Spec's is home to some of the best available Spanish-style and Spanish-imported meats in the city (as well as cheeses, but that's an entirely different post). I got to taste quite of few of them on Fat Tuesday to get my fill of meat before the 40 days of Lent began.
While only a few of the products are actually from Spain (the cured meats), there's a large line of Spanish chorizos out of Los Angeles that are the closest thing to truly authentic Spanish sausage as we'll be able to taste here in the States due to the strict regulations on imported meats. But anyone with a hankering for some Spanish cuisine will find plenty to choose from at Spec's.
Serrano ham is one of the most popular and widely known of the Spanish cured meats, and with good reason - it's delicious. In Spain, it's often eaten on a baguette with tomato and Manchego cheese, finished in the oven until the cheese is lightly melted (a variation of this sandwich was once declared "the best sandwich I've ever had" by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman). The one I tasted was buttery, slightly nutty and very moist; it ended with a bit of funkiness (in the best possible way) that comes from the slight fermentation of the meat during the curing process.[jump]
The next step was a taste of the coveted Iberico ham, just recently available at Spec's. Iberico is made from the meat of the black-hooved pigs that are descendents of wild boars. They're fed a mixture of grains before being released into the forest to eat nothing but acorns until they're brought in for the slaughter. Their diet speaks loud and clear through the meat, which is very nutty, more delicate than the Serrano ham; it practically melts in your mouth. The little layers of fat hold the most flavor. Because of its delicate and nuanced taste, the Spec's buyers suggested that it be eaten alone and not on a sandwich to truly get the best bang for your buck.
The sausages, most made by Dona Juana in Los Angeles, were all lined up and grilled. There was a selection of Catalonian - which was juicy, garlicky and subtly spiced; Morcilla - which is a blood sausage stuffed with fleshy pieces of meat and rice (a Spanish boudain of sorts); Bilbao, which had large chunks of fat and was tangy, with a more pronounced and spicier paprika; and Riojana, my favorite of the bunch because of its tanginess and big flavor.
As if that weren't enough meat, there was still Spanish salami and another cured sausage called a fuet, which means "whip" in Spanish. The salami was heavily spiced, and the smaller fuet (so named for its whip-like shape) was more my style, with more focus on just the meat, with a slight sweetness.
I also tried a sandwich with a spreadable sausage called sobrasada, which, in theory, sounds pretty miserable, but in reality, is amazing on a crusty baguette with tiny cubes of diced tomato and a thick slice of Manchego cheese. It's a simple sandwich that needs no embellishments.
The whole concept of simplicity seemed to be the key to enjoying all the meats and sausages I sampled - taking everything back to the old world, where there were no foams, no sous vide, no fancy-pants cooking - just good, simple food cured and used up in sausages, originally for practical reasons. Of course, it has remained a staple of Spanish food because it tastes so good.
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