Dining Reviews

Barceloneta Debuts Downtown Tapas

San Francisco restaurateurs bring a taste of Spain to the Central Coast

Brett Emerson, chef and owner at Barceloneta, previously ran Contigo in San Francisco with wife Elan. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Bursting with the flavor intensity of Spain’s Costa Brava, Barceloneta is—at long last—with us.

Thanks to restaurateurs Brett and Elan Emerson, Santa Cruz can now enjoy authentic tapas straight from the restaurant’s wood-fired grill.

The minimalist decor is nothing if not bold. Open and unadorned, save for banquette cushions covered in splashy beach colors and straw shades on the ceiling fixtures, the space is devoted to diners, a long bar along one side and kitchen-counter seating in the back. Given the glass walls and pale blue tiled floors, Barceloneta gets loud very quickly. But you might not care once you sample the dishes turned out by this hyper-active kitchen. Add to that a skilled staff and good value for the price tag, and you’ve got what we all waited for: a sexy new restaurant anchor atop Pacific Avenue.

On a second visit, the concept became clearer. The casual 95-seat space is perfect for large groups and families. Paella and tapas are epic finger foods made to be shared. Hence lots of intermingling and cozy cross-talk about what’s good. We found ourselves checking out our neighbor’s dishes, comparing notes back and forth. You make friends easily in this place, and the line outside the door when we left spoke volumes. On the other hand, this might not be the right place for an intimate, romantic dinner.

The list of house wines by the glass is worth exploring. We fell in love with a red Listán Negro Bermejos 2018 ($13) from Tenerife that spoke of volcanic soils. The blush Txakoli Ameztoi 2018 ($14) is a glass full of sunshine and salt, just like the beach for which the restaurant is named. The Tempranillo from Toloño 2016 ($16) was a tannic balance of cherries, cassis and smoke. The sophisticated cocktail list looks inventive. Next time. 

Deeply devoted to small plates, each with brilliant and distinctive seasonings, this kitchen rearranged our taste buds, starting with seductive sardine and avocado toasts dusted with smoked salt and topped with bright pink pickled onions ($10). A dish of tender grilled Spanish octopus ($17) perfumed by smoked paprika arrived with a side of cool, vinegary potatoes. Outstanding.

On another plate of Pinchos Morunos ($18), two skewers of grilled lamb sat on a glaze of olive oil festooned with bits of Moorish spice lore—cilantro, cumin, orange—and topped with sprigs of dill. Slices of marinated romanesco added flavor sparkle. So irresistible were the spices, a cumin-tinged yogurt and the sharp magic of chermoula, that we needed an order of bread to dredge up every last morsel. (Serrated knives would be handy.)

On another evening, a tiny paella pan of grilled Calamares ($15) was the big hit. Succulent, plump squid bodies tossed with tiny, heat-bearing green peppers were arranged on a substantial cushion of fideos pasta drenched in squid ink. The balanced flavors of the sea went supernova thanks to a fine dice of chorizo, garlic and lemony aioli. A destination dish that had everything going on, especially paired with the remarkable, angular Listán Negro from Tenerife.

The house offers three paellas in two sizes: seafood, Valenciana with chicken and beans, and vegetable. We went for the seafood ($40 for two), a beautiful presentation filled with orange colors of saffron, cumin and tomato sauce with mussels, clams, calamari, and shrimps. It arrived with an addictive tapas of roasted cauliflower florets tossed with dates and green olives ($10). The absence of chorizo in the seafood paella made the dish accessible to non-meat eaters but pulled the expected flavor punch. A festival for the eyes, this paella would have prospered by a freer hand with all the seasonings, and the delicious rice lacked socarrat toastiness on the bottom. 

The light, crisp sugar-dusted churros ($5), arriving with a cup of thick warm chocolate for dipping, were decadent perfection. Another night, we fell in love with vanilla soft-serve drizzled with olive oil and sea salt ($6). I still can’t believe how brilliant it looked and tasted. The ice cream was the exact finish a dinner of complex spices deserved. An impressive initial public offering—compliments to the kitchen. 

Barceloneta, 1541 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Open 5-9:30pm; closed Tuesdays. 900-5222,

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    November 26, 2019 at 12:53 am

    Great spot to enjoy tapas.
    I have been there twice and the atmosphere was just great, prices though are a bit above average.
    I went to Madrid too and I took a tour with Dan Beers a guy from Texas who takes you around tapas hopping in Madrid. Great experience, we visited 10 bars and the dishes were just amazing.

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