I finally got a Spaniard to ask me where I was from, while eating breakfast solo at El Quim in La Boqueria, my last full day in Barcelona.
In Mexico, I got asked 5 times a day where I was from, from the cabdriver to the waitress to the guy working in the cemetery who insisted that I see where Benito Juarez’s daughter was buried and then shyly showed me photos of him riding a bull attached to his keychain. Almost always, the question was asked with curiosity, warmth and kindness. But in Spain, in the 3 weeks I have been here, I have been asked that question once.
El Quim belongs a Spanish food genre that doesn’t exist in the U.S., not quite a restaurant, more of a counter, but not like a diner, as it may very well serve wine, beer, and sparkling Spanish cava, not to mention razor clams, calamari, and jamon iberico. El Quim, even within this marvelous class, is near the very top. It’s a wonder just to watch the owner and his assistants move with sureness and speed in the little space that serves as their kitchen behind the counter. El Quim is one of the young upstarts that have started to challenge the legend of Pinotxo at La Boqueria, and I say, “The more the merrier!”
Although El Quim does list a menu on a board behind the counter, it’s not actually comprehensible. There are clearly things displayed in the glass case on the counter that are not on the board, and I did what I have learned to do brazenly, gawk at what others are eating. I even made a full circuit around the U-shaped bar, dismissing the tortilla espanola as old hat, dismissing eggs as too typically American for breakfast. Finally, on my second turn around the stall, I noticed a man at one end eating a round, flat earthenware dish of a red, chunky stew.
“Cual es?” I asked. I don’t know why I bothered, as I didn’t understand the response, “Callos,” but it looked very much like tripe, one of my favorite things to eat. THAT would not be a typically American breakfast for sure. So I sat down next to him and ordered the same.
My God, it was so good! The tripe was wonderful, so tender and yet still springy. There were chunks of sausage and plenty of tomato sauce that I sopped up with pieces of good crusty bread. The nice guy behind the counter had filled my plate almost to overflowing, but I couldn’t stop eating. It may go down in memory as one of the best breakfasts I have ever had, if not one of the best meals.
As I ate in gusto, I could tell the man next to me was glancing at me from time to time. I recognized the question emanating from him: who was this Asian woman who spoke Spanish with an American accent, who thought nothing of eating tripe for breakfast? In Mexico, he would have asked the question immediately, but it stalled for awhile. But in the end, he had to ask.
I had done it, me and my stomach. I had finally made someone in Spain ask, “De donde eres?”