In Spain I dedicated many weeks of careful study to the art of bar hopping, and an art it is. Pluck a tapas from the dozens on display atop the bar, wash it down with a pinch of vino tinto, pay the tab, move to the bar next door and repeat. While Plaza 121's view of 9th Street is no Las Ramblas, Tapas Estrella has two characteristics that are immediately appealing over the latter: There's not a single leg of serrano hamskewered at hoof and hipin sight, and there's no need to bar hop for variety, as TE's small plate selection rivals that of Imelda's in shoes.
For the uninitiated, or those used to formulaic corporate dining, Tapas Estrella can be an intimidating experienceespecially on a Monday night with drag bingo and half-priced bottles of wine. The two novices with me expressed some relief at having a seasoned pro navigate the menu and the execution of ordering (which is done by tic marks on a sheet of paper), but if you're without a TE veteran of your own, the staff is exceedingly capable of explaining terms like romesco and empanada if you're unsure.
Previous comparison of dining notes among BW's staff lauded TE's beef carpaccio with truffle oil as the most traditional version in town, while the veal sweetbreads are the only ones in town. Though out-voted on the carpaccio by my dining companions, I did manage to squeeze in an order of veal sweetbreads unnoticed among orders for a bottle of Torres Vina Esmeralda, four other starters and an entree of scallops wrapped in serrano ham (which, for the record is imported directly from Espana).
Despite a pronounced wait before greeting us, our server wasted no time in uncorking the wine and delivering bread, a cheese trio and three oblong, firm and moderately spiced chicken and serrano ham croquettas. Both plates are favorites of mine, but the amateurs were ready for something more substantial. Veal sweetbreads and a tart with mushrooms, leeks, goat cheese and serrano ham proved the ideal segue into richer food. Tossed into a chunky mix of hot tomatoes and brandy sauce and then served in a sweet, crisp tart, thymus glands never tasted sweeter (or, as the half-Spainish diner among us innocently declared, "This is really good, but it doesn't taste like veal."). The arrival of chipotle orange-glazed baby back pork ribs and an entree of three large scallops did us in. Sauteed within seconds of perfection and served in a bed of buttery sauce, we left the ribs off to the side in favor of our scallops. Our only mistake was declaring a bottle of Lan Rioja Reserva dessert. Marooned on a sea of patio concrete for the better part of twenty minutes without sight of our Lan or our server (whose proffered apology cited a likely culprit: a table of separate checks), we began to think TE's mythical tres leches cake would have been a better note on which to end. And when I return in a few weeks, I'll find out.
Rachael Daigle mixes her marmite and her vegemite.
Tapas Estrella, 121 N. 9th St., 426-8400, Mon.-Wed.: 4-10 p.m., Thu.: 4-11 p.m., Fri.: 4 p.m.-midnight, Sat.: 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun.: 5-9 p.m., www.tapasestrella.com.