The Best Dishes at Cal Pep - Chosen by Pep
When FOODIEHUB went to Barcelona earlier this year, we were on a mission to find the greatest dishes the city has to offer. Our expert for the city, Marta Laurent Veciana, took us on a walking tour through the ancient Historic Quarter trying street snacks and diving into cafes as we went. But our wandering had a purpose. We were heading for Cal Pep, one of the most iconic tapas bars in a city renowned for them.
Pep Manubens has owned his eponymously named restaurant on La Plaça de les Olles in the beautiful La Ribera district since 1977, and over the years he has built his restaurant to become known as a culinary institution in Barcelona.
When we arrive, Pep is waiting outside in the picturesque little square beside his restaurant, which is nestled on the corner of an old, yellow-stone building. Just 15 minutes after opening, it is already packed, and the buzz from inside wafts out onto the street. Dressed in his chef whites and smart angular glasses, he looks every bit the part, living up to his legendary status and his larger-than-life personality we’ve heard so much about.
With so many amazing items on his menu, we struggled to decide what to choose. So, what better way to make this most behemoth of decisions than to ask the man himself. And, as always, the man was ready for the task at hand and stepped up to the challenge.
“The four dishes that I have chosen for you I have actually been making for many years,” Pep begins explaining, after our introductions have been made and he is sitting comfortably.
“I have cooked many different dishes over the years, but I prepare these four in the same way I have for the past 15 years. Customers continue to request them every day, and are always asking me for an online recipe. I’m open to [making] anything, but these four dishes are the most important to me,” he continues.
The restaurant is small, maybe only 5m in width. The bar runs down the middle with the open kitchen on the left and the people crammed in to the right, seated on high bar stools. It is simple in decor, with wood and floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the two exterior sides.
Pep knows his food must make up for the limited space.
“I always look to attend to my customers in the best way I can within such a very small space. It’s a restaurant based around a bar. It’s narrow. It’s a bit tight. But what’s important is that people leave content with what I do and, when a person eats here, they have to leave satisfied.”
“I offer many dishes, and over the years I have learned that preparing even a simple tortilla can be done in many different ways. Mine has a real Mediterranean element: the potato and onion tortilla is made with olive oil, with good eggs, and I finish it off with a layer of aioli, which is very typical to Catalonia. They do have it all over Spain, but this aioli is very typical of Catalonia,” says Pep.
The tortilla is thick, and impossibly juicy. The potatoes are soft and don’t stodge-up the lightness of the eggs too much. The onions add a sweet and savory edge, which in turn makes it incredibly morish. The olive oil also adds a Mediterranean twist to the dish, giving it a rich coating and subtle aftertaste. Undeniably one of the best tortillas in the city.
Clams with Iberian Ham
The second comes as an ode to how ingeniously Pep transforms a simple dish into something incredible with only few carefully chosen ingredients.
“I have also learned to prepare a dish with clams that are sautéed and served with our sought-after marinara sauce. I then add a little Iberian Ramón and it really brings out their wonderful flavors even more. One day, I just began to experiment (with flavors) and my customers said to me, ‘Pep, it’s simply marvelous,’ and that’s how this dish began.”
They come heaped in a bowl, looking like a colorful oil painting by a young Picasso. The shells give a yellow glow to the dish, while the pink of the ham and the green flecks of the parsley speckle the dish beautifully. They taste rich and savory, with the saltiness you want from a sea shellfish. The ham gives it real depth and changes the overall quality of the dish massively. It becomes something far greater than a simple bowl of clams: a classic of Catalonian seafood.
“I have also created a tuna tartare, but not quite the same as the one that everyone used to make with avocados. Here in the Mediterranean, we have some of the best tuna in the world and this is why so much of it is exported to other countries. All I add (to the tuna) is a little olive oil and a touch of soy sauce. I also use a breed of onion typical of Catalonia, some parsley and that’s it,” continues Pep as the third dish is brought over.
“Many people were surprised that I used more olive oil than soy sauce. But if the tuna is cut and marinated by hand soon after being caught, which is very important, it’s beautiful. Though if you leave it for a period of time after it's been prepared, the tuna is just not the same,” he finishes with a smile as he watches us wolf it down.
When the dish comes out, it is served in a perfect circle surrounded by crispy little bread croutons. The tartare is so flavorsome and moist it’s almost impossible not to just smash through it in one go. The tuna is so fresh and tender that it feels almost like steak, but better. The subtle seasoning and garnish with sesame makes it a perfect dish. The softness of the tuna and the crunch of the crouton make a very pleasurable eating experience. Its beauty is in its simplicity.
Botifarra (Catalan sausage)
His last choice for us, and by no means least, was the botifarra. Pep is clearly proud of this one and so he tells us how he came to create it.
“In years previous, people used to mainly eat fillet steak with duck foie gras, meat with foie gras is traditional. But I said to myself, ‘We’re in Catalonia,’ and in Catalonia people eat botifarra made from raw pig’s meat. So I decided we had to change things up. So I began to discuss ideas with a local lad who had a botifarreria (Catalan meat shop) close by and we began working together.
“We started by mixing the pork botifarra with another 20 percent of good quality duck foie gras to make the sausage. Then I thought, ‘What do we do next?’ So I decided to try it with port, because I hoped it would bring it all cohesively together. I began testing it, added a little water and a little of the pork fat, followed by the olive oil. I added the green beans, and then I realized there’s one last thing missing (so I made) a reduction with the port sauce with sugar to make a syrup, and that was that.”
We would say this was Cal Pep’s signature dish. It was incredible. The ample chunks of the foie gras sausage laid atop a bed of rich and creamy white beans is a real hearty meal, and incredibly Catalonian. The sausage is intensely decadent, with the silky flavor of the foie gras cutting through the heady flavor of the pork. The port glaze finishes the dish wonderfully, with its sweet, sophisticated scent and amazing depth of flavor. It really is a sublime dish that should be sought out at all costs.
As we finishing off the last of the dishes, full and satisfied, Pep tries to paint an idea of what exactly he does it all for, what makes it worthwhile to him and how he has managed to become so successful as a chef in Barcelona.
“We are always searching (for more dishes), because in such a small and tight space, we rely on the food. We want people to leave smiling and that is what is really satisfying for me. Since 1977 until now, there have been good and bad reviews, maybe because we don’t have a fixed menu and some people might find it expensive, or maybe they just don’t like it. I don’t know. But what’s important is that they all left satisfied. I have met people who have said it’s a little expensive, but it was spectacular. For me it’s the smile that counts though. Their smiles and their satisfaction ... that's the best thing.”
Well, if that’s all he’s after, he can certainly feel good about himself after cooking for us.
Meet our expert in this mission
Marta is the creator of Foreverbarcelona.com and has been a Barcelona private tour guide since 2000. She’s as passionate about her job as she is in love with Barcelona … and she’ll make you feel that way, too!....Read More
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