I was in search of the perfect paella. Valencia is often touted as the best rice in Spain, so it only seemed natural that during our 4-night stay there, we should find the best paella in the city. As was the case with our hunt for the best chilli crab in Singapore, it proved to be a frustrating and difficult search, only this time, I knew what I wanted in a paella and my expectations were sky high.
We arrived in Valencia after an easy train ride from Barcelona. Unfortunately, we also arrived during the lunch hour. I had left a message for our guesthouse that we’d be arriving during lunch, but they weren’t answering their phones or the door when we arrived. Loaded down with our 60L bags and shoulder bags, we went in search of lunch for ourselves. Around the corner from the guesthouse there was a pleasant looking Italian bistro advertising a 10 euro set menu, which included wine (score). I was embarrassed to walk into this quaint and lovely setting in my typical travel day ensemble of jeans, hiking shoes, and my vest (my best impression of Kath from Portlandia in full effect), but Shawn insisted it was fine, so we trudged through the door fully embodying the American tourists we are. We were greeted with a “Buenas!” and chose a seat right near the door where we could store our pile of stuff. It turned out to be a simple, but amazing, lunch. I had perfect, tender gnocchi; Shawn had a cheesy, but flavorful, pasta. While we sat sipping our espresso, I got a phone call from the guesthouse saying we could check in.
After 2 days of searching online, we settled on a place for paella. Not wanting to take a bus an hour out of town to the coast where we felt like we’d be overpaying for paella simply for the view, we chose to go to an in-town version of one of these restaurants – a short 25-minute bus ride away. There was nothing spectacular about the restaurant, but it was definitely a little fancier than most of the cafes we had been frequenting, so I was glad to have slightly dressed up my black travel dress with a scarf, as you do. Upon seeing the prices for just a paella (20 euros per person, minimum of 4 person order), we decided it would be best to just go for the paella of the day set menu for a mere 25 euros per person – not including wine (boo). We had broken the bank already, so why not order a bottle of wine?
Thankfully even the “cheap” wine in Spain is delicious
This salad is what made it a set menu – that and a basket of bread
“Our” paella came out in a large pan and was served table side after we had finished our salads. It was a lovely presentation, even if the paella of the day was vegetarian. The waiter gave us each a quarter of the pan and we quickly set off eating since I had just finished a run. The wine was already taking effect, the sun was shining through the large floor-to-ceiling windows, and the paella was…decent.
Sadly, that’s 20 euros worth of paella, my friends
After a few bites I asked Shawn what he thought. He said, “Honestly, I think yours is better.” In my head, I threw my arms up in victory and yelled, “winning!”…but then I realized we had just paid over 60 euros for this meal. That took a little wind out of my sails. We finished our plates and Shawn said he thought he could go for a little more rice, even if it wasn’t the best. It was only then he realized that what we had on our plates was all we got – no second helpings, no leftovers. “That was it?” Not that either of us was hungry, but really? Luckily our little mid-afternoon wine buzz softened the blow.
The next day, while wandering around for lunch, we walked into a small cafe offering a 9,50 euro lunch menu. We asked what time lunch was available. “A las 14,00” was the reply – of course. It was 1:30. My grumbling stomach could barely handle the smell of the huge paella cooking on the gas range, but we waited it out and came back a half hour later. Despite the fact that we had eaten paella the day before, we both ended up ordering it as our first course. I had read warnings on the internet while searching for our “perfect paella” restaurant not to order paella off a set menu since most of the time it would be frozen. But we had just watched the matron of the restaurant cooking only a half hour before. We were sure it was fine.
It was better than fine. Perfectly cooked rice, meat and vegetables, and most importantly – socarrat (the delicious crust that’s formed on the bottom layer of the paella pan – the best part of the rice). This simple little cafe that we almost passed by ended up serving us the dish and the experience we were searching for. And all for 9,50 euros.
Between that first Italian bistro, the cafe with the paella and a couple of other unexpected finds, we ate really well in Valencia. It was worth going just for the food and to wander. It just goes to show that all the research in the world cannot replace these delicious unplanned experiences.