Región de Murcia – the food scene in Ciudad de Murcia

Murcia has some of the best ingredients in Spain. The fertile huerta surrounding the city has long agricultural traditions and the area is known as ‘Europe’s orchard’ due to the abundant production of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Murcian cuisine can draw on such top quality ingredients as Calasparra rice, Marcona almonds, Jumilla wines and fish and seafood from the Mar Menor lagoon just to list a few. It’s no surprise then that Murcians love their tapas and there are heaps of tapas bars in the old town. The epicentre is Plaza Flores (which blends into Plaza Catalina) which will be buzzing most nights of the year. I spent a very fun evening here with eight of my colleagues in 2012 as it’s the first place you head when you’re new in town. When I came back in 2018, I had a bit more time to explore the food scene by myself and I discovered a couple of backstreet gems. You’ll find everywhere I mention on my Google map.

So, in general order of preference…

El Pasaje de Zabalburu (Intermediate A), 3 Plaza San Pedro,, Monday to Sunday, 12–5pm/8pm–12am

This is my and many other people’s, favourite tapas bar in Murcia. It’s a modern, trendy place on a back street just off Plaza Flores, and happily, just four doors down from my hotel. I went twice, once for a short lunch when it was pretty empty and the second time for the whole evening when it was full by 9pm.

The first time was fairly lack lustre as I didn’t order well, except for their Croquet de Sepia en su Tinta con Alioli Suave de Soja, aka cuttlefish croquette in its ink with soya sauce aioli, which was mindblowing (A+). However, their famous Pelocho, a ham croquette coated with short ‘angel hair’ noodles and deep fried, didn’t do much for me (C+) and I found their Bluefin Tuna Tartar, to be fairly tasteless as well (C).

The second visit was much better thankfully. I was the first to arrive and snagged a stool at the bar which assured direct attention from my friendly server. I also made friends with both the couples either side of me and had some really good conversations. Foodwise, I began with the Esturión Confitado en Aceite de Oliva con Tomate Agridulce, or confit of sturgeon in olive oil with sweet and sour tomato (B+). It was my first time eating sturgeon and so it reminded me of top quality tuna, similar to the tinned Bonito del Norte by Ortiz. I love tuna but this was just a little too rich for me, and it was a lot for one person, so I had a sense of relief when I finally finished it.

The most original creation for me was the Pesche Espectacular (aka Pajel aka Sea Bream). After taking off the fillets they deep fry the skeleton to make it edible (A).

And the Bacalao Skrei con Sobrasada Iberica was, unbelievably as I’m half Norwegian, the first time I consciously ate prime Norwegian cod. Matching it with a cured, spreadable Balearic sausage took it to yet another level (A).

And how could anyone fault a perfectly grilled scallop?

Of course the wines were legion, and required some nuts and cheese at the end. They were mostly local and included a new (for me) dry Moscatel white wine from my favourite Murcian producer, Juan Gil. In the past I have imported several cases of his Jumilla for my pop-up restaurant as it’s the best value Spanish red I know of. The white was good, but his reds are still the best choice.

Whilst saying goodbye, I committed something of a faux pas when I tried to compliment the staff by saying their food was better than what I’d had in Plaza Flores (see below). This drew some protest as Murcians are very proud of their tapas scene. I saved things a little by pointing out that it was August and all the head chefs would be at the beach, leaving their kitchens in less capable hands. It drew a laugh so I think I got away with it…

This was another good experience though…

La Parranda (High Intermediate B+), 1 Calle San José,

This is a relatively posh restaurant with a big terrace in a pleasant square. It seems very popular with the locals, or at least it was for lunch when I went. The food is comida tipica murciana, ie rustic and homey. I started with the Alcochofas de la Casa which was very enjoyable (B), although the waitress couldn’t tell me what was in the broth the artichoke was stewed in. I’d guess stock and saffron but it seemed like there should be more. I also took the opportunity to try Caldero del Mar Menor, a famous local rice dish rather like a soupy paella (A).

