For all of the planning that I did for our trip via my various maps of fun, I didn’t try to limit myself to only the places that were on the list. And I’m glad I didn’t, because otherwise I would have missed out on a really great find that was so good, we ended up stopping here two days in a row: La Alcoba Azul. Located in the Byzantine tangle of streets known as the Gothic Quarter, this is a low-key, highly unassuming place that was actually right next door to a place that was on my map; when comparing the two, Alcoa looked more inviting and busier at the time, so in we went.
One of the coolest aspects of the place is that it gave me the distinct feel of a place you’d find in Federal Hill: warm, welcoming, unassuming, and filled with lots of really good food and drink. Our bartender was friendly, spoke excellent English, and we fell into an easy rapport. The whole experience made it all too easy to imagine that we could live nearby and drop in on this place on a Friday evening after a long week of work.
We ended up coming back here on our last day in the city, though not by design; after going to Pinar Miró and Bar Central, we could see a big batch of ominously dark clouds getting closer (I, and while we tried to out-walk it to get back to our hotel, it was pretty clear that we wouldn’t make it and Alcoa Azul happened to be right where we were when the first raindrops started to fall. Of all of the places we went to in the city during this trip, this was the perfect place to try to wait out some of the storm.
(The rain ended up lasting a lot longer than we were anticipating, so we ended up making a run for it in which we ran in a heavy downpour for a solid twenty minutes and got DRENCHED. Our clothes were not fully dry by the time we had to pack them the next morning to go to the airport, that’s how wet they were.)
So what makes this place so special? Well, the drinks here are pretty exceptional: they make a hell of a negroni (including a mezcal one that I need to make again), but what they do really well are old-fashioneds—our bartender made Michael one with run and a burnt cinnamon stick on our first visit, and then made one with dehydrated orange peel and fresh blueberry to help wait out the rain. Their wine selection was quite solid, and I definitely enjoyed a few glasses of verdejo on that rainy Wednesday afternoon.
But the food was really what captured my imagination here. We ate really well on this trip on the whole, but I loved the spin on some classic dishes. Sardine crudo with tomatoes and toasted sesame seeds was a light and refreshing take on the otherwise very oily fish, and the lightly-fried squid with black allioli was fun as hell to eat. But probably my favorite dish of all was the simplest one: pa amb allioli. Instead of the more traditional pa amb tomaquet, they serve their lightly toasted bread with the classic allioli of egg, garlic, and olive oil instead, finished with a sprinkling of paprika.
I mean, if someone asked me if I would want to have a piece of toast smothered in Hellman’s with some paprika, I would laugh in their face; what makes this emulsion so delicious is that garlic and lemon are the flavors that come to the forefront, and so it tastes like something, even without the paprika.
And so that’s why I’m encouraging you to make it now. The internet needs another recipe for toast like it needs another snarky article about millennials and toast, but here we are. The allioli is my adaptation on Jose Andres’ modern version of the sauce, a recipe that has been a solid one for me for ages now, and this can be adapted to be super-simple crostini for a party or the heartier slabs of bread shown here. Again—it seems weird to serve allioli on bread as an appetizer, but when it’s made from scratch and you need an easy vehicle to get people to eat something carby during a party, this will work well. And it is considerably less expensive than avocado toast, so there’s that.
Pa amb allioli
Inspired by La Alcoba Azul
- 4 long slices of ciabatta baguette
- ½ cup Modern Allioli, recipe below
- Smoked paprika to serve
Place slices of bread on a baking sheet with a wire baking rack, and broil until toasted brown. Brush with the allioli generously and then sprinkle with paprika and serve immediately.
Lightly adapted from Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America by José Andrés
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup good quality olive oil
- Kosher salt to taste
Combine the garlic, salt, egg, and lemon juice into a mixing bowl or narrow-sided container that can accommodate a stick blender. Using a stick blender, process the ingredients until the garlic is pureed, and then start slowly drizzling in the olive oil until the mixture begins to emulsify and thicken. Let chill in the fridge before serving.