a relaxed meal or a more serious dining experience: whatever you want, Taberna can do—and you don’t even have to go to Spain to get it.
It should also be noted that they’ll be getting a lot more Spanish as they age since they plan on adding in lunch service, a patio, a full bar, and later hours to cater to the very Spanish culture of late night tapas off of a public square. The Santa Monica Promenade may not quite be the most sophisticated public square to serve tapas off of—but that won’t stop Taberna from doing them right.