To make it a fish (from the Mar Menor, a local coastal lagoon) is poached in a broth made of tomatoes, saffron garlic, ñoras (a certain type of dried pepper popular on the east coast) in a big heavy pan called a caldero. After an hour or so, the fish is removed and the rice (from a local town called Calasparra) is cooked in the broth. The rice and the fish are served together but separately, with some aioli on the side. Video here.

There was a small dispute about the bill, but both sides compromised.

And if you fancy something different…

Enso Sushi (High Intermediate B-), 6 Calle Santa Teresa,

After a while I do start to crave an alternative from local cuisine and Japanese food is usually my go to. I’m generally a fan of Mediterranean Japanese fusion so I thought I’d give this well-renowned sushi restaurant a try. It’s okay but obviously not the real deal (the chef owner is Spanish), although all the fish is flown in from Japan. Which seems to me a bit like taking coals to Newcastle, as we say in England. Not sure I’d go again as the food was B/C and not cheap.

Well, know you know what I think of the tapas bars in Placa Flores from my comments above. The food I had was okay (mainly Cs) but it just wasn’t as good as it could be. Maybe it was because the chefs were away on vacation, or maybe because of their location, they are generally full anyway, so they don’t have to try. Places on the backstreets like El Pasaje de Zabalburu have to work harder to attract a more discerning (local?) customer.

El Pulpito (Intermediate C), 6 Plaza Santa Catalina

The “The Little Octopus” is supposed to be great for trad seafood according to two different colleauges. The Croqueta de Sepia and Croqueta de Gambas I had were very average though (C). I need to go back in season to give it another chance.

Latorre De Las Flores (C), Calle Pascual,

One of the larger tapas bars on the square. My friend Nick had enjoyed the wine and seafood here a few years earlier but again I wasn’t impressed by what was on offer. I ended up with a huge plate of grilled Mediterranean vegetables (€9 for just a half racion), which was a healthy if rather boring selection (B). But that was because they couldn’t make me the Ensalladilla Murciana that I had come to try (tomatoes, onions, tuna, eggs, olives). Nor did they have any local white wines, just Rueda Verdejo, which fortunately I really like. The service was friendly though and I had a bit of a chat, but I wasn’t blown away by anything. So, again, another visit is required when their kitchen is back at full strength.

La Tapa (Intermediate C), 13 Plaza Flores

Yet another place that gets good ratings from everyone, except me it would seem. I was put off straight away by the fact that the middle of my Croqueta de Setas was cold, something which always kills my appetite dead. It came back from the kitchen slightly warmer but the damage had been done. Their Miniburger de Pollo didn’t have much flavour either and their ‘Bloody Mary’; a glass of tomato juice with no alcohol, a stick of celery and some green foamy gunge on top failed to move me either. Again though, I’ll give it another try next time I’m in town.

I conclude August is not the best time to eat in Plaza Flores. Please don’t let my experiences put you off though, it’s a lovely spot to be in the evenings, whatever the time of year.

And for some ingredients…

Salmentum (Intermediate A), 7 Plaza Hernández Amores,

This is an excellent deli near the cathedral where you can pick up quality local ingredients to take home. I picked up half a kilo of local of local Marcona almonds (the best) for just under €15. I also got some a couple of hunks of Mojama (salt-cured, air-dried tuna loin), two tins of Bonito del Norte tuna (€2.35 each), a tin of Catalina (the best brand I’m told) Cantabrian anchovies, and a jar of fig jam to put on my grilled goats cheese. They also serve tapas here so you can try before you buy.

For drinks (G&Ts in my case) I quite liked La Gintoneria (Intermediate B+) at 17 Calle Cánovas del Castillo, for its impressive range of gins, and tonics. If rum is more your thing, then try La Roneria upstairs, Where I’m told they have over a thousand varieties. If you don’t mind Reggaeton, then Classcentro at Calle Pascual, by Plaza Flores, is pretty lively and stays open late. I got really nice service there too.

In 2018 I stayed at the Hotel Zenit Murcia at 5-6 Plaza San Pedro, which is fine (Intermediate B) and very well located for Plaza Flores. In 2012 I stayed at the Catalonia Conde De Floridablanca on the other side of the river which was aging badly and a bit of a trek from town.

Holibobs in Cartagena next, yay!

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