In the window of Despaña this month there's a small chalkboard featuring a cartoon container of 5J, or Cinco Jotas. It's sporting a pink cape and spindly cartoon arms, and across the top, in bold lettering evocative of Superman, someone's drawn: El Super-Present. The present? A complete jamón carving kit, beginning with 5J's jamón, one of Span's finest Ibérico hams.
The Soho store specializing in Spanish goods has reason to boast of super-natural powers. I mean, it's Spanish ham. Lee Salas, store manager and cheese guru, laughed: "The hams are the best part of Spain's pride." He gestured to four oblong objects—5J among them—arranged by the window, each carefully covered in cloth: "These are our four babies."
Salas pulled back the cover on one of the four, revealing a leg of jamón. "This is jamón serano, your basic ham—the ham you have at home. It's aged thirteen to fourteen months. The last three here are ibéricos—Spanish pride! It's more like a wild board, we call it pata negra." He pointed to the second ham. "This one is fed grains, like any other pig, so we call it jamón cebo. The other two are fed acorns for the last four months before they're slaughtered. They're sublime. Once you taste them you can't go back ... I gave my daughter a taste of one three years ago and now every Friday I have to bring her a quarter pound. She doesn't like anything else, even prosciutto di parma." Salas laughed good-naturedly, "Good luck to who ever she dates, huh?" (His daughter is eight.)
Salas' daughter is not the only one who's hooked on the good stuff. Despaña goes through their stock with amazing speed; a leg of ham every four days or so. "It's an art," Salas continued. "If someone comes in asking for a pound of ibérico, well it's going to take about 40 minutes to slice that pound. We slice it by hand, which sets us apart."
Meats are how Despaña got its start. In 1989, owner Marcos Intriago and his partner Jose Pernas bought a small chorizo factory in Jackson Heights, Queens. They started making their own chorizo, which made them famous. From there they expanded to importing hams and other cured goods. "There's a lot of tradition there," noted Salas. "They've actually outgrown [the factory], but they're going to continue to produce there, even if they have to make less. It's a mom and pop shop."
Still, super-ham (and super-chorizo) is not always enough to mobilize super-busy New Yorkers, which is why Intriago opened the Soho outpost in 2006. "A lot of our clients are here," explained Salas. "A lot of them—most of the restaurants we cater to are here. So it was really hard—well this is what I was told," he winked, "it was really hard to get them to come to Queens to sample products. You know how it is, when you work in Manhattan, time is of the essence. So part of opening in Soho was to have a showroom, so chefs can come in and sample different products."
Despaña counts Daniel Boulod, Socarrat, Tertulia, and Boqueria among its clients. "Pretty much every Spanish restaurant in the city, and even French ones, like Per Se, buy our products." But they're not the only ones. Lee smiled. "[Despaña Soho] turned out to be more of a neighborhood place. Most of our customers are regulars. They're here every single day for lunch. At least 80% of our clientele repeat every day."
The regulars come mostly for the tapas, which are made on the premises and served with a glass of wine or a Spanish beer to customers clustered around marble-topped tables in a classy side alcove. "It's casual, but it's not sloppy. It's a real tapas bar. You point and we heat it up." Salas' favorite tapas are the pintxo tosta pulpo (octopus, aioli, and tomato sauce on toast) and the pintxo croqueta bacalao (salted cod fritters). There are many more, including five kinds of Spanish tortilla, their own sausages cooked several ways, pintxo boquerones (anchovies), pintxo piquillo rebozado (peppers stuffed with cod and a béchamel sauce), sandwiches, salads, and more.
The classy store is a showcase for many packaged products as well. There's tins of smoked paprika and coarse sea salt, jars of piquillo peppers, cloth bags of Bomba rice, honey and chestnut paste, vinegars, olives, olive oil ("Spain produces more olive oil than any other part of the world" Salas told me), and, of course, tinned seafood. "The canned seafood is the star of the show" noted Salas. "I think Spain has the best seafood in cans. This atún rojo [from Don Bocarte]—this is beautiful, probably the best tuna I've had in my life. The sardines, mussles—I never thought muscles in a can would be good but they're really tasty."
Salas is a cheese guy, though, and he's quick to point out that Despaña's cheese selection—which numbers in the sixties—is as much a draw as anything else. "The owners are from Asturias, a northern part of Spain, and a lot of our cheeses are from there. They make for me the best—they make really artisan cheeses. Not the mass-produced stuff, not the manchego in the supermarket that every one has. There's not a lot of grass, though, so Spain mostly makes goat and sheep cheeses, because there's not enough grass to support cattle."
Salas ducks behind the warm wood and marble cheese counter and makes me up a present of sorts. Not the super-present, but just as a good: a gorgeous tasting plate with some choice cheeses, jamón, slices of golden guava paste and of a personal favorite, burgundy-red membrillo, or quince paste. He sets it down with a flourish: "can you spot the Spanish flag?"
A place to be proud of.