Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy, Happy Hours at Ondo's Tapas in Cherry Creek

I don't know a lot about Spanish food, though I did spend a week there eating and drinking myself into a stupor a few years ago. I also watched that show where Mario Batali got to pimp around the country in a convertible, eat gluttonous amounts of food and nap in hammocks; all the time with a hot actress on each arm. Besides learning that being filthy rich has its upside, I learned that all that food he ate looked good. Among that food were some tapas, I'm sure. At least once I spied him lying on his side being hand-fed croquetas like grapes, and I think even wiping his sweaty brow with a thin slice of jamon Serrano. (If I were rich all my wet wipes would be made from jamon Serrano).  Despite those two clear qualifications, I won't claim any expertise on the subject matter yet. Now, with this disclaimer in mind, let me tell you about my recent experiences eating at Denver's own Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar.

I've been to Ondo's twice recently. Both times with groups of about eight people, and both times for the wonderful happy hour that runs from 4-7pm even on Friday and Saturday. This has to be one of the best food and drink deals in Denver right now. Tapas start at $2.50, liters of Sangria are $10, select wines are on special and a cold caña (beer on tap) is $4. I left stuffed and tipsy both nights for less than $30 including tip, proving for good that you don't need to roll like Batali to eat some good Spanish food.

But first, a little background on Ondo's. (If you want a lot of background, visit their website.) Co-owners and executive chef-couple Deicy and Curt Steinbecker trained in Spain at La Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar in San Sabastian. They stayed together after school by working in Spain as chefs, honing their skills under some iconic names. Then, here is the best part: they decided to move to Denver.

I'm not sure why exactly they chose to move to Denver, but the fact that Denver has a distinct lack of tapas diversity may have something to do with it. It is also exciting, because whenever talented chefs choose to move to Denver, it adds more proof to how our city is really coming into its own in all things food. So here they are, two seasoned Spanish-trained chefs, in a subterranean space in Cherry Creek, sharing with Denver their little slice of Spain. Without further ado ("ado", of course, is European for "bullshit"), here is what I ate.

We started off one night with a complimentary chick pea broth based in a rich ham stock. The chick pea was an ideal vehicle for the deep porky flavor of the broth. It was about as close as you could get to bacon juice without really actually trying to juice bacon itself. It was delicious and I could have been happy sipping shots of this all night.

Salud

Next up were the croquetas de jamon, or as I have seen it elegantly translated, "deep-fried ham balls." While this translation may seem descriptive, of course we are worlds away from your typical fried ham ball: we are talking jamon Serrano in a bechamel cream sauce, somehow magically balled up in fried form. It is a classic dish and was very well done here at Ondo's. These were quite popular both nights, and although my wife refused to feed them to me like Batali would have wanted, they were still delicious, and we ordered round after round.


The albondigas, or meat balls, were simple, served in a rich tomato sauce and very satisfying. This is pure comfort food. Make sure to ask for some bread to sop up all the extra sauce.


Nothing says tapas more than the tortilla española. The Ondo's Spanish omelette was perfectly done and served appropriately lukewarm. It was actually quite spectacular; light, fluffy, moist and simple. And don't miss the ensaladilla rusa, or Russian Salad, hiding off to the left in the picture below. You may be surprised by how delicious this simple sounding slaw-style salad of tuna, potato, carrot and olives can be.


Patatas bravas. Crispy and served with the typical spicy tomato sauce, salsa romesco.


The paella is made fresh daily with different ingredients. One night was good, then the second night, made with monkfish and chorizo, it was something special. The tapas version is served as a small plate, so I imagine that the whole-pan entrée version is even better.


At the happy hour price of $10, this simple plate of always delicious jamon serrano and cheeses is reasonable enough.


Goat cheese, homemade jam and fresh strawberries make this a nice palette cleanser, or even dessert.


But save room for real dessert: fresh-made chocolate souffle with mandarin sorbet. And time. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes after ordering. Well worth the wait.


Ondo's tapas has had its niche carved out in Denver for years, and it is wonderful to see it finally filled. Affordable and authentic tapas, thoughtfully prepared in a casual and friendly environment. Part of me wants to keep this to myself, although clearly the word is out. I would like to think that this summer I can walk up on a whim, get seated in the lovely patio and dine for next-to-nothing on their excellent tapas. On the other hand, if I can do that, Ondo's probably won't be doing so well, and that would be a shame.

So keep on going to Ondo's, for happy hour or at any time. In my humble opinion, it is one of the better things that has happened to my private little Denver food world in the past year.

Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar on Urbanspoon

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