Jaleo, Crystal City, VA

“Dad, I have a question for you,” Matt said as he came back from washing his hands. We had just played tennis, and pointed our car in the direction of Crystal City, thinking we’d go somewhere on 23rd Street. As we approached, driving down Route 1, I asked if he’d like to try Jaleo. We parked in the garage, and before we even got to the host stand, we saw the name José Andrés pimped on the windows in bright red letters, twice, cookbooks and some type of videos for sale, and more peddling of “José the Product” on the host stand itself – it was as garish as it could be, and in completely poor taste.

“Is Jaleo considered a joke in the restaurant world?” he asked.

“No. It’s food for the masses, but it’s generally considered to be decent. Tom Sietsema just gave the downtown Jaleo 3.5 stars in his recent dining guide,” I added. Based on my previous visit to the downtown Jaleo (review here), Tom and I are apart by a fairly wide margin.

We were led to a table against the back wall, and I had a good overview of the restaurant which became fairly crowded during our meal.

Our friendly server took our drink order, and my young dining companion asked if they had any non-alcoholic cocktails, and they didn’t, so he got a small glass of Melon Juice ($4.50) which was fresh, pulpy, and tasted as if a cantaloupe had been put through a juicer. Instead of paying $5 for a tiny glass of Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla Sherry, I opted for the entire 500 ml bottle ($26) which is 2/3 the size of a standard bottle of wine. Sherry by the glass is often poured into a copa (that’s Spanish for “thimble”), and it’s a better value if you can spring for the bottle, especially since Jaleo will wrap the unused portion to take home. La Gitana (“The Gypsy”) is a mass-produced but highly regarded and inexpensive Sherry, easily recognized by the gypsy woman on the label, and can be found at most retail wine stores for under $15 ($26 at a restaurant is a fair price for this, and I recommend ordering it). Remember also that the Crystal City Jaleo has its own retail wine store upstairs.

We ordered five tapas, each of us taking a turn choosing one, and all ended up ranging between $7.00 and $8.50.

Ensalada Rusa ($7.00) is described as “the ultimate Spanish tapa,” and is a cylinder salad of potatoes, imported canned tuna, and mayonnaise – this version was dotted with green peas as well. It was pretty much as you’d expect, and my first bite made me really glad I ordered that Sherry – the pairing works well.

Dátiles con Tocino ‘Como Hace Todo el Mundo’ ($7.00) is my go-to tapa at Jaleo, and these were a fairly good rendition. I couldn’t quite figure out what the sauce was until I looked at the menu this morning – the bacon-wrapped fried dates are served skewered with a toothpick, and piled atop an apple-mustard sauce (I thought it was some type of eggplant with apple cider vinegar). The vinegary sauce didn’t work well with this, but it was on the bottom of the plate so it was optional, and it wasn’t bad by any means.

And then came the dynamic duo:

Tortilla de Patatas Al Momento ($7.50) is a Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions, cooked to order, and presented in a circle about the size of a pancake. This was a delicious, moist omelet that was good by itself, but the flavors became stratospheric when placed side-by-side on the same plate as it’s companion tapa.

Pimientos del Piquillo Rellenos de Queso ($7.00) were two tiny little piquillo peppers stuffed with Caña de Cabra goat cheese. Taken by themselves, they were uneventful, and terribly expensive for two such small peppers; placed atop the omelet, however, they became a necessary condiment that brought the combination into high synergy. We cut the omelet in half, and each took one of the peppers, so we had our own plates. At $14.50 for the pair, this was simply too expensive, and yet the flavors were irresistible. If the price doesn’t bother you, give this combination a try.

And to finish:

Butifarra Casera con Mongetes Daniel Patrick Moynihan ($8.50) was a fairly large, single link of house-made pork sausage atop sautéed white beans. Why this dish is named after Senator Moynihan is a mystery to me, but I really enjoyed the beans which were curiously desiccated (in a pleasant way). We both agreed that the sausage was the weak “link” in the meal, about on a par with one you’d buy at Whole Foods (which is no great insult, as Whole Foods sells pretty decent sausages).

After the meal, I said to Matt that I thought everything was good to very good, and asked him what he thought. I value Matt’s opinion highly because he has a phenomenal palate, having been to literally hundreds of restaurants and having his aesthetics influenced by his old man. More importantly, he is completely unbiased, and is usually dead-on with his assessments.

“I’d agree with that,” he said. “I’m a fan.”

Well, there you go, José – you impressed the toughest food critic in town: my son. I’m raising the Crystal City Jaleo to Italic in the Dining Guide.

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