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Monday, March 24, 2008

Perfect Paella

One of the things I've been craving since I left Manila is a well-prepared paella. Paella is a hearty rice dish that originates from Spain. It is similar to Chinese fried rice, Cajun jambalaya, and Italian risottos - where it is a one-dish meal with a variety of ingredients. What makes paella different is its use of a very expensive and rare ingredient called saffron which gives the dish a lovely almost golden, bright mustard color. My favorite paella places back home include Mario's and Dona Nena's. My mom also made two really good versions: the traditional Paella Valencia - using ingredients like prawns, chorizo, chicken, pork, red peppers, and peas, and the Paella Negra using calamari and squid ink with lots of toasted garlic. I'm on the fence between which version I like better.

Since moving to the States, I have yet to find good paella. Back when I lived in Berkeley, my good friend (Miguel who was from Spain) took us to downtown San Francisco to watch flamenco dancers at a place that also served paella. I can't recall the name of the place - only that it served huge jugs of sangria and paella in individual ceramic containers. While the flamenco dancing was good and the sweet sangria free-flowing, my order of Paella Valencia was sadly mediocre. Here in Los Angeles, despite a huge variety of ethnic cuisine, there are only a handful of authentic Spanish restaurants. Some of which do not even serve paella. We've tried Cuban, Peruvian, and El Salvadorean restaurants too - and while they have their own versions they didn't really come close to what I was looking for.

Every time my mom comes to visit, I ask her to make paella - but the dish is not that easy to prepare. First the ingredients must be complete, the cooking process takes time and you need to have the right equipment - specifically a paellera (a wide, shallow ceramic or metal pan). You need to cook using the paellera to achieve that layer of crispy caramelized rice at the bottom of the pan (which is actually my favorite part).

Anyway, over the weekend (as suggested by Jojo's boss), we visited La Espanola (a small Spanish speciality shop located in a nondescript warehouse on a partially hidden side street in Harbor City). You really had to know it was there since this is not a place you could stumble across by chance. We live 2 minutes away and never even knew it was there. La Espanola is owned by the Faraone family and started as a small grocery store where Spaniards could find delicacies from back home. They are known for having a good selection of Spanish hams, sausages and cheeses. The store itself is small with a deli counter stocked with meat and cheese on one side and shelves that contain wines, canned goods, cookies, chocolates, bottled olives and spices on the other. Only on Saturdays, the store makes paella which you need to pre-order (otherwise they run out by noon). They make three varieties of paella but it is the house special (Paella Valencia) that draws large crowds.

Each order is good for one person and costs $8.50 plus tax. We ordered two. The orders are fairly large depending on how hungry you are and how much you like paella. We got home, followed the heating instructions and enjoyed probably the best paella we have ever had in our lives. The rice was so flavorful and almost creamy. I usually like my rice dry and this dish had the consistency of risotto - but it worked for me! It also had large chunks of pork and chicken, three kinds of Spanish sausage, prawns, mussels, squid rings, roasted red peppers, green beans, peas and pale white beans (sort of like butter beans). The meat was so tender, the seafood very fresh, the sausages each distinctly flavored, and the spices were just right. It was so good. Jojo and I ate the paella straight from the pot while standing around our kitchen counter. Our only conversation throughout the meal was about how good the paella was and how we both wanted to go back for more. It was almost worth the 7-year wait. If you are in the South Bay area and are in the mood for a good paella you definitely need to check out La Espanola.


jol said...

Paella is my favorite rice dish; the use of saffron (most expensive spice in the world) makes it very colorful and inviting. We definitely must visit La Espanola on our next trip there.

Joanne said...

Hi Dad. Yes, we'll definitely take out La Espanola's paella when you guys come for a visit. It was really good. Can't wait for Saturday =)

jml said...

I just prepared paella for your ama's birthday celebration and it surprised me that it was not as difficult as I thought it to be. Despite a large variety of ingridients needed the important thing to remember in making a good paella is a GOOD broth and a good variety of the rice. I find that the short grain, starchy rice is more to my liking than the long grain variety. We definitely will find time to prepare this on our next visit there.

Rommel said...

Baka sakaling makatulong ang link na ito kung gusto mong iluto --
Click mo yung Series 1 tapos hanapin mo na lang ang recipe video ng paella. Mayroon ding recipe in print.

Anonymous said...