Food

This Spanish Restaurant Justifies That Long, Out-of-Office Lunch You Didn’t Tell Your Boss About

The classic Spanish restaurant ages like fine wine
IMAGE Majoy Siason
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The paella Valenciana at La Tienda, we are told, will take 45 minutes to prepare. That’s enough time for tapas, a coffee or two, then a smoke outside, looking out at the creeping gentrification of Makati’s red light district—the hip young coffee shop across the street, the backpackers in shorts idling by the fishball stand on their way to taco Tuesdays. When you step inside again, a shallow pan awaits, its pleasures hidden under a thin mask of foil. Tear it away, and breathe in the steam from a container wide and tempting enough for you to dunk your face in, reveling in its maddening aroma. Our one-hour lunch break is almost over; playing hooky has never been more worth it.

“People are definitely trying to do in one hour what they did in two,” then-Disney executive Susan Lyne told The New York Times back in 1997. “There’s no foreplay to lunch anymore.” We’re twenty years and a global recession removed from the hyper-confident late Nineties, but the power lunch is as alive as ever—if power, indeed, is the right word to describe your eat-and-run workaday pantry meal, shoveling food into your mouth as you answer emails on your mobile, then brushing away the rice still stuck on your lap as you hustle back to your cubicle. Fast food isn’t a resto category...it’s a goddamned way of life.

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But La Tienda forces you into a time machine, both historical and cultural. It stands way back from the street, wrapped in brick walls, resistant to the outside world. It has checkered tablecloths and antique plates on the walls and framed photos of bullfighters watching you as you eat. Its walls are painted the color of the sun going down. Stepping inside, my photographer and I flail at references. “Godfather,” I say. “It looks like a restaurant in The Godfather.” She tells me it reminds her of something from Narcos. We both clearly need to get out more.

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“Even when we’re full, it’s still so quiet in here. And that’s the way our regulars like it,” says Marta Uriarte, whose grandfather founded La Tienda in 1986. The son of a Navarran expatriate, he grew up in the Philippines but spent his formative years in Spain, only returning here in his late twenties. Marta still has indelible memories of her abuelito slicing garlic into a paella pan at a Batangas beach. “I helped him prepare all the ingredients standing barefoot on the sand, close to the wood fire.”

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At 31 years, La Tienda is one of the oldest Spanish restaurants in the city. “It’s remained an expression of my grandfather’s love for everything Spanish,” Marta continues. You imbibe its spirit the way you would a glass of sangria. Minute hands slow down. Phones stay in pockets. There’s time—which continental Europeans miraculously seem to have in abundance—for a luxuriously long weekday lunch, the sort you haven’t had since, well, forever.

Aperitifs arrive: baby eels swimming in olive oil; a tart, chewy, and very refreshing octopus ceviche—one of very few “new” items they’ve added to their traditional lineup; a potato tortilla, starchy and robust; plus an off-the-menu plate of onion rings, which you dunk into a boat full of a sinful Roquefort-based sauce. One hour is too short for everything...and we’re just on the tapas.

 


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Aperitifs like baby eels in olive oil, octopus ceviche, a potato tortilla, plus an off-the-menu plate of onion rings, which you dunk into a boat full of a sinful Roquefort-based sauce.

“Spain operates at its own clock and rhythms,” observed Jim Yardley back in 2014. It’s not just about the afternoon siesta. In this alternate universe (created, in part, by a Franco-era ruling that changed their timezone to match their German allies), lunch starts at 2, and office workers return to work at around 4. Dinners are served at 10 p.m., with most of the populace watching television until well past midnight, “then everyone would go to bed and procreate,” as a media consultant told Yardley.

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Spanish food (and, it is presumed, Spanish procreation) begs to be enjoyed at its own pace. Sure, you could stuff your mouth and be out the door in time for your 1 p.m. client call, but you’d miss out on a thoughtful appreciation of, say, La Tienda’s escalope de Ternera. The nuances of the veal’s buttery softness, or the way it goes so well with a side order of anchovies, would just evaporate into the ether.


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Pepito: Beef Tenderloin in a French Roll


Paella and Escalope de Ternera 

Besides, you’d definitely miss the paella. Rich, amber, and—never forget—marvelously crispy at the bottom, its slow-cooked contentment demands that you clear your appointment books, lean back on your chair, and thank the Lord for the Iberian peninsula. The moment you scrape the last spoonful of rice off the pan is the saddest moment of your lunch life.

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That paella up close 

“We keep it simple and traditional,” says Marta Uriarte of the restaurant’s menu. It pulls from all corners of the country’s cuisine: their chilled gazpacho, for example, follows the Andalusian tradition, while her abuelito’s Basque heritage runs rich in their besugo and bacalao. “Our food was never meant to be extravagant or pretentious.” It’s sustenance with soul, and as your belt cinches against your expanding belly you realize why siesta could only have been invented in Spain.

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Churros 

Of course, with the current state of its economy, the traditional afternoon nap may soon become a thing of the past, and the Spanish may soon have to do what the rest of us do: sleep in the office and hope the boss doesn’t catch us. As it is, a long lunch remains a luxury in our overworked, humid shores—and for those times we indulge, there is this brick-walled oasis, this plate of after-meal churros, this promise and tease of a long, guilty siesta.

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La Tienda is at 43 Polaris Street, Bel-Air Village, Makati City.

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Lio Mangubat
Lio Mangubat is an editor at Summit Books.
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