What are tapas + where to get the best tapas in Malaga

I know you’ve heard of tapas, but trust me. If you’re eating them anywhere but in Spain, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.

Tapas are a staple of Spanish life, but the right way to have tapas is pretty far off what we get in North America.

What is a tapa?

Alfonso X creative commons what is tapa tapa histotyHistorically, tapas are small bites of food served in Spain when a customer orders a drink. The origin of this tradition seems to be lost to the shifting sands of time.

Depending on who you ask, tapas originated when barkeepers used small pieces of sausage to cover the mouth of a bottle to keep bugs out. A ‘tapa’ in Spanish quite literally means lid, so this is plausible.

If you want the fancier version of history, those barkeepers may have used small saucers to keep flies out of small glasses of beer or sweet sherry, then started serving a small bite of something salty or savoury to keep the customer thirsty — and happy.

Still other versions of the tapas tale have bar and restaurant owners serving small wedges of pungent cheeses or cured meats to cover up the taste of sub-par wines.

And if you want the regal version of tapas history, you can thank King Alphonso X of Spain’s Castille region for getting so sick he could only eat and drink in small amounts, thus creating a trend for his subjects.

Modern day tapas in Spain

Whichever version of history you like, the tapas trend has endured in Spain. Depending on where you go in the country, you’ll have a very different tapas experience.

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Going out for drinks in Spain’s capital city is perhaps the most authentic tapas experience you can have, provided you avoid touristy establishments. In local bars a small tapa is almost always served with your drink, and it’s done so at no extra charge.

Grab a slice of the bar, and lean as the locals do. Order a caña of beer, usually about 200ml or about 7oz and the bartender will likely serve up a plate of olives, some small slices of cured ham, or regional cheeses. Depending on the place you pick, you’ll be treated to their house specialties; rich and fluffy tortilla de patata, baked mussels, or garlicky shrimps called gambas al ajillo.

Be warned, getting authentic tapas in those tourist areas is getting harder, with many establishments that cater to travellers dishing out potato chips, mixed nuts or other international bar snacks like rice cracker snack mix.

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San Sebastian tapas

This is Mecca when it comes to tapas, and San Sebastian wears its tapas crown proudly. Here tapas are an actual art. Slices of fresh bread form the base and sculpted toppings draw the eye. In San Sebastian, you’ll pay for this art form, but tapas are inexpensive and downright amazing, with various kinds of seafood nearly always in the starring role.

Barcelona tapas

Tapas don’t seem as common here. Perhaps that’s the Catalonian way. You’ll order raciones or ‘portions’ here and pay for what you get.

Malaga tapas

Hunting down tapas in Malaga can be a challenge, but they’re out there. More often, restaurants here want to serve the tourists and cruise ship crowd a Menu del Día; a three course offering for 8-20. A handful of tapas bars are still doing it the old way, serving you a small dish of something fresh (often anchovy-scented olives) when you order your drink, and enticing you to nibble at more by laying out tempting trays in glass showcases along the bar.

Malaga tapa tips

If you want to try the best tapas in Malaga where we recently spent several weeks, these are our picks for tastiest tapas and most authentic experiences.

Expect to pay about 2-5 per tapa, and don’t forget to specify you want a tapa size plate, since some bartenders will hopefully offer you a ración; significantly more food at a much higher price.

Where to find the best tapas in Malaga

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Antigua Casa de Guardia
Alameda Principal 18, Malaga

Begin your tour early in the day at this historic vermouth house. There’s no sign out front, and it’s only by chance we walked past it and saw dozens of wooden casks piled floor to ceiling inside. Popping our heads inside we asked, ‘what is this place’ of the elderly man tending the slate bar.

“The best wine in Malaga,” was his answer.

Sidle up to the bar and the gentleman will pour you small glasses of various kinds of vino dulce de Malaga, or sweet wine. From fino sherry, to moscatel and vermouth, you can sample them all here. They’re definitely sweet and poured with a heavy hand, so sharing is a good idea. The barkeep will write what you’ve sampled on the bar stone in chalk, then add up your bill in front of you when you’ve had enough.

You’ll see lots of tourists in here, since it’s rather legendary (open since the late 1800s) and they also sell bottles to bring home.

Atarazanas Market
Calle Atarazanas, 10

Make your next stop the central city market. Here, fishmongers line up alongside fresh fruit and vegetable merchants and huge selection of butchers. It’s a massive market, and it was renovated a few years back, so the ironwork and stained glass glows.

Tucked in the corners and outside are several bars serving authentic seafood tapas. You can sit outside and have a waiter bring your food, or do like the locals do and lean on the bar inside. Order a glass of something and olives will certainly appear. Then ask what’s fresh or on special offer that day.

