A slew of new outposts in the Windy City are slinging the finest Iberian-inspired small plates this side of Seville.

Black Bull
Credit: Kohl Murdock

The Chicago restaurant scene is most commonly associated with classic steakhouses, deep-dish pizzas and cutting-edge molecular gastronomy. If you’ve enjoyed the trademark fare here, you know the reputation is well-earned. But a growing number of kitchens in the Windy City are approaching an alternative aliment with an equal degree of acumen. It’s something you might not expect. Something Spanish, to be precise. Along the Lake, you’ll now find a slew of outposts slinging the finest Iberian-inspired small plates this side of Seville. This is a tapas town. And here are the restaurants to prove it.

Among the enduring hipness of Wicker Park, Black Bull exists as a portal to a highly traditional experience — if you’re from the south of Spain. The interior space is lined with all the trappings of Andalusia: Moorish tiling adorns the walls, jamoneras and large chalices of tonic-imbued gin crowds the bar space.

The aromas only deepen the familiarity. Executive chef Marcos Campos mimics the pintxos and paellas of his homeland with unflinching accuracy. His patrons are well-traveled enough to appreciate that authenticity. “I would say about 80% of the customers we get have either studied in Spain for a semester or lived in the country for a few years,” he surmises.

Campos also credits a surge in Spanish tourism in helping fuel an appetite for its regional flavors back here in the States — particularly as Barcelona has become a premiere vacation spot. It makes sense that an international transit hub such as Chicago would feel the impact with such immediacy. “People in Chicago are creating this demand for places they can enjoy food and wine the way they did when they were [there],” he adds.

In a city of over three million, there’s no small number of mouths migrating toward these trending flavors. As a result, a sizable crop of Spanish eateries have emerged to accommodate shifting palates. The River North neighborhood is served by Cafe Iberico in addition to Emilios Tapas Sol y Nieve; both dense with loyal followings late into the night. In the West Loop, Salero satisfies the craving with modernized pintxos accompanied by a lengthy list of sherries and Spanish vermouths — both solo, and constructed into artful cocktails.

There’s a universal element to the movement, however, that transcends any one country. “Spanish food is one of the healthiest cuisines and a lot of people are looking for healthy options when they go out to eat,” Campos says. “We use olive oil instead of butter, fresh produce in everything and offer a variety of fresh seafood dishes, which are all very attractive qualities to someone looking to eat healthy.” His restaurant’s use of quality sourced Conservas de Cambados, in fact, will force you to reconsider your thoughts on canned, cured seafoods.

At the markedly sleek and modern Mercat a la Planxa, you’re as likely to indulge in a cornucopia of grilled vegetables — mushrooms, eggplants, asparagus — as you are to fill up on their heartier meat-driven fare. Even the serrano ham is plated alongside fig salad, white anchovies with micro-greens.

The kitchen at mfk., in Lincoln Park, has focused on an almost exclusively maritime menu to arrive at healthier dishes that don’t feel at all light. They also allow room for fusion; their seafood cataplana, for example, is an elevated take on seafood stew more common to Portuguese dining. The team plans to give the cuisine of northwestern Spain similar treatment when they open Bar Biscay in West Town later this winter.

But for all this flavorful grub peppering the landscape, Chicago’s newfound love affair with Spain might only be indirectly a result of the food, itself. “The Spanish dining experience is like a party,” Campos observes. “It is also the experience that Chicagoans are attracted to with Spanish cuisine. When people go out in Spain, they are looking to have fun with their friends and will sit for multiple hours eating and drinking rather than finishing a meal like a task. Before, I think the dining mentality was, ‘This is my plate, and that one is yours,’ and people were not about sharing their dishes with each other. Now dining has more of a group mentality because of the concept of tapas.”

The Windy City is nothing if not fond of having fun with their food. In tapas, they might have found the ultimate expression of this mentality. Although the frigid Chicago winter seems a world away from the mild Mediterranean embrace of Barcelona, the respective diners of these kindred cities are much closer than they appear.