“Who in their right mind would find octopus appetizing?” said my 10-year-old self when I was brought to a restaurant and promptly presented with a plate of pulpos a la gallega, a Spanish dish consisting of octopus and potatoes seasoned with coarse sea salt, paprika, and olive oil. This dish was now sitting in front of me once again.
Thanks to my mother’s affinity for cooking from old family recipes, as I grew older and wiser, I came to appreciate all the great things that Spanish cuisine has to offer. So, in an effort to get a piece of home away from home and a taste of the old country, I am now sitting at my own table in Princeton’s Despaña.
Walking into Despaña was a mixture of old and new experiences. Hits from Miguel Bosé, Alejandro Sanz, and other Spanish singers played in the background, reminding me of many family get-togethers. The restaurant’s relaxed and modern design provided the perfect atmosphere to unwind on a Sunday before heading back to campus to work.
A waiter was quick to notice me sitting down and offered to take my drink orders. He recommended that I try the Despaña red, which is sourced from a local vineyard. I decided to order the pulpos a la gallega (Galicia-style octopus), pimientos de Padrón (Padrón peppers), and a tortilla de patatas (no relation to Mexican tortillas).
My first plate was the pulpos a la gallega. This is a dish that is difficult to get right, but as the waiter placed the plate on my table, I knew it was off to a good start. Little chunks of octopus, alternating with small pieces of paprika-sprinkled potatoes and lightly glistening with olive oil, were scattered on top of a small wooden plate. The octopus was soft and tender, while the coarse salt added a bit of crunchiness to every bite. The paprika added another level of spice to the dish; without it pulpos a la gallega would be octopus with boiled potatoes. Insider tip: If you ever eat pulpos a la gallega, save some bread so that at the end you can soak it in the leftover olive oil, paprika, and salt mix with the last pieces of octopus. You can thank me later.
The pimientos and tortilla de patatas came next. The tortilla is a Spanish version of an omelet that contains potatoes and sometimes even asparagus and other vegetables. Pimientos, on the other hand, are sautéed in olive oil and garnished with some coarse rock salt. The best way to eat these dishes is by having a piece of both at the same time.
Unlike American and Asian peppers, pimientos are not spicy at all, which allows you to experience more of the flavor in the pepper rather than have some of it obscured by the sting of capsaicin. This combination is a flavorful way of upgrading your egg game with minimum effort. For best results, pair any or all of the previous options with a strong Spanish red wine — especially a tempranillo.
Throughout the meal, the staff was attentive, asking how I found the food and if I needed anything else. Overall, Despaña provides a pleasant dining experience with authentic and exceptional food. Despaña is also great for group dining because the portions are made for sharing, it is BYOB, and the kitchen will even mix your wine with its house sangria mix, perfect for the upcoming hot summer days. Some of the dishes took a while to arrive, but they deserve the time, and cooking octopus is a slow and careful process.
Furthermore, the staff is friendly, and if you are in a hurry the downstairs deli shop is a great place to get a Bellotero and manchego sandwich. However, the price isn’t great. The entrees are at least $20 and the tapas can be still pricey if only two people are sharing.