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Battered and fried baby squid

Look for lightly battered and deep fried crispy baby squids (camarones), garlic shrimp, shellfish, boquerones and paellas. Order a drink at one place, then order a tapa. When you’re done, head to another corner of the market to see what else is on offer.

At our favourite stall, Marisqueria El Yerno (there are several El Yerno locations in the market. We loved the friendly service and great grill skills of the couple manning the tiny stall in one of the middle aisles on the western side of the building) we sampled several new things thanks to kindly service from the duo behind the counter.

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Concha fina tapa.

The Concha Fina, a type of bi-coloured shellfish, were creepy looking but really delicious, with a little fresh lemon juice and a dash of pepper. They’re light and have the taste of a fresh oyster, but are much firmer. Large swirly and spiny-shelled Busanos were another shellfish we’d never tried before that we braved. They’re served cooked and have a meaty texture and a light, salty and non-fishy taste.

Boquerones are the ubiquitous tapa in Malaga. The word boquerone is a local nickname for while anchovies, though numerous purveyors told us they’re ‘similar, not the same’.

Most often found pickled in vinegar and boned, they’re also available whole, both fried and frilled.

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Squid ink croquette at bar Jamones.

Bar Jamones
Calle Carretería, 87

We loved Jamones so much that we went back again and again. The young proprietors are doing amazing things with food in here, and the free tapa we got with our order ranged from middle eastern scented roasted potatoes, to squid ink noodles with shrimp.

We tried numerous delicious bites here including surprisingly creamy and tasty squid ink croquettes, and rich and tangy chorizo with onions.

La Tranca
Calle Carretería, 93

Just north up the road from Jamones is La Tranca, another very local place. Filled with locals or Boquerones as Malagans are nicknamed, this place is bustling, vibrant, and serves a variety of local tapas. On the day we visited tasty roasted red peppers with meat sauce and a tangy tomato topping were on offer.

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El Tunel de Pimpi
Calle Granada, 62

Another place we went back to again and again, despite its location in the heart of the old city’s tourist district, El Tunel de Pimpi is a long, narrow and busy room serving a variety of familiar tapas and seafoods. Their croquettes (a creation of bechamel or potato mixed with meats and cheeses, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried) are made from ‘grandmother’s recipe’, and the grilled squid is served in small pieces that are tender and flavourful.

Expect to wait before you can get a bartender’s attention or before you can get near the bar here, but it’s worth it.

Try to order the ensaladilla malagueña,; it’s a local take on another famous Spanish tapa, ensaladilla Rusa. It’s potato salad with fresh orange sections, orange zest and cooked cod and it’s outstanding.

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Fresh citrusy nsalada Malagueña

Casa Lola
Calle Granada, 46
Not far from Pimpi, this modern hub is usually busy, particularly nights and weekends. Head to the bar and order a caña and you’ll get the ubiquitous dish of olives. Try one of their tasty tapas too, like stuffed peppers.

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Farola de Orellana
Calle Moreno Monroy, 5

An appearance at this small locally-run spot on a Sunday afternoon earned us a plate of the best paella I’ve had in ages. Thick, sticky, and rich with flavour and loaded with seafood, this dish was inhaled in minutes, and all around us, even the locals were ordering a second plate.

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Cortijo de Pepe
Plaza de la Merced, 2
This spot was filled with locals on a busy Saturday afternoon and the bartenders were also working the grill, cooking up fresh octopus. We asked for a recommendation and got a dish of warm beans and ham. Next up were thin and creamy slices of eggplant covered in a tomato meat sauce.

Another day saw us tasting grilled chorizo, and casa-made meatballs.

Get a drink & some of the best views in Malaga

Sometimes you just want to sit and contemplate the world. There are a few good places to do that from in Malaga.

El Ambigú
Calle Campos Elíseos, 14

One of the best places in town for a drink and a gorgeous view, this restaurant is situated along one of the rising ramps that lead up to (or down from) the Castillo de Gibralfaro that sits high up Gibralfaro mountain.

This newish-looking place has friendly service, a nice wine selection and a sunny terrace that overlooks the vast parks and pedestrian streets. Order a glass of wine and linger over sunset.

Gran Hotel Miramar
Paseo Reding, 22-24

You’ll pay North American prices for drinks here but the views from the rooftop terrace at Gran Miramar are worth it. It’s located right on the beach, and the building rises about 7 stories so you’ll feel like a bird as you sit on the open air terrace sipping a nice glass of wine or beer. There’s cocktails here too and the staff are super friendly. They warned us it’s a bit of a zoo on weekends and the terrace gets packed, so take my advice and visit, as we did, on a weekday in the early afternoon to have the place to yourself.

Take some time to stroll through the soaring and decadently-appointed lobby with its giant crystal and glass egg-shaped chandeliers.

Whether you hunt down some of these places, or explore and discover your own haunts, Malaga has a rich food culture featuring old favourites, and nouveau cuisine.