Hungry, wilting under the Spanish afternoon sun, I actively look for a lunch spot. Scanning storefronts, I encounter no English, only the bemused faces of locals gawking at these clearly lost Americans. I am, luckily, trying to get lost, taking hallucinogenic turns and ignoring my GPS-enabled iPhone. Finding a proper luncheon involves an epiphany, stumbling into a perfectly delicious and unspoiled experience.
When off-the-beaten path still proves too well trod, deliberately wandering a few more blocks usually yields less trafficked and more interesting restaurants. Of course, this process of intentionally losing oneself in a city is understandably frightening; touristy streets exist to assuage anxiety, providing comfort in unfamiliar environs. Starbucks, McDonald’s, even Yves Saint Laurent outlets—a proliferation of recognizable brands and accompanying brandistas decreases discomfort to a minimum. Fundamentally, the “tourist” searches for safety in recognition, whether a famous Picasso or a generic gelateria.
Although I oftentimes play the tourist part, I also enjoy losing myself in the real of the city. Not losing oneself in the sense of “I have lost myself in these romantic, twining alleys. Now, I shall stop for a coffee and ponder culture and life.” No, I mean the heart-pounding, adrenaline inducing tingle of realizing that I am completely ignorant of my location. Behind a graffiti-ed train station, in a shuttered marketplace, under the romantic, twining alleys in a narrow lane where a dirty cavalcade of housewives marches to do battle with delinquent husbands—I want to feel in danger of losing my identity to the city, swallowed alive in the gaping maw of the plazas.
Beyond the Museo Reina Sofia, though I couldn’t say exactly where, there is a hill that cuts through the touristed districts, transecting old Madrid and the Paseo del Prado. Crossing the street, I see a worn sign and a blackboard, sure signs of a tavern. El Horreo beckons to me, and I step closer, enchanted.
With cameras, guidebooks, and baseball caps, we look like tourists. And we sound like tourists too, simply saying, “Dos,” to the hostess, gesturing towards a table in the corner. A woman drinks beer and smokes cigarettes at the bar. A teenage boy, perhaps 19, serves drinks and chats with his younger brother and the hostess. We ask for the menu and she pulls out a torn piece of notebook paper. Scribbled all over the sheet in Spanish is the “Menu del Día,” four appetizers and four mains. After randomly selecting two unidentifiable starters, we ask her what’s good. She points, says “meat,” we say “sí,” and she walks back to her post.
Apparently, we ordered creamy potato salad and artichokes with ham as the first courses. Famished from six hours of walking earlier in the day, everything tastes incredible, each flavor crystalline and in-focus. The much anticipated “meat” turns out to be steak, thin and grilled and medium rare, patatas fried in clarified butter on the side. For lunch, we eat steak frites, and feel happy to uncover the familiar on a distant shore.