Spain is not Mexico. Before you laugh, remember that some people don’t know the difference. Tell them you live in Spain and they might well say something like, “That’s great. You must eat a lot of tacos.” Despite the 16th century pantry swap brought on by Cortés’ merciless march (Spain got tomatoes, chocolate, and chiles; Mexico got pork and smallpox in return), the cooking styles of the two countries share very little in common these days. In Spain, tortillas are omelets, chile is a country in South America, and the spiciest thing you’ll find in the entire country is served over a bed of fried potatoes.
Patatas bravas are the staple of choice for tapas-bar flies the country over. There are brava blogs, brava crawls, bottled brava tastings. The one thing that there is not, however, is anything resembling a consensus on what makes a patata so damn brava. I’ve seen them cut in coins, nuggets, and sticks, each yielding a different dimension of texture and taste. Some (ill-advised) places fry them in one swoop; others do the standard Belgian double-fry; and some generous souls out there find it in their hearts to go back in for a third dunk in smoking hot olive oil, a move that scars the face of the potato with a relentless crust.
More than shape and fry technique, though, the sauce itself is the subject of serious controversy across the 17 regions of Spain. Does the aioli have egg in it, or is it the Catalan style of allioli, a vampire-squashing emulsion of nothing more than oil and garlic? Is the red sauce made with simmered tomatoes or pureed roasted peppers? Or is it one sauce, an amalgam of chili-spiked tomato and mayonnaise, yielding something that looks more like Russian dressing than something that might burn you? Sadly, history points to the latter being the original sauce, though it’s about as brava as a puddle of Heinz.
To my mind, the best brava sauce comes from El Quim de la Boqueria (pictured here), a combination of sweet tomatoes, smoked paprika, sherry vinegar and a generous pinch of piquin pepper. And from Jordi Vila at his restauraunt Velódromo in Barcelona’s Eixample district, where he spikes his brava sauce with rendered chorizo fat.
By the way, that’s Spanish chorizo, not Mexican.