Eat: Tapas and Paella at Berkeley’s La Marcha

The meals that have stuck the most with me all summer were the ones I ate at Bellota, the tapas restaurant that debuted on the ground floor of Airbnb’s headquarters in SoMa this spring. Second only to Vietnamese, the culinary heritage of Northern Spain is probably the thing I could be happiest eating every day for the rest of my life. So since I missed out on La Marcha when it opened late last fall, I decided to go before the fall’s onslaught of major restaurants in S.F. buried it for the second time. It was a good decision.

As tapas restaurants that expand beyond one region, the two share plenty of similarities, but their approaches are very different. La Marcha is a tightly executed, 600-square-foot neighborhood restaurant that will almost certainly draw patrons from a fairly small radius, but Bellota wants to lure the attention of the international food press with its wood-fired oven, conspicuously displayed pig parts, and a 32-ounce bone-in porterhouse that’ll set you back a Benjamin. Dinner at Bellota would be a rare treat for most mortals but for the relatively high noise level and likelihood of sitting at a communal table, while La Marcha could be any old date night — which is to its credit. The dishes that chef-owners Sergio Emilio Monleón and Emily Sarlatte put out include many things to like, and all are affordable.

Although coming three to an order isn’t the most date-friendly math, the tortillitas de gambas ($9) are the way to start. They’re garlicky shrimp fritters with an avocado mousse, and they’re best when piping hot. The patatas bravas ($8), perkily roasted taters in a creamy romesco variation made with ñora peppers — which are similar, if not nearly identical, to piments d’espelette and not far from paprika — have a certain folksy appeal. If they’d be at home in northeastern Spain, they also wouldn’t be out of place at some summer-only, resort-town restaurant alongside a bang-up burger.

Mar y montaña ($12), which at Bellota is presented as a tower of five discrete dishes, is here a salty dish of well-cooked clams in broth that’s been left to absorb a lot of flavor from its accompanying pancetta. You’ll want more bread to sop up the remains, and, if you’re like me, you’ll wish it came unbuttered. And if you’re not afraid of sodium chloride, the croquetas de bacalao (or salt cod, $9) with pistachio hazelnut romesco and boquerones (anchovies) will reward you because they’re lighter on the edges of the palate than they sound.

Asparagus season has come and gone, but the combination of burrata toast, truffle honey, and pine nuts on the espárragos ($9) seduced me all the same. Burrata is usually salty enough, and this preparation includes rock salt, but it could have used another pinch to make it pop. Apart from that, it’s a fine marriage of classic and contemporary. The pulpo y garbanzos ($10) were the only unsuccessful dish on either visit, afflicted with too much competition among their internal parts. When the octopus, the piquillo peppers, and the chickpea puree are all running at maximum intensity, it feels like a person you already agree with has started shouting to make their point. But the very best dish operates on a similar logic. It’s the morcilla ($8), a plate of blood sausage that straddles the Strait of Gibraltar with pork belly, pickled radishes, cumin carrots that come right out of the Alice Waters playbook, and a chermoula crème fraîche that’s straight-up Moroccan. If fabadas — those pork-and-bean stews from the Asturias region of northern Spain — are already rich enough, adding everything else risks overkill. But in contrast to the pulpo, this was a savvy move, brightening things up with a bit of acid and enough color that it no longer looks like a porridge in earth tones.

Paella, of course, is the star of the show, and it’s all too easy to dither over which one. If squid ink’s inherent baroque quality entices you, check out the arroz negro ($32) — which also comes with such luxuries as salmon roe and truffle aioli — but the relative restraint of the paella valenciana (rabbit, snails, duck breast, green beans, rosemary, and saffron, $32) might better suit diners who’ve already gone to town on four or five tapas while waiting the requisite half-hour for their rice to be ready. It’s lovely to look at — although paella seldom isn’t — and pairs beautifully with a Tempranillo called La Maldición, which means “the curse.” But on each visit, it lacked any semblance of the socarrat, the gorgeous, controlled-burn crust of rice that forms on the bottom of the pan, and balances out any sweetness with a sublime complexity. Lusting after a culinary creosote like that is close to hoping an anvil falls on the poor dishwasher’s head, but it’s arguably what separates the truly great from the very good.

But again: This menu is a virtual guarantor of happiness, especially as a dinner for two. The main drawback to the whole experience is the acoustics; you might find yourself saying, “hmm?” as much as “mmm!” Mostly brick with one tiled wall, La Marcha’s interior has nothing to absorb sound, although the magnificent artwork evokes Spain’s gaudily decaying archways and pays homage to its status as the birthplace of many Modernist painters. In a sense, it’s the best metaphor for the kitchen’s mission: eliciting bursts of energy from simple beginnings.

La Marcha 2026 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley 510-269-7374 or Hours: Tue-Sun, 4-10 p.m.; Mon, closed.

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