Old Jefferson: 2705 Jefferson Highway.
Broadmoor: 1221 S. Broad.
The España began its life in a location so obscure that finding it was part of the fun of eating there. It was actually not inconvenient to the CBD, Mid-City, and Uptown; the problem was that it was on the ground-level portion of South Broad Street, in the shadow of the overpass.
That’s where Antonio Lopez and his wife Mercedes opened The España in 1965. Antonio had come to New Orleans as a hand on a Spanish ship. He stayed here to recuperate from an illness, but liked the city enough to remain permanently. After working as a chef in a forgotten Italian restaurant, he caught the restaurant bug and opened his own in the low-rent Broad Street spot.
Lopez may have been the first restaurateur in modern times that New Orleans people did not easily take to Spanish food, even though it has a lot in common with New Orleans Creole cooking. His menu included not only all the great Spanish rice dishes but also a good bit of Italian food.
The place did reasonably well, with a lot of its popularity attributable to the raves from Richard Collin, who as The Underground Gourmet wrote the city’s first, very influential restaurant review column. In 1973, The España moved to the much larger, easier-to-find Old Jefferson location, with the same menu and food.
From here, let’s pick up the story from an edited version of a review I published in The New Orleans Menu on April 25, 1977:
I came here once a couple of years ago, really loved the food, but never came back.
The place then was a dump. A thrice-restored wreckage, the building was in its immediately previous incarnation the Cotton Club Swimming Pool (members only), behind peeling, forbidding stucco walls. When the restaurant came, the pool went but the walls stayed the same. Most uninviting, even on the occasional nights when name flamenco acts (Teresa Torkanowsky, former wife of Werner Torkanowsky, conductor of the New Orleans Philharmonic) were on tap. The flamenco was interesting to behold, but hard to get into.
In the years since they’ve made the restaurant more pleasant. The dining rooms are plain but clean. Behind a closed door are the owner’s family’s living quarters.
The menu warns that all dishes are made from fresh ingredients, and take at least a half-hour to cook. So it’s fortunate that there are a number of all-day first courses. The antipasto plate is a very pretty arrangement of salami, cheeses, pickles, tomatoes, olives, with some cold, good tuna and fat anchovies. This requires at least two big eaters to finish. The Spanish salad features some of the same ingredients sans salami plus peas. The greens are crisp, the dressing tart, herbal, and pleasantly oily.
The dish at España that’s worth crossing town for is arroz con calamares. Rice with squid. The little cephalopods with a slightly gritty, primal sauce blackened by squid ink. It combines with the firm rice, peas, and pimientos to make for satisfying, sturdy food. It comes in a big earthenware dish that holds enough to serve two people.
Carne asada combines beef tenderloin with discs of potatoes and peppers. The meat has a fine, rich flavor, but with a gamy touch that I will attribute to aging–perhaps not of the entirely intentional kind, if you get my drift.
Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is no less filling, but less of an adventure. The rice is cut by a sufficiency of chunky, warm, fatty chicken. Paella (think Spanish jambalaya) is quite a mishmash of flavors, dominated by the seafood component.
Bacalao, the salted, dried codfish found everywhere in Europe but especially in Spain and Portugal, is a concentration of the fishiness of the paella. It comes three ways in the large earthen crocks; the serving with garbanzo beans is best, because when you get tired of picking at the bony fish you can eat the round beans.
And what of the Italian stuff? It’s all made to order, and is more polished than the Spanish food. The best item is the manicotti, stuffed with ricotta and topped with a crimson, smooth, sweet tomato sauce to make a high-contrast duo.
The veal is tasty, but all the combinations (there must be a dozen) are salty. Especially the braciolone, with its much more intriguing interior than the rolled veal wrapper. Cheese, garlic, bred, and meat in there, and it’s good.
The high point at the end of the meal is the best flan I’ve ever tasted, with an uncommonly smooth texture that feels food in the mouth. The flavor, even with the heavy caramel, is elemental egg and vanilla. Fine coffees. The bar touts its sangria, but it looks better than it tastes.
The España lasted only a few years more after that. It was at a time when the only people who ever passed through Old Jefferson were those who lived there or in Harahan. The place might have survived at the old location, or one near it.
The España would be followed, one at a time, but quite a few other Spanish restaurants. Few have ever done well, regardless of how good the food or environment are. The outstanding exception is Lola’s. Why this is has vexed lovers of Spanish food for decades.