As the corner coffee shop is to Seattle, so the bocadillo snack cafe is to Spain: casual, all day, everywhere, essential. A bocadillo is a toasted baguette sandwich marked by simple, pure ingredients—Manchego cheese and tomato pulp, say, or bonito tuna and preserved lemon. In contrast to the increasingly massive American sandwich, a bocadillo is sleek: a half-wrapped torpedo of precision flavors whose only excesses are a blissful embarrassment of textures.
Chico Madrid, too, is sleek: a mod, streamlined, window-skinned space in the main floor of the Belroy Apartments amid the high-density condo warrens of northwest Capitol Hill. It’s all red tiles, smooth wood surfaces, globe lights. A few tables surround a few counter seats, which surround a bar, espresso bar, and kitchen peninsula—all of which spills onto a five-table patio, perfect for August.
I have been to Chico Madrid now by morning, sipping an expertly pulled cappuccino alongside a couple still tonsils-deep in last night’s passion. I have been for lunch, as marijuana wafting off a nearby deck flavored my romaine and preserved-lemon and pickled-onion ensalada. I have been for happy hour (weekdays 4 to 6pm), for dollar-off glasses of sangria and dollar-off plates of olives and almonds and acorn-fed iberico ham, overhearing snatches of French and Spanish conversation along with smart-alecky shout-outs from the boys at the next patio table. “Girl, that bikini top looks like a bed skirt!” yelled one to a laughing passerby. “Prancercise!” added his companion.
Such ambience adds up to, if not precisely a slice of Europe—where one can only hope Prancercise hasn’t found its way into common parlance—at least an echo of the villagey community that distinguishes it. Possibly half the folks who drift through the doors of Chico Madrid are neighborhood regulars, greeted warmly by genuinely warm servers. On our maiden visit we arrived at twilight on a perfect summer day, rattled from our search for a parking space—condo warrens indeed—only to find every patio table occupied. Not one but two waiters acted sincerely pained on our behalf, seating us indoors with a direct sight line to the likeliest outside table to clear first. Once we snagged it, our waiters happily helped us hustle our dishes over.
As evening dimmed and we savored bocadillos, open-faced toasts, and the melty paninolike sandwiches of Barcelona called bikinis—we began to discover that Chico Madrid is more than just welcoming. Here is a sandwich shop that knew it couldn’t succeed without perfect bread, which in this town points to Columbia City Bakery. Dense, chewy slices of its rustic campagne loaves form the lightly toasted bases for fat hunks of blue cheese drizzled with local honey and black pepper—like most of the dishes at Chico Madrid, a satisfying tease between savory and sweet. Another toast, pan con chocolate, is campagne spread with olive oil, 70 percent cocoa chocolate, and a spray of sea salt. It’s listed on both the openers and the desserts portion of the menu, and it’s winning as either.
The same bread appears in the pressed and grilled bikinis, or grilled cheese sandwiches, including one with Zoe’s smoky bacon, queso barra, and a salsa verde that the chef, Jorge Ascencio, crafts from parsley, Spanish sherry vinegar, garlic, and olive oil. All the bikinis we tried featured twining, harmonious flavors—especially the fruity quince, or membrillo, jelly on ham and cheese—but only the bacon one was grilled to appropriate crispness.
No such problem with the bocadillos, which owing to their crusty, thin ficelle baguettes are primarily, even denture-killingly, crunchy. Inside, the oils of the ingredients turn the bread creamy, with the cheese and fish and charcuterie (all but the chorizo imported from Spain) lending their own textural signatures. The one with chorizo and Garrotxa goat cheese is full of flavor; the one with Spanish tortilla authentically bland (though improved by heady aioli). The one I liked best starred boquerones, or white Spanish anchovies, tucked into the ficelle between smears of tomato pulp and that frisky salsa verde. The ingredients were brilliant together, the salsa going toe to toe with the feisty fish, the tomato lending its wash of sweet juice. When he was a kid in Spain, chef Ascencio recalls his grandmother rubbing halved tomatoes against bocadillo bread to unleash their pulp. This season especially, to eat at Chico Madrid is to remember that tomatoes are a fruit.
Ascencio, whose back-of-the-house experience runs to just a few years on the line at Marination Mobile, Poppy, and Canlis, has three partners: Jacob Daley, a builder and designer who delivered the sexy space; Franz Gilbertson, the owner and pastry chef of the esteemed Honoré Artisan Bakery in Ballard; and Dani Cone, the entrepreneur behind Fuel Coffee and High 5 Pie. Gilbertson’s baked goods are few but flawless, especially the dense, orange-currant scones and the lemon–olive oil madeleines, little wrapped cakes whose crisp edges give way to supermoist interiors. Coffee, Cone’s province, is likewise elite—organic Caffe Vita coffee pulled, literally, on an artisan handmade Bosco espresso machine through an Old World setup of pistons, springs, and levers. Baristas muster a surgical level of attention for each cup; it takes awhile. Coffee snobs will not mind.
Beverages, indeed, enjoy exalted status at Chico Madrid. You can sip a whole bottle of cava for $14; marvel at the improbable refreshment of kalimotxo, a Basque blend of tempranillo red wine and Mexican Coke; or savor the city’s best sangria, its tempranillo bright with fruit and a big bitter kiss of orange peel. Remarkably the sweet-savory balance is never off; never did the sangria—or, for that matter, the membrillo-meat sandwiches or even the dark-chocolate pinwheel cookies—topple into the realm of the cloying.
Chico Madrid is simply an exquisitely careful operation: A tiny place with a limited purview and an artisan’s standard. Run, don’t walk. Prancercise. For goodness’ sake don’t drive.
Published: August 2013