Boqueria is one of those insanely busy restaurants that can make its own rules without impairing the demand for its product—in this case, Spanish tapas. Since it opened three years ago in the Flatiron District, the tiny space has been perpetually packed. A second Boqueria opened in Soho, and apparently it’s just as busy.
So Boqueria doesn’t take reservations and forces all of its patrons to sit on bar stools, many at communal tables where the adjacent party is just inches away.
When I arrived at 6:15 p.m. on a Friday night, I snagged one of the few vacant bar tables, but it was missing a stool. Could this be rectified when my girlfriend arrived?
The hostess shrugged. “If we have one,” she said. Otherwise, we’d be advised to cram ourselves onto the banquette side by side.
It turned out that a spare stool was hidden in the coat-check room. Disaster averted. At the very least, her fall-back suggestion would have been awfully cramped, as we observed at other tables not so lucky.
Boqueria can get away with this, as the waves of eager diners just keep coming and coming, as they’ve done since Frank Bruni awarded the unassuming place two stars in November 2006.
The concise menu offers just north of a dozen tapas ($5–12), just three entrées ($17–29), a broad selection of cheeses ($5–6) and a half-dozen cured meats, called Embutidos ($5–6 each). There’s a list of daily specials (mercifully, in print), often including suckling pig, though alas not when we visited.
I was too hungry to wait, so I started with a plate of three Embutidos—the Serrano ham, the spiced pork sausage, and the Catalan hard pork sausage, paired with a Spanish cider practically as alcoholic as a dry martini. The meats were all good, but probably would have worked better as a shared order.
After my girlfriend arrived, we started with the seared octopus ($9) and the seared lamb ($8), both served on skewers (above left). An order of Croquetas ($10; not pictured) offered lightly breaded, creamy helpings of mushroom, salt cod, and suckling pig. Surprisingly, the mushroom croquetas tasted best, whereas the pig had almost no discernable flavor at all.
Paella ($29; above right) is the only item above $20, but it’s still a good deal, as the portion is massive. The two of us finished all of the seafood, but left quite a bit of the rice behind. I found the rice over-cooked. Two huge langoustines were plated lazily on top, and not properly integrated into the dish. The clams were perfectly done.
For a place this busy, the server was reasonably attentive. Then again, turning tables is the name of the game. After we got up to leave, it took all of ten milliseconds for another party to grab our table.
I was less impressed with Boqueria than I’d expected to be. The food was mostly good, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. I’d love to return for one of the trademark pork entrées that folks rave about, but you never know when they’re on the menu.
Boqueria (53 West 19th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)
Ambiance: no stars