El Chato, a term of endearment meaning “shorty,” is a Spanish tapas and wine bar that opened recently on the corner of 21st and Bryant streets, serving a limited but tasty menu meant to go with their quite large array of wines, sherries, vermouths and espumantes (bubbly), hailing from Spain, the French Basque Region, and Portugal.
The food is what you’d find at many tapas or pintxos bars in Barcelona, Madrid, or San Sebastian, such as conservas, those lovely little tins of seafood and shellfish, usually in olive oil, sometimes pickled and served with bread or other accouterments, as well as tortilla Española, gazpacho, cheese, and jamon.
Indeed, co-owner Rafa Saenz (with friend/partner Erin Rickenbacker) hails from Madrid, Spain. One does not go to a tapas bar for a full, sedate, sit-down dinner (although a very satisfying meal can certainly be made of those delectable small plates); rather, you come for the music, lively conversation with friends, wine, and for the conviviality found in any Spanish taverna.
A “chato” here also means a short pour of wine; such a welcome option, so that you can try a few different vinos without breaking the bank, or waking up with regrets.
On my first visit, a Thursday evening, the place was quite empty. Four of us started with manzanilla olives and Gildas (skewered anchovies, olives, piparra peppers) on house made chips:
The Gildas, a combination of spice and brine, took me right back to San Sebastian, along with a dry-as-dust Jerez fino.
We followed that up with boquerones.
Boquerones en vinagre: So excellent, set free from its little tin and served with ample amounts of fruity olive oil, parsley and garlic, these little silvery jewels of the sea were mouthwatering.
Next up, we indulged in the tabla de quesos (manchego, mahón, idiazábal) with Spanish membrillo, accompanied by cornichons and picos (those adorably addictive crispy mini breadsticks). It came with pan tumaca (otherwise known as pa amb tomàquet or pan con tomate; essentially, toasted bread that’s been rasped with a cut garlic clove, then drizzled with good olive oil and the juice of a freshly squeezed tomato and adorned with flaky salt. Nothing says Spain to me quite like this simple dish and, here, on really great bread.
We also had the ensaladilla Ukraniana, a potato salad with tuna and anchovies, alongside tender, fat slices of tortilla de patata, served here as a montadito, atop a slice of toasted bread and piquillo peppers, with a squiggle of alliolli on top, and cooling chatos of zesty gazpacho.
In truth, some of the food for me on this visit was a bit under-seasoned; it just could have used a touch more salt. But otherwise, everything had the flavor of authenticity, of time and place.
Although the place was almost empty, a conjunto of two young men enlivened the room with Spanish guitars and drums, singing their hearts out. Lovely. To sweeten the deal, owner Saenz, who at times served us, told me to come back, “There will be flamenco!” and indeed, he was bringing some of the dancers from sadly disbanded Mision Flamenca, a Mission District troupe that used to perform at Bissap Baobab regularly before the pandemic, when many of the dancers went their separate ways. Music to my ears! I vowed I’d bring my crazed Hispanophile friends with me to the Friday night show.
A week later, six of us, thinking we were surely arriving early enough to get a table, were met with a standing-room-only crush of boisterous party people eagerly awaiting the flamenqueras.
After a short wait and much eagle-eyeing, we managed to get a table. On this visit, we repeated a lot of the dishes I’d had on my last visit (with everything properly seasoned this time), and added a platter of 100 percent jamon Ibérico de Bellota “Fermin.”
Normally, these lush, fatty slices can be a bit too much for me — yes, me! — but tonight, in the right place, right time, we finished the tray handily, washed down with copious copas of red wine and Vermut.
We finished the evening with the best dish I’d tried here yet, the rabo de toro, a slow-braised oxtail sandwich on brioche, with melting, tender beef, so flavorful, wonderful with the wine, and easy to take bites of while sharing with friends as we watched the dancers. Indeed, the show came on with such fury that I forgot to take a picture of the rabo! But if it’s on the menu, you must get it.
And you must come on a show night, to get the full flavor of El Chato!
The show was spectacular, spurred on by the raucously enthusiastic crowd, and will be a monthly event, or perhaps more often, judging on the popularity of this first night. Saenz looked as ecstatic as he was harried; everyone was busy popping bottles and serving platters of tortilla. The night was such a success that he joked he’d probably only need to open one night a month: Flamenco night.
El Chato has a lot more up its sleeve, too. There’s a wine club with a monthly wine pick-up tasting party, a weekly radio show on Sundays from 4 to 8 p.m., which you can listen to from their website, or come in person and join the dance party.
Good fun, vino, dancing, and music — Gracias, El Chato, y bienvenidos!
2301 Bryant Street
Just had a great valentine’s day with the wife starting at Destapas and then nightcap at El Chato. Lucky to have the 2 best Spanish spots in the city within the neighborhood.
Hey Jason, there’s this thing called Google…
Sending love to the ML team
Great food, drink, decor, and vibes. Fun spot for a date night or catching up with friends. Highly recommend!
Prices, please. Nobody orders food without knowing what it costs.