Venga Paella’s Manchego Con Membrillo

Two classic tastes bring tapas to its sweet, salty conclusion.



Manchego con membrillo.

Lori Eanes

 

Certain food combinations are inextricably associated with specific locales. Fish and chips. Red beans and rice. Certain partnerships are so particular, so otherwise obtuse, as to evoke all by themselves the look, feel, history, and heritage of somewhere.

That’s why Manchego con membrillo leads the dessert list at Venga Paella, a laid-back slice of Spain in industrial West Oakland.

Commanding through its brick-framed doorway a BART-train-big-rig vista, with bare bulbs strung from the creamy ceiling over its blonde wooden bar lending this elongated, blood-red-walled space a friendly factory feel, Venga Paella is an earthy, accessible, communitarian alternative to those upscale Iberian restaurants popping up everywhere like so many piquillo pepper plants.

“Those places are trying to feed the masses who expect fancy kitchen theatrics and big productions,” says owner-chef Eduardo Balaguer. “But here, we’re unpretentious, the way Spain really is. If you’re not in a big touristy town, if you’re out in the countryside, Spanish food is super-simple, good, and affordable. These dishes are great in their original form, so why mess with them?”

Which brings us through a simply sumptuous meal of tapas—pa amb tomàquet, say, and bacon-wrapped dates—and red or white sangria, then paella (served here in a Barcelona-style meat-and-seafood version, a shellfish-studded squid-ink version, and a rare vegetarian version featuring organic seasonal produce) to sweet, salty Manchego con membrillo.

Manchego is ewe’s-milk cheese, which Balaguer buys “young”—that is, aged under three months, thus softer than “old” Manchego—in Alameda from World’s Best Cheeses West. Membrillo, which Balaguer buys from a Spanish importer, is quince paste: semitranslucent carnelian and far denser than jam, with a sliceable firmness not unlike that of Chuckles but tasting quintessentially of sultry Spanish sunshine, asserting itself with every mouthful as the hard-boiled jewel of a stubborn fruit too astringent to eat raw. At Venga Paella, these pals are served the classic way: membrillo wedges perched atop Manchego wedges—double-decker slabs of intensity, accessorized with honey and devoured (while dreaming of castanets) with knife and fork.

Venga Paella, 229 Brush St., Oakland, 510-628-0018, www.VengaPaella.com

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