I had been living in Spain for over two months now and had yet to eat paella, Spain’s most well known culinary gift to the world. At first I thought that maybe paella, was more of a tourist thing since my host family never once made it for my roommate and me. Also it was the image you saw the most frequently plastered on the stand size menus that stood outside of the numerous “tourist trap” restaurants around the cathedral. But then when I started hearing rumors about some of the kids eating paella at their houses, I knew something was up.
My roommate Lisa and I liked to joke that our host mom Estrella cooked “odd ball” ethnic. When she said we would be having comida de china (Chinese food), it really was just vegetables and white rice sitting in a layer of olive oil. One week it seemed that French was on the menu as I found a mini size snail in my plate of chicken. Okay, this was probably not a deliberate thing on Estrella’s part, but both Lisa and I desperately wished she would make us some of the traditional Spanish dishes we had been reading about since Spanish I class in high school. However, we were taken by total surprise when one night, she made us croquetas de jamon y queso (ham and cheese croquettes). They were some of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. Although neither Lisa nor I are big girls by any means, we packed away one after the next, almost to the point of gorging ourselves since they were so sinfully delicious, in a savory kind of way that is. Sadly, Estrella never made them again while we were there.
In preparation for my dad’s visit to Spain, I started an in-depth reading of the section onfmy guidebook on Seville. Although I had spent the last couple of months reading up on almost every other city in Spain, I had done very little discovering in the city where I was living in, especially its restaurants. It was in the 2006 guidebook Let’s Go Spain and Portugal (a guidebook that caters almost exclusively to young people, as its listings feature the most cost-efficient places to stay and eat) that I came across El Baratillo/Casa Chari.Its review was simple and yet glowing. “Premium Spanish cuisine and hospitality, paella, homemade with love.” The words of the reviewer made it seem that this was THE place to go for some of the best paella in the city. I was game and I knew my dad would be too.
Having spent a pleasant afternoon together in the city’s barrio de Santa Cruz, we were both more than ready for dinner. Armed with my Let’s Go guidebook, we proceeded to amble down towards El Arenal, a neighborhood adjacent to Santa Cruz and also home of the famed La Maestranza (bull ring). Like most streets in the city, the street where the restaurant was located was small, narrow, and somewhat hard to find. It looked like a dive on the outside (and inside as well) but those are the types of places that usually have the best food. I have found this to be true in many places I have traveled. Upon entering the restaurant we were immediately greeted by a short, middle-aged woman who was wearing a baseball hat and apron. This couldn’t be anyone other than Dona Chari,herself, hostess, waitress, and woman of all trades.
Menus aren’t necessary at El Baratillo/Casa Charias the selection consists of paella and paella (there are other things to order as well, but I think everyone who eats there usually just opts for the paella). You can either order the more “traditional” seafood paella, complete with every imaginable creature from the ocean floor (paella is said to have originated in the city of Valencia, which is located on the Mediterranean Sea, hence all the seafood), or the carne version, which includes all sorts of meats (chicken, chorizo, rabbit). Although the idea of eating rabbit meat didn’t exactly make my mouth water, it was still preferable to the thought and sight of eating creatures with tentacles. The house special was paella (enough for two people) and your choice of a pitcher of either beer, wine, or sangria. Not really being a fan of beer or wine, I naturally preferred sangria. My dad on the other hand, would have rather gone to his grave than drink sangria with his meal, but ever the good sport, he went for the local favorite. An enormous pitcher of it was delivered to our table, I’m sure it was homemade. This is quite important, as I had been to another bar in Sevilla and the sangria that was served came from a bottle. Maybe this is an acceptable thing to do outside of Spain, but certainly not in country. While I nursed my one glass of sangria throughout our meal (it was quite strong, which is usually also an indicator of whether it is homemade or not), my dad had finished off most of the pitcher. He really is a sport of the whole “when in Rome motto.”
The guidebook had warned readers that the wait for the paella at El Baratillo/Casa Chariwas quite long, around an hour. They weren’t kidding. While at other restaurants, you may have the option of ordering an appetizer to cure the hunger felt in your stomach, at El Baratillo/Casa Chariyour options are drinking and enjoying the conversation of your dining companions. The ambience was very Spanish-not rushed, just relaxed, complete with alcoholic spirits. Although there was only one other party in the restaurant, a rather motley crew composed of what appeared to be an American backpacker and some Spaniards who seemed to be getting more plastered by the moment with each glass of wine they drank. In terms of its creation, paella is a work of art.
When the steaming pan was delivered to our table, the wait was finally over. With the first bite I took of the steaming yellow rice and meats, I knew that this was one of the best things I had tasted in my life. Each of the ingredients complemented the next. Although after I returned to the United States, I desperately sought out Spanish restaurants to try, no paella came close to rivaling what I ate that night with my dad in Sevilla.
Before we left, Dona Charicame over to our table and asked where we had heard about her restaurant. When I told her I had found it in the Let’s Go guidebook, she gave me a huge smile and told me that’s where most of her customers discover her cooking. After she said that, I thought to myself how very true this was. El Baratillo/Casa Chariisn’t a large restaurant by any means, nor does it cater to tour groups. It’s slightly off the tourist path and unknown to many, so that’s what makes going there all the more a personalized dining experience. You really feel that you’re eating in Dona Chari’skitchen, for the name of the restaurant after all, is Casa Chari (Chari’s house).
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!