408 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013 (b/n Lafayette and Centre; map); 212-219-5060; despananyc.com
Service: Friendly but slow
Setting: A ridiculously pleasant, well-curated Spanish specialty food store
Compare It To: Nothing. It's unique
Must-Haves: Picante, Gallego, Iberico Ham (if you want to splurge), and/or the Bonito sandwich
Cost: $12 for a sandwich and a drink (the samples are free)
When you walk up a few steps and enter Despaña you leave New York and arrive in Spain, where you will find yourself in a gorgeously minimalist Spanish specialty food store. A leg of Jamon Iberico will be on your right, and past that gorgeous porcine ham you will find other cured meats, followed by a small but well-curated collection of Spanish cheeses. Dishes of samples beckon serious eaters like some Flamenco siren call.
On your left are samples of vinegar, olive oil, jams and relishes, and way in the back on the left are high-end Spanish sweets, including an oddly appealing soft honey almond torrone that has a halvah-like texture.
Tear yourself away from the samples. (It's unseemly to avail yourself of too many. I know. I've been there.) Take a look at the gorgeous display case of prepared Spanish foods. There are croquettas, little savory tarts, wedges of tortilla, mini-sandwiches, glistening roasted red peppers, and of course boquerones (superb anchovies).
Buy yourself a nibble or two to start your meal and then peruse the big sign announcing the sandwich possibilities. The sandwiches, my friends (I hope I'm not channeling John McCain here), are a must buy here, as they are models of sandwich construction.
These sandwiches are not piled high with fillings. For that you must go to an Italian hero shop. Here the fillings measure an inch and a half at most, but what a magnificent inch and a half it is, placed between two halves of a fresh, crunchy ciabatta roll from Grandaisy Bakery.
Asking what my favorite sandwich here is like asking a parent to choose a favorite child.
The Catalan features Butifarra sausage, goat cheese (Garrotxa), and a mild tomato garlic spread.
Slices of traditional chorizo, Manchego cheese, and a drizzle of Spanish olive oil comprise the pressed Chorizo sandwich.
If you love the taste of high-quality tuna you will love the Bonito, which features chunks of Bonito loin, slices of fresh tomato, and strips of sweet Pequillo pepper.
Gallego is pork to the second power. It features slices of Serrano ham, chorizon, and Arzuea Ullloa, a cow's milk cheese.
The spiciest sandwich here, the Picante, features spicy chorizo; Mahon, a cow's milk cheese; and Piparras, spicy Basque guindila peppers. It's a terrific sandwich, but spicy food fanatics have to look elsewhere to get their rocks (or should I say peppers) off.
If you want to splurge and you've never tasted the justifiably acclaimed Iberico Ham (also called Pate Negra), the $25 Iberico Ham sandwich is your ticket to pig paradise. This ham is crazy good and crazy expensive (at least $100 a pound when you buy it separately), but one bite of this sandwich will let you know you did not waste your money. Iberico ham makes prosciutto de Parma seem like a ham starter kit.
Slices of tortilla, the traditional potato and onion omelette, are tasty enough, but rather heavy even when warmed. A friend ordered a whole tortilla in advance (that's the only way to get one) and it was sensational.
Croquetas were also a skip as they are meant to be eaten immediately after they come out of the fryer.
The sandwiches are certainly big enough to comprise an entire lunch, but if they have the gazpacho get it. It's orange rather than red, smooth, creamy, and just salty enough. Watery bean soups are redeemed by thick slices of morcilla and chorizo.
For dessert a slice of flan is solid and the torrijas is like a crunchy piece of cinammon raisin French toast. Better still is the Nocilla, a pressed sandwich filled with the chocolate hazelnut spread Nocilla, the superior Spanish equivalent of nutella.
There's a common table right next to where you order and two other small counters that seat an additional four people. A little cramped, perhaps, but all in all a perfectly pleasant place to eat lunch either solo or with one other person. Larger groups are going to have to eat their sandwiches elsewhere.
My only complaint about Despaña is it's not particularly close to where I live or work. I guess that's why God created weekends and the subway.