We recently had our first visitor from the United States and were very excited to show off our new city. We wanted to give our friend, Bernardo McLean, an authentic Spanish tapas experience. Searching online for the best tapas in Valencia, one restaurant frequently tops the list: Casa Montaña. One of the oldest taverns in Valencia, it was just the kind of place we were looking for.
Casa Montaña is located in the El Cabanyal district near the Las Arenas beach and the Port of Valencia. To get there, we took the Valencia Metro to the Marítim-Serrería stop and walked through El Cabanyal. This is the historic fisherman’s quarter which dates back to the 13th century. Many of the existing Modernist and Art Nouveau homes were built between 1880 and 1940 after most of the original thatched-roof fisherman’s shacks had been destroyed by fires.
Walking through El Cabanyal is not a very scenic tour. After decades of neglect, many of the buildings are in poor condition. Locals fought hard to save their neighborhood from destruction when the city wanted to build a four lane avenue to the beach. Now, this working class neighborhood is in the midst of improvements and gentrification.
Casa Montaña has been in operation in El Cabanyal since 1836. It was originally a bodega and tavern that provided bulk wine to merchant ships in the nearby port. The establishment has changed ownership many times over the years. Prominent local wine guy Emilio Garcia acquired the Casa Montaña in 1994 and was later joined by his son Alejandro Garcia in 2006.
The atmosphere is that of a traditional Spanish tapas restaurant with wine barrels stacked along the walls. Sitting at tables among the barrels, you can choose from a large menu of classic Spanish tapas. We did not have a reservation, so we made sure to be there early to get seats in the front bar. There is also an equally charming dining area in the back of the building that holds just a few tables.
First things first, a glass of wine. Emilio Garcia has put together an extensive collection of wines by the bottle, but we opted to choose wines by the glass from the dozen or so vinos de la semana (wines of the week) written on the boards. We wanted to make sure we saved room to try some of the brandies, vermouth, and sweet wine aging in barrels behind the bar.
We like to start with a bowl of altramuces (lupin beans) to snack on while selecting tapas from the multipage menu of seafood, conservas, jamon, cheeses and sausages.
Normally we pass over Patatas Bravas because they are ubiquitous in Spain and often lack originality. After all, fried potatoes are fried potatoes,right? This day, however, we wanted Bernardo to try as many traditional Spanish tapas as possible. It turns out this was a good decision.
These Patatas Bravas were so simple, and yet so good. The goodness comes from the potatoes, which they harvest from the area of Montes Universales, a mountain range northwest of Valencia. Large cylindrical chunks of potatoes were fried crispy on the outside while still light and soft inside with a distinct potato flavor. There was a dollop of garlicky aioli on one side of the plate and spicy tomato sauce on the other. I glanced around the bar and saw that everyone was eating patatas bravas. It was like we had just been let in on a secret that everyone else knew.
Brandada de bacalao is a traditional dish that is typically a blend of salt cod, garlic, olive oil and sometimes potato and cream. Casa Montaña’s version was super creamy and rich, baked in a cazuela (a terra cotta bowl) and served with toast.
The Sardinas plancha (grilled sardines) were just as simple and just as delicious. We had a half racion which came with 6 medium sized sardines from the Bay of Castellon. Salty, crunchy outside and moist, fishy goodness inside complemented with just squeeze of lemon, I adore these little fish. They are one of my favorite things in Spain.
The Anguila ahumada (smoked eel) was unexpectedly elegant considering the rustic atmosphere. A single, long filet of eel was dressed with olive oil and herbs. It was tender, very smokey, and since Eel is an oily fish, it was intense. I like a fish that packs a lot of flavor to remind me that it is, in fact, a fish. We really enjoyed it, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart.
We were hoping to try some Clochinas, those special mussels only found in Valencia, but they were not available that day. Instead, we tried the Berberechos al vapor D.O.Rias Gallegas. These are little clams, also known as cockles, that pack a lot of flavor into a small bite. Apparently we really like berberechos, although I didn’t know it until that day.
Afterwards, some digestives were in order. The guys had glasses of brandy from the barrel while I wanted something sweet and went for a glass of the mistela, a sweet fortified wine.
With Bernardo full of Spanish tapas and wine, we thought it would be fitting to walk out to the beach so that he could dip his toes in the Mediterranean. Yes, it was November and yes, people were still dipping their toes in the sea.
C/ José Benlliure, 69
Monday to Friday 13.00 – 16.00, 20.00 – 23.30
Saturday 12.30 – 16.00, 20.00 – 23.30
Sunday and Holidays 12.30 – 16.00