A Taste of Spain via Berkeley

It’s been way too long since I visited Spain, but when I walked through the doors recently of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley, I felt as if I was back in that vibrant, energetic country.

Or perhaps I should say, nudged my way through the doors, because on a Sunday even before 5 p.m., the place was packed and the host was having to turn people away. Fortunately, my husband and I had reservations for an early dinner, of which we paid our own tab.

Why the crowd at that hour? Because La Marcha has one of the best Happy Hours around. It’s every day, too. A select number of cocktails, wines and beers offered at a discount. Best yet, during Happy Hour, each drink you order comes with your choice of a free little snack. There are about a dozen to choose from. No wonder people were fighting their way in here. If you can’t make it then, and are a night owl, La Marcha offers a second Happy Hour each night, 10 p.m. to midnight.

The boisterous spot features a Real Madrid flag hanging above the expansive bar, and an exposed brick wall behind small, closely set tables. We snagged two end seats at the bar, which were actually more at regular table height than bar height. It took a little while to not feel like we were at the kid’s table at a dinner party as we peered at neighboring bar patrons sitting up a foot or so higher.

My husband chose both the red and the white wines of the day on the Happy Hour menu, and I went with the draught cidre that was dry with a touch of funkiness almost like kombucha. With three drinks, we qualified for three free little bites. We chose the wild boar meatballs, crisp Brussels sprouts, and a shrimp and onion fritter.

Each of them arrived in a tiny dish, not much bigger than a soy sauce dish. The moist meatballs were blanketed in a sherry tomato cream sauce with manchego; the Brussels sprouts had that fantastic sweet-sour note thanks to grapes and a wine-y balsamic reduction; and the fritter was golden and crisp, giving way to a delicate ground shrimp filling that made my husband coin it a “Spanish har gow.”

No wonder the room was abuzz with happy people when they’re all noshing on delicious gifts like these.

Then, it was on to the regular dinner menu. The croqueta trio ($12) lets you try one of each of the ones on the menu: chicken, mushroom, and clam and bone marrow. All three are fortified with bechamel, leaving the textures all quite similar — spoonably soft, almost like mashed potatoes that could somehow melt on contact in your mouth. They’re one- or two-bite little wonders — perfect with glasses of wine.

Slow-cooked octopus ($10) arrived tender and smoky tasting on a bed of chickpea puree (like hummus without the tahini), and fantastic fried, crunchy whole chickpeas.

La Marcha offers seven different paellas, some quite traditional, others more unusual. The Arroz Negro ($36) arrived bubbling hot with saucy rice tinged charcoal from the squid ink. Scattered about were clams, chunks of fennel sausage, peas, mounds of fennel fronds, fine breadcrumbs flavored with anchovy, and truffle aioli crowned with salmon roe.

Initially, I was skeptical about the truffle oil being in the mix. But it does add a depth of umami that does marry with the overall briny forwardness of the dish. There’s a lot going on in this paella, more than in most, yet it definitely delivers big flavor in every bite.

For dessert, who can pass up churros ($17)? These were among the best I’ve ever had, too. They arrived right out of the fryer, so hot we couldn’t even pick them up for a few minutes. While a lot of churros have a thin crunchy exterior that gives way to a softer interior, these are incredibly crisp almost entirely to their cores. They possess many closely spaced exterior ridges, which when fried, become glorious edges of ka-runch. Dip them in the cup of warm chocolate sauce, and you can’t help but smile afterward.

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