Cafe Madrid’s very concept, an authentic Spanish sandwich bar, bears the whiff of audacity. Let me be more specific: Here in Oakland’s Uptown — where, until Luka’s Taproom smashed the artisan burger barrier, the idea of a plush lunch was a gutbuster from IB’s Hoagies — serving montaditos and gazpacho and tortilla Española is gutsy. But that’s precisely what I like about this quirky little place, despite food I’ve found to be sometimes uneven.
Ah, Oakland. Stand amid its clutter of condos-to-be and hold your curved hands up to your eyes like horse blinders. What you see resembles building-boom Milwaukee, except that Wisconsin’s metropolis is probably more interested in culinary exotica — like an authentic Spanish bocadillo bar. Cafe Madrid is the kind of place you hope will succeed and improve. It’s up to you, Oakland. Ready to put down the superhoagie and cuddle up to pickled white anchovies slathered on slices of chorizo de Pamplona? Let every resident ponder the question in his or her heart.
Whether or not Oaktown is ready to embrace an anchovy-scented vision of fancy, there’s no doubt Cafe Madrid represents the very urban revival the city claims to embrace. It takes up a big swath of the ground floor in the Deco-licious I. Magnin department store. From the sidewalk, it’s a splendiferous slab of marble blocks, greenish-black with white veins. Upper stories wear a mantle of big glazed tiles, the exact shade of river-water green called, in vintage Vogue-speak, eau-de-nil.
Through brass-rimmed display windows — some of them plastered with Madrid’s city crest, a bear poised to ravage a strawberry tree — the cafe radiates a plausible Euro decorousness. Inside, the vibe is a bit more office-building lobby: a powerful bareness bounded by hard surfaces, with visible ducts suspended by metal strips from a perilously soaring concrete ceiling.
Shiny black I-beams, the infrastructure of an earthquake retrofit, sprout from the floor in a ponderous V. Modern chandeliers, like huge aluminum bike rims hung with amber glass pots, are jury-rigged to stretch around the girders. There’s a tall mural done up in black and slate grays: a section of Picasso’s Guernica, including its terrified horse with spiky tongue and jacked-up teeth. By phone, cafe owner Maurice Arroyo told me he painted it himself. In fact, he said, in the year it took him to oversee the design and build out of the restaurant, he stayed faithful to all kinds of memories of Madrid, where Guernica is on display. The soft-spoken 37-year-old, whose dad is Spanish, was born there. “I had certain ideas,” Arroyo said. “I knew I wanted a white stone top with dark wood for the main counter, just like in Madrid.”
Arroyo’s menu also represents a loyalty to his personal Madrid. Its main engine is the bocadillo. In Spain, that’s usually a French roll, split, hollowed a bit, and stuffed with meaty or mayonnaisey fillings such as squid salad — like tapas, just the thing to muffle hunger around a glass (or two or three) of Rioja. Bocadillos here are resolutely hefty and sandwichlike: split lengths of baguette layered with Spanish-style meats, cheeses, and condiments, and served either warm or cold. The baguettes, from Sonoma’s Artisan Bakers, are excellent. Choose what goes inside by circling whatever appeals to you from a list printed on skinny order sheets.
You can configure some of the same elements as a montadito. Often, in Spain, that means an open-face, a hunk of bread topped simply with meat or cheese. Cafe Madrid’s versions are more like half-size bocadillos, only less cluttered: no condiments, lettuce, or tomato. Just the good stuff. Arroyo told me his inspiration was the Spanish chain of beer-and-sammy parlors called Cerveceria 100 Montaditos — beer bars with, well, a hundred noshing options.
With the exception of beef and turkey, the meats are various embutidos, basically Spanish-style salumi. I say “style” because Department of Agriculture import rules keep most embutidos from ever reaching American tables (save any rogue packages that might have gotten wedged in your suitcase’s tangle of dirty socks on a flight from Barcelona).
I won’t list every option, just a few faves. Chorizo de Pamplona is broadly pepperonilike. Salty, orange, and tangy, it has a faint bitterness from pimentón (Spanish paprika). It’s a bit like chorizo de Soria, even tangier than its cousin from Pamplona, with the decidedly funky air of cured pork. Butifarra is as mild as mortadella, a pinkish-gray mosaic of pork with the buzz of nutmeg.
The two cheeses — young Manchego and Tronchon — are tasty, but I’m partial to the Cheddarlike spikiness of the Manchego. And I definitely prefer Cafe Madrid’s bocadillos toasted. Pressed in the panini machine, not only did the cheese get semi-gooey, but the baguette seemed to get tastier. The gnawability factor improved, too. Oh, and as a condiment, the allioli, a Catalan slurry of garlic and olive oil, had more presence than the wan-tasting verde, an excessively mild green herb sauce.
Maurice Arroyo told me he originally wanted to open a coffee bar. But, situated two doors from the Paramount, Cafe Madrid faces a potential demand for far more than scones and lattes. He’s applied for a beer and wine license, and hints his menu may expand to offer significantly more than sandwiches and salads.
Even now, his nonbocadillo offerings show flashes of promise. The tortilla Española was worthy of some tapas bar in Spain where the cooking is meticulous. Nuked to a state of gentle warmth, the potato omelette was thick, soft, and light enough to flirt with fluffy. Its ratio of eggs to potato seemed just about perfect, and a glob of garlic mayonnaise was creamy and pungent, without crossing over to garlic’s dark side.
Rusa, the classic Spanish potato salad named, for some obscure 19th-century reason, after Russia, was an ever-so-slightly sticky mashed potato salad studded with pinky-orange shrimp, army-green peas, and pimento-stuffed martini olives. Not bad, but it ate like some vintage relic of midcentury European home cooking. A romaine salad called mixta was shiny with lemon vinaigrette, nice and sharp, but also bore a rather scary topping of canned, processed-tasting white asparagus. Authentic perhaps, but from a tradition that deserves to be buried.
Gazpacho — a homely, faintly-curdled-looking puree thickened with bread — tasted fresh and guileless. And a daily special called baby potatoes with mojo sauce hinted at Cafe Madrid’s potential. It was a heap of fingerlings that had been baked in salt, next to a ramekin of sauce that Arroyo later told me is a specialty of the Canary Islands. It was a shaggy, tile-red puree surrounded by lots of orange-tinted oil, and thoroughly delicious: a tart base of roasted peppers, with a little burr of cumin and heat of garlic. It was a glimpse of the Spain I’d hoped to find here. I hope Oakland is interested in finding it, too. Then maybe, just maybe, Maurice Arroyo’s very personal snack bar can cross over from implausible to inevitable.