"Airy and crisp, the sandwich tasted like the sea."
El Quinto Pino is known for the sea urchin sandwich that Peter Meehan of the New York Times declared the "sandwich of the year" in 2007, and has been extolled by bloggers such as Andrea Strong on the Strong Buzz. It's far from a undiscovered gem, but located on a quiet street off of Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, it might as well have been for me.
In fact, on my way to the tiny tapas bar, I mistakenly went to Txikito—another tapas bar a few meters away which the former chef of El Quinto Pino, Alex Raij, now heads—and sat at the bar for several minutes before I recognized the waitress from my dinner at Txikito two weeks ago.
I could have stayed, since I had enjoyed my last meal there—but I was on a mission, it was 2009, and I needed to eat the "sandwich of the year," albeit two years late. I hopped off the bar stool and in a few minutes I was at El Quinto Pino.
El Quinto Pino is a tiny nook of a place, with a bar, minimal seating against the wall, and one sliver of a table by the entrance. I quickly grabbed that table upon entering and ordered the Uni Panini ($15) and a glass of Horchata ($9).
The horchata at El Quinto Pino, unlike the Mexican version made with almonds and rice, is a frozen Spanish variant—made with chufa tiger nut milk from Valencia—and spiked with Spanish brandy. It was a smooth icy concoction that was wonderfully nutty and not too heavy on the cinnamon. Make sure to mix the cocktail, though; otherwise your first few sips will be pure brandy, and the last few sips melted horchata sorbet with no alcohol. A little of both is nice.
And then, the sea urchin sandwich. The slim panino, made with toasted, butter-slathered ficelle from Tom Cat Bakery and filled with fresh sea urchin drizzled with spicy nose-clearing Korean mustard oil, lived up to Meehan's bold proclamation of "sandwich of the year"—and then some. Airy and crisp, the sandwich tasted like the sea, but buttery. And the Korean mustard countered the creaminess of the panino without overpowering the delicate sea urchin. El Quinto Pino's sea urchin sandwich is quite possibly the "sandwich of the decade."
After finishing my sandwich, I debated ordering another, but decided out of duty to try more of the bar's offerings. The Berenjena con Miel ($7.50), fried eggplant sticks served with sherry honey, was a tasty little plate. The eggplant, eaten with the tangy honey, was reminiscent of sweet potato fries, and surprisingly not too greasy, considering how eggplants usually act like oil sponges.
Another delicious menu item was the Soldaditos de Pavia ($7), fried batter-dipped bacalao (salt cod). Although visually unappealing, the oblong nuggets (three to an order) had a light crunchy shell with moist flaky innards that were salty, but not overly so. I did wish for a little acid, or some spice. But before I could finish the thought, the bacalao was just a distant memory.
Lastly, I ordered the standard tapas staple: Patatas Bravas ($7), fried potatoes. They were topped with a spiced aioli and garnished with scallions that made the potatoes slightly Asian-tasting. The wedges were a tad too salty, and not as crunchy as I would have liked, but I found myself eating one after another. Oddly addictive.
I'll definitely be going back. I was late to the party that is El Quinto Pino—but fortunately, the party is still going strong.