You never know with tapas. The small plates seem conducive to putting together a reasonably priced meal, but they can run up a bill just as quickly as a couple of entrées if you're not careful. So even though I'd only ever heard good things about Chelsea's Tia Pol, I wasn't certain that it would be a great spot for Apps Only.
We started with a special menu item: spring onions with romesco ($12). These were perfect: simply prepared and served with a bright, rich romesco, they were exactly what I wanted to be eating one of the first muggy days of the year. The sweet onions were charred on the outside and meltingly soft within, showered with good olive oil and flakes of sea salt. The creamy romesco added a luxurious angle to this otherwise virtuous dish.
Another special I couldn't pass up was the oreja de cerdo ($9), a plate piled high with slivers of pigs ear that were tender and crisp in spots, cooked with toasted garlic and tossed in a sweet and tangy honey sherry vinaigrette. As bar snacks go, it doesn't get much better than these chewy yet tender pieces of sweet pork.
The ensalada de alcachofa ($13) was also good, fried artichoke heart and white asparagus tossed with a creamy vinaigrette. The artichoke is soft with crisp bits atop a mountain of lightly dressed greens in a creamy dressing. The dressing is applied in a way to minimize heaviness, though it's not light in the slightest. Buttery breadcrumbs added a bit more crunch. But the best part about this salad is that the greens are good enough to hold their own; they're more than just a bed for the artichoke. The white asparagus, on the other hand, went nearly unnoticed on the plate.
So it turns out that Tia Pol is a place where one can, in fact, string together an affordable meal. Everything we ate was delicious, and the two of us spent $34 on food before tax and tip, just slightly over the $15/head target price. While eating here on a budget is certainly possible, it does have its own challenges: sitting at the bar, it's be quite easy to lose control and overspend, since everything on the menu, and everything emerging from the kitchen, looks so damn good. The trouble is keeping yourself in check.
About the author: Ben Fishner is currently planning his next meal. In addition to contributing to Serious Eats and working at SEHQ on various technical projects, he blogs at Ben Cooks Everything. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr, won't you?