Our hotel was just a bit north of the La Latina district of Madrid, which apparently is a more culturally-mixed area (read: more immigrants). This, of course, means that there's a ton of food to be had, and the area is known for its plentitude of restaurants, both tapas/pinxtos and full out ones (word to the wise: if you order a drink without ordering food right away, most places will give you a free tapas dish to nosh on until you order). On our walk there, we passed by a confectionary with basically a huge window box full of potato chips they were making on site - always a good sign of the destination ahead.
One major street for eats is Calle de la Cava Baja, which is lined with restaurant after restaurant for a good stretch. Of course, it being Spain, most of these restaurants were closed during our mid-afternoon stroll: as much as some may say that the siesta is disappearing as a norm, there's more than enough places that observe it to prove them wrong. There were way more places closed for siesta in Madrid than in Barcelona, but given the much hotter temperatures in Madrid, it's not hard to understand.
For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the place we went to and didn't write it down, probably a result of sunstroke and sheer forgetfulness. But we did find a cute little place next to La Camarilla, one of the well-known tapas places in Madrid (we didn't go sheerly because we didn't know). This was a small little wine bar, with the owners busy watering the plants in the restaurant as we walked in. A little cupboard shrine had odd memorabilia that we figured were family keepsakes. It was kinda more like eating in someone's living room, which was fine by us.
As with most places, the daily menu on the chalkboard featured just as many (if not more) choices than the permanent menu, and we chose a few raciones - basically appetizer dishes for 2 or 3. Given our immense love of all things starch and cheese, we got this cheese toast with grapes. It should be no surprise that it came, of course, with olive oil drizzled on top, y'know, cause it needed it.
You can't be in Spain and not eat at least one sausage, and I ain't saying that in a euphemism-sense. This was an amazing chorizo or similar type sausage, drowned in oil, and served with enough bread to sop all of the goodness up.
I was also super curious about squid served in its own ink. As common as it is, I'd never had it before, and had kinda built it up in my head. This didn't quite live up to it, mostly because the sauce was thickened to the point of being a syrup, and kinda had this sweet/starch thing going that just seemed bland. With that said, it came with rice cooked in milk, which was by some of the best rice I've ever had (and, trust me: I've had a lot of rice in my life), so much so that I had to take a picture of it.
To be honest, I didn't think of the place as being much other than a good afternoon break out of the sun. I could probably characterize the majority of the places we went to in Madrid like that. Apart from a few highlights, I'll probably remember the city more of its museums and the posh Salamanca district than for its eats.
El Mollete, though, was one of these highlights. The place was only two streets over from our hotel, and yet the concierge hadn't heard of it. The ol' World Wide Web, however, had: it had made the NY Times' "36 Hours in Madrid" list as one of the places to go to:
"Don’t head to El Mollete without a reservation. The restaurant, set in an old charcoal cellar, has space only for 26 diners and is always full (Calle de la Bola, 4; 34-91-547-7820). Put yourself in the hands of the owner, Tomás Blanco, and hope he will serve you mollete (fried bread in oil), Gorgonzola croquettes, artichokes and scallops, and, of course, huevos rotos. No credit cards."
Other reviews I'd read basically agreed that the place lived up to the hype. It is a tiny, tiny restaurant, and the earliest dinner reservation (they're open for breakfast too) one can get is 9pm...not that anyone actually eats dinner that early in Madrid. With the after-opera crowd, it is next to impossible to get in unless you show up way later or have the patience to line up. There's a few larger tables on the top floor, maybe two small ones on the bottom, but basically you're sitting on stools or its standing room only.
We didn't order the mollete as they either ran out or only serve it during breakfast - not that I didn't pout about it for a split sec. We never went for breakfast either - our hotel had free breakfast - but apparently El Mollete is known across the city for having one of the best tortillas around. We couldn't read the menu or the daily chalkboard, but did as the NY Times suggested and let the owner/manager pick for us. The dude is as charming and down to earth as it comes: the staff is basically just him serving tables, a bartender, and (I'm assuming) one lady we saw come out of the kitchen. One picture of Francis Ford Coppola adorns the wall, and that's it. There's no fuss or muss here: it's about the food.
The crappy thing, then, is that our photos just don't do it justice. The place is dimly lit and small, and we didn't want our camera flash to annoy everyone. Don't hold our crappy pictures make your mind up for you. Particularly when it comes to this Galician octopus dish, which is quite simply one of the two best octopus dishes I have ever had (the other being at Cibo in Vancouver). The octopus sits in a lake of olive oil with potatoes, paprika sprinkled on top. The octopus was cooked to perfection, tender, juicy and brilliantly flavored with just enough saltiness to contrast the natural sweetness of the potato. The immense quantity of olive oil might put some off, but when you're using olive oil of this quality, you can learn to love it.
El Mollete is apparently known for eggs, so we had the huevos rotos too. Huevos rotos is kind of a broken egg (scrambled isn't quite right, but it's in that vein), cooked with potato. It might just sound like your standard eggs/hashbrowns breakfast combo, but there's something that just differentiates it. It's either the paprika or immense quantity of olive oil (a constant theme), but it's just different. And great. I love breakfast enough to think that eggs should appear on the menu at all times of the day, and the people in Madrid tend to agree. It's hard not to when it tastes as good as this.
The last dish we had was a grilled pork chop. I had picked up the Spanish word "lomo" earlier in the day, mostly because of my fondness for a Spanish pork chop sandwich. I'm not even 100% sure that "lomo" translates to "grilled pork" in Spanish, but heck, people understand. I'm also not sure what it is about every other country and their relative expertise with pork, but we have a pretty steep learning curve ahead of us here in Canada/US (I'd say North America, but a carnitas or el pastor taco are evidence that the Mexicans get it). Anyway, this was perfectly grilled, nice and salty, and a perfect end to the meal.
I really loved El Mollete, which was certainly the best mom and pop/traditional place we went to in Spain. I'd almost advise people to go there first, and work your way down to La Latinas if necessary. There's just alot of labour and love that goes into El Mollete, and it shows, both in the service and in the food.