“Pan con tomate,” says the waitress as she places a complimentary dish on the table.
I look at it suspiciously. It doesn’t look like pan con tomate, which is Spain’s most famous and simplest snack, after ham, of course. Pan con tomate, literally bread with tomato, in its most traditional sense is little more than a piece of toast upon which a clove of garlic and a raw tomato have been rubbed. Spanish loaves are generally rough-textured, so the toast acts like sandpaper for the garlic and tomato, which shred into a velvety mush atop the crusty bread.
But that’s not what the waitress has just presented. Rather, it’s a couple of dainty toasts, beautifully charred and fragrant from the grill, along with a small ramekin of gourmet tomato relish. Not really giving it much thought, and admittedly not expecting much, I take some of the relish and smear it across the toast, and pop it into my mouth.
That’s the instant I realize this place is, indeed, the real deal. There is clearly more than one proper way to make pan con tomate. Unfortunately, this dish doesn’t actually appear on the menu at Pueblo. It’s just an occasional amuse bouche, but it offers a small peek into the soul of what is shaping up to be a very good Spanish restaurant.
I don’t know why Spanish cuisine hasn’t already become hugely popular in Southern California, but for some inexplicable reason it’s a style of cooking and rich culinary culture that has mostly evaded us here, even as it has thrived for decades elsewhere. Only recently has honest Spanish cooking made much of an impression in Los Angeles, and now it’s trickling into O.C., thanks to this new tapas bar at SoCo in Costa Mesa.
Fittingly for a tapas bar, Pueblo is tiny. Tables are packed together rather closely. Your elbows aren’t exactly bumping your neighbors’ ribs while you eat, but almost.
The kitchen appears to be just as minuscule as the dining room, so it is both impressive and surprising to see so many choices. The dinner menu lists nearly 30 small plates. In Spain, many of the best tapas bars serve no more than 10 items per night, while others offer only two or three at most.
The chef is Michael Campbell, who previously served as executive sous chef at Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco. He also cooked at Harvest Supper in Connecticut and Hearth in New York, but perhaps more importantly, at some point along the way he cooked for a while in Spain. And it shows.
The montadito de costilla is superb, a small toast topped with braised short rib and onion marmalade, which is then crowned with a slice of rare, fatty beef. The lamb meatballs are great, too, so soft and fluffy my fork sinks of its own weight right through the middle of the meat.
Before I dined here, I noticed another food writer (who doesn’t dine anonymously) post a photo on social media of Pueblo’s gambas a la plancha, gorgeous spot prawns with their tails and heads still intact, charred, then tossed with olive oil and bright green Spanish olives. When I order this dish, however, mine looks nothing like that. Instead, the head-on prawns appear to have been swapped with ordinary-looking shrimp completely denuded of their shells. My first reaction is utter disappointment, but then I take a bite and once again am transported to Spain. This is an incredible dish, whether the chef sends out a VIP version or not.
I am normally suspicious of clams that have already been removed from their shells. Are they from a can? But the naked clams that arrive with the pork belly are outstanding. This isn’t just a clam dish, though. It’s called mar y montana, a reference to sea and mountain, a popular juxtaposition in Catalan cuisine. And although it’s a great bridge of the two, the pork belly is the real star: thick and fatty and roasted to a crisp.
Campbell riffs on all the Spanish classics such as queso fundido, lamb meatballs, paella and bacalao with deep respect and finesse. I love his take on papas bravas, which are Spain’s contribution to the world of french fries. For weekend brunch only, the small plates are thrown out the window and replaced with full-sized entrees, and those crisp fried potatoes become the foundation for a bowl of Spanish-inspired poutine, topped with shredded beef short rib and a fried egg.
Another intriguing brunch dish brings together short-grain rice topped with chorizo, lentils and an egg. The housemade sausage looks almost like a slice of Spam, with a taste and texture that are not too far off that mark — and it is delicious.
The kitchen has been struggling with its octopus. The first time I order it, the presentation looks pretty, but then I take a bite and find myself chewing on something that refuses to dissolve between my teeth, and I end up spitting it out. On a follow-up visit, when I try to order it again, I’m told the chef has taken it off the menu that night because he isn’t happy with the way it turned out.
The bigger problem is the wine list. Granted, it’s possible to drink a decent glass of wine here, and the sangria is actually terrific. Unfortunately, wines from Spain aren’t well represented. The majority are California wines that don’t have much, if anything, to do with Spanish cuisine. And sure, a clever sommelier can always make the case for pairing a big California cabernet with paprika-spiced lamb meatballs, but when there are so many fantastic, ridiculously affordable Spanish wines available in the U.S., it just feels like someone didn’t do their homework.
And it’s that intimate connection between the food and the wine in Spain that often separates the great tapas bars from the merely good ones.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: SoCo, 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Dinner, 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Extremely limited bar snacks 3-5 p.m. daily.
Don’t miss: Mar y montaña, prawns a la plancha, montadito de costilla, sangria
Best place to sit: Anywhere that’s available.
About the noise: Very loud, but thankfully the crowd is well-behaved.
About reservations: Taken in person or by phone only.
County health inspection: Not yet available online
Cost: Small plates $5-$14 (figure on two or three per person), large brunch plates $12-$17.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.