Food: Viva Las Tapas

Making you wait a long time to hear my opinion is the only appropriate way to write a review of Viva Madrid, the boisterous tapas, paella, and sangria hot spot in the village. Viva Madrid is like Los Angeles traffic: very occasionally you get lucky and there is no wait, and sometimes the wait can drive you insane, but most of the time count on a consistent wait of at least a half hour. I understand why small restaurants sometimes do not take reservations, but after two 30-minute waits and a 45-minute wait on top of that, I remain hopeful that all restaurants will one day accept reservations.

Tapas are one of those wonderful culinary creations that transcend all situations. They are great icebreakers for an awkward first date, wonderful to share with a large group over pitchers of sangria, and cheap enough for a quartet of college students to leave somewhat satiated without feeling broke. I have never been to Madrid, but I imagine that the small, kitschy room of roughly 10 wooden tables—along with a fully stocked bar lining one side, the open kitchen on another, and an eye-catching chandelier hanging over the room’s center—pretty closely resembles what a restaurant might look like on the Gran Via. I always find myself thinking I’m on the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride when I sit in the room. There is a faux balcony above the open kitchen and hundreds of assorted decorations from conquistador portraits and stuffed bulls’ heads to ceramic plates and countless sacks of garlic.

The best game plan for tackling the roughly 60 menu items is to pick a couple of tapas to sample, and then either just get a few more tapas or invest in one of the three paellas on menu. The entrees, including lamb baked with a honey sauce and topped with a crumbled white cheese, plain salmon grilled with olive oil, chicken stewed with a potpourri of vegetables, and even a vegan stuffed zucchini dish, show genuine effort. But there’s no doubt that they are not the reason to dine at Viva Madrid.


Viva Madrid!:225 Yale Avenue, Claremont(909) 624-5500Hours: Dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.Prices: Tapas: $3.00 to $9.00. Entrees and Paellas: $13.95 – $19.95Food: **Service: **Atmosphere: ***Overall: **

Restaurants with table service are rated with a grade from 0 to 4 stars on food, service, and atmosphere, along with an overall star rating. Restaurants without table service receive only one overall rating and are assessed with more of an emphasis on their overall value. All overall ratings take into account a restaurant’s prices.

4 stars: Extraordinary3 stars: Outstanding, very reliable, perhaps 1 area to improve slightly2 stars: Good but several flaws1 star: Avoidable, I probably did not get food poisoning at least0 stars: Should be closed/dangerous to a diner’s sanity and health

The paella mixta is full of all sorts of delicious goodies including “little smoky” sausages, mussels, calamari, shrimp, chicken, and miniscule scallops. On my first two visits, the paella was terrific. The dish was resonant with pungent saffron, and the various ingredients were all individually cooked and flavored perfectly. Sadly, the paella on my most recent visit was the opposite, with the chicken horridly dry, the mussels burned to a crisp, and the entire mixture begging for more saffron to provide the paella with its proper identity.

On the tapas side, I have not encountered any dishes that are executed poorly. Rather, some are simply more interesting than others. A special nibble of “mojama,” thin salt-cured yellow fin tuna, was delightful with olive oil and served in toast. The tortilla Espanola (similar to a frittata, not a Mexican tortilla) had a wonderful, crisp egg crust but a limp, bland potato filling. The “carne vaca vino” consists of a couple of small cubes of tender beef served in a nondescript garlic and white wine broth. Plump, tender prawns in the “gambas ajillo” came with a very pungent garlic broth, so it is not recommended if you’re trying to impress a date (or if you want to continue the date after dinner). The perfectly-cooked squid, served in its own ink, needs something to liven up the monotone broth, and the same is true with the mussels served in a tomato, garlic, and white wine broth. The sampler platter of cold cuts, Spanish cheeses, and olives was reliable but forgettable. The basic melon with Serrano ham was beautiful in presentation, but the ham was far tougher than it should have been.

And why in the world do you have to pay for bread they don’t even bake themselves? You want olive oil and balsamic vinegar? That’s another dollar. Viva Madrid should be BYOB—bring your own baguette.

On my next visit, in addition to bringing my own bread, I’ll be sure to try the more ambitious ox tail stew and squid stuffed with chorizo tapas. The kitchen is doing a reliable job, but many dishes lack spark and boldness. It seems there are just a few too many boring broths and dishes lacking that one special ingredient that would boost the food to another caliber.

However, the bacon-wrapped dates tapa is absolutely perfect. Served warm, it is very basic and so delicious that, if I had one of these every morning, I’d be hearing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” all day. Birds would chirp, the sun would shine, and everybody would hold hands.

I have never sampled the desserts, but the choices are straightforward. Between flan and the Crme Catalan, you can have custard cold or warm. The Crme Catalan is Spanish crme brulee with the added Benihana bonus of your waiter using the blowtorch at your table. Fire! Awesome!

Service is always very frantic, but that comes with the setting of a crammed restaurant with a steady stream of tapas being carried out every minute. My one complaint came when I asked the waiter his opinion on the best squid dish, and he answered based on which one had the largest quantity of squid. Nice to know, but I care about the taste, thank you. Viva Madrid is a very solid choice for anybody in town looking for delicious tapas and paella, but there are just too many subpar dishes for the restaurant to compete with the tapas bars in the real Madrid.

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