Nov. 11 2016 01:48 PM

Amazing empanadas and other Latin small plates in University Heights

    Torta Azteca de mole
    Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

    Tapas are the classic small plates of Spain. According to one of several origin legends the tapas tradition began in Seville with a clever bartender who popped a slice of bread covered with a tasty morsel atop of a glass of sherry to keep the flies out. Hence the term "tapas." His innovation, like that of so many, was copied. The result: an informal competition among "tapas bars" to see who could offer the best. While we don't have many good tapas bars in San Diego, certainly not enough for a classic Spanish "tapas crawl," perhaps the one that best exemplifies the tapas spirit is Cueva Bar (2123 Adams Ave.) in University Heights.

    What has emerged from the original is more than just a free bite of food with your wine and a tradition of innovation, but also a classic repertoire of dishes and a certain look and feel of tapas bars. At Cueva the food isn't free and there's not much of that classic repertoire on offer, but that look and feel is there in spades as well as that tradition of innovation. While the reference point for Cueva is the tapas bar, it is not Spanish. Rather, chef-owner Oz Blackaller's tapas at Cueva are more pan-Latin.

    Take, for example, what might well be Cueva's best dish: chicken and gorgonzola curry empanadas. A light curry warmth suffuses the entire package surrounding the meaty, savory and moist chicken, but it is the gorgonzola that takes you by surprise. At first it's the stark contrast of that funky gorgonzola but then the curry flavor pulls it together. A dip in the accompanying chimichurri sauce and it all makes sense.

    The beef chorizo empanada is nearly as good. Warming chorizo spice adds a layer of interest to this version of one of the most prototypical of Argentina's empanadas: the carne molida. Cueva's version is hardly traditional but it manages to ring some of the same bells in a different way. The beef brisket empanada was not quite as good. Only that chimichurri lends it flavor.

    Cueva's torta azteca de Molemay not fit quite as well into the tapas idiom, but it is undoubtedly one of Cueva's best dishes. It is Blackaller's version of a classic pastel Azteca—the original tortilla pie—consisting of alternating layers of tortillas, fried chiles, cheese and chicken sauced with deep, evocative mole. But it may be a garnish—garlic and banana chip dust—that really take it over the top. Grounded, yet heady, it is an exciting dish.

    One Cueva dish that would fit perfectly well in a Spanish tapas bar is the bacon-and-goat-cheese-stuffed dates. Here the sweet and fatty savory of the classic combination of stuffed dates and bacon is balanced by the tangy strength of the goat cheese. The parts are good but the whole is better.

    Cuevas doesn't offer the tapas top 10, nor a trendy "small-plates" or "shared-plates" menu. It offers a tapas menu Blackaller's way. They're clearly not the same dishes youíd find in Seville, Barcelona, Madrid or San Sebastian. They're what you'll find in San Diego. But with the feel of the place, the spirit of creativity and generosity youíll feel like youíre in Seville and that tapa is all that stands between the flies and your drink

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