There's a poster on one of Andalucia's