I think I have some sort of food-related attention-deficit disorder. It takes a lot to stimulate my palate, so I tend to gravitate toward the appetizers section of the menu, where the emphasis is on variety. Since appetizers have only a few bites in which to make an impression, great small plates get to the point immediately: They're more boldly flavored and concisely composed than the larger dishes that follow, with fewer extraneous ingredients or non-essential plate fillers. And because small plates mean smaller portions, appetizers are usually crafted with delicious ingredients that wouldn't always be practical to serve in bigger quantities. I like the satisfaction of these brief but memorable taste experiences, and they correlate with my predilection for short stories, sketch comedy and songs less than three minutes long.
Tapas are supreme examples of small-plate-style eating. Though some dishes are on the rich side, fried or wrapped in pastry, there's always a complementary selection of lighter bites, marinated seafood salads and chilled vegetable dishes that provide a counterpoint. Sharing a bunch of tapas from both categories means you'll never suffer from food envy. One of my fantasies is to travel to San Sebastián in Spain, where I'd go on an epic food crawl through the town's narrow streets, which are lined with some of the best tapas bars in the world. Until I board that plane, I'll make do with happy hour at a local tapas restaurant. But though I think I'm doing things as the Spanish do—they typically eat tapas as a snack, with drinks, before dinner—I'm usually sated and sedated by the time they're getting ready to continue on to their main evening meal.
Costa Brava in Pacific Beach (1653 Garnet Ave., 858-273-1218) is a favorite snacking spot for tapas, and its happy hour, served until 7 p.m. on the ivy-bordered front patio or at the bar, offers a number of hot and cold tapas for less than $5. The bread basket, piled with warm, crusty rolls, comes with a dish of rich garlic aioli that challenges butter's role as bread's best mate.
For the Patatas a la Brava, the same sauce is combined with tomatoes and spicy chile peppers to coat big chunks of roasted potatoes—this is a dish you will likely want two of. Croquetas, creamy-centered fried croquettes with chicken or cheese filling, are ideal, hand-held cocktail tidbits that go well with happy hour's pitcher of half-priced sangria. And if there's any bread left in that basket, you'll want to save it to mop up the garlic-infused wine sauce that bathes the sautéed mushrooms. Stay past happy hour and you might even hear some live flamenco guitar.
At Tapas Picasso in Hillcrest (3923 Fourth Ave., 619-294-3061), the walls are lined with folk art, and families from the neighborhood steadily stream in. On my latest visit, our waiter was brisk but not brusque; he had to keep up with a three-quarters-full restaurant all by his lonesome.
Picasso's happy hour extends through the end of service on Monday and Thursday nights and until 7 p.m. on all others, when a handful of tapas are $5 and all other dishes are discounted by a dollar. Picasso's version of spicy potatoes—tiny toothpick-speared cubes of potatoes resembling skillet home fries—is inferior to Costa Brava's, but its take on Tortilla Espanola, the classic omelet layered with potatoes and onions, was just about perfect. And the sangria, crisp and not too sweet, was a great match for cantimpalitos, little mini-chorizos heated in a red wine sauce. After we'd finished all our snacks, our waiter, sensing that we weren't quite through, gave us each a small glass of sherry to sip while we lingered. Just because you're eating short and sweet—or savory, in this case—that doesn't mean that your meal has to be enjoyed in double-time.