Category: Eating Out

The Venta – Roadside Comfort Food in Spain

Venta Magdalena

In the three plus years I have lived in Spain, I have come to love a good venta. Ventas are rural establishments scattered along lonely stretches of highway throughout Spain, where travelers between destinations can find hearty plates of local food and sometimes lodging.  Such restaurants are roughly the Spanish equivalent of independent American roadside diners, where even if you are far from home, you can find comfort. The Venta Magdalena, a mom-and-pop establishment in rural Murcia, is a perfect example.

Like most ventas I have come across, the Venta Magdalena has easy access off the regional highway and ample parking for weekend warriors. Good ventas, you see, are often destinations in and of themselves for in-the-know locals from nearby cities and towns.

Venta Magdalena

At the Venta Magdalena, you really do have to be in the know to guarantee yourself a serving of the restaurant’s specialty, its arroz (rice). If you don’t call in ahead to place your order, you might be out of luck (although the delicious grilled lamb chops help ease the blow). Such need for forethought may be frustrating for those who prefer spontaneity. Yet, in my experience, knowing a good arroz awaits greatly enhances the morning and fuels any distance that must be traveled.

The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside (and there’s not much else around, either, minus a building with a flashing neon heart just on the other side of the highway, a beacon in the night for travelers with another kind of hunger). Yet on the inside, the Venta Magdalena feels like a country home, with wood paneling, dark wooden beams and walls decorated with rural landscapes, still lifes, ceramic plates and antique ladles. The day’s news flickers on a TV propped up in the corner, typical decor in a venta. You enter the restaurant through the bar, where, if you have to wait, a draft beer and a plate of locally cured meats help pass the time.

The arroz here is cooked over a wood-burning fire and served in well-blackened pans fresh off the flames. (Similar dishes are often called paella in Valencia to the north and in more touristy zones throughout Spain, but here in Murcia, a rice dish is almost always referred to as an arroz, a title which is modified with additional ingredients.) The most typical versions at the inland Venta Magdalena are arroz con conejo, rice with rabbit (pictured below), or arroz con conejo y caracoles, rice with rabbit and snails.

Arroz con conejo

I took my first spoonful right out of the steaming pan, burning my tongue. Our waitress set down a plate with lemon, the only condiment befitting an arroz, which I squeezed over the dish, adding lively acidity to the smoky, tomato-based broth. The grains were just right — not too firm and not too soggy, either — the equivalent of pasta al dente. The rabbit was lean yet tender, and both Manolo and I picked up the little pieces with our hands to get all the meat off the bones with our teeth. A quick look around the dining room confirmed that we weren’t the only ones licking our fingers. Towards the end, we sparred with our spoons over the crispy, toasted rice stuck to the bottom of the pan.

It was after 3 pm on a Friday afternoon, and the dining room was just about full, with men far outnumbering women (in contrast, on weekends, the Venta Magdalena tends to fill up with families). At one table, a group of casually dressed businessmen raised glasses of local red wine to greet a colleague from out of town. At another, a quartet of silver-haired men, all with a few extra pounds around their waists, had opted for beers instead. Like me, these men eschewed their plates, digging their spoons right into the common pan of arroz that just about took up their whole table.

In fact, everyone in the restaurant was having arroz, and I imagined that all of us had come with visions of this savory golden dish in our heads, leading the way. And here our visions had been realized, which is all this hungry traveler could ask for.

Venta Magdalena
Carretera Mula. Pj. Morata 67
Los Baños – Mula
Telephone.: +34 968 660 568

Do you have a favorite venta?

My Neighborhood: A Saturday Market Feast

A Saturday aperitivo at the Plaza, our neighborhood market, is a well-loved ritual for many locals. While Spanish-English dictionaries will lead you to believe that the aperitivo is a pre-lunch affair, experience in Spain has taught me otherwise. Here in Murcia, at least, it is not unusual for an aperitivo to begin at around 1:30 p.m. and end nearly twelve hours later, with one last drink in a friend’s home. Meanwhile, nearly the entire day has been spent imbibing – a few bites here, a few sips there – and talking. This is typically what happens when we begin at the Plaza.

La Plaza - Saturday at Pasqual's

But beyond the timeframe, an aperitivo at the Plaza is not a typical bar experience. For here, you buy your own fish and meat at your purveyors of choice in the market and then take them to Cafetería Pascual, where the owner cooks them up for you. The preparation is simple – either a la plancha, on a griddle sizzling with olive oil, or al vapor, steamed in a big pot seasoned with bay leaves. Both methods bring out the flavors of the literally market-fresh products. You don’t have to specify. You just leave your bags in the queue on the counter, and Pascual takes care of the rest.

Our first stop – Pescadería Manolo:

Plaza - Pescaderia Manolo

Our fishmongers:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri

The fish:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri (2)

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Our next stop – Cafetería Pascual:

Pascual napkinDSC01550

This is not a meal for the timid – there are no signs explaining what to do, and you must be pro-active to get your food in line. Nor is it a meal for the impatient – it can take up to an hour, or more, to get your first cooked item. It’s best not to think about the time, and instead focus on more important matters, like beer and warm-up nibbles, such as locally cured sausages or a plate of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad.

A “martini,” which here means vermouth and is a typical aperitif, can be dangerous at this stage, particularly given the volume of the pour.

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It can be difficult to pace yourself, especially when you arrive hungry. I have found it is easy to forget how much fish and meat is coming my way. So after I’ve had my fill of steamed mussels, griddled razor clams and prawns, I remember there are more plates to come – the griddled sausage, pork filets and boiled local morcillas, blood sausage stuffed with caramelized onions and pine nuts. Oh yeah, and the quail eggs, which will come perched atop thin slices of baguette.

La plaza - Mussels! (2)

This whole process takes at least three hours, during which time the empty beer bottles have steadily accumulated and the conversation has steadily gotten louder. A Saturday at the Plaza is a boisterous feast, which is clear in the aftermath…

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Once the frenzy has died down, we plot out our next step – going home is usually out of the question. This is an aperitivo, after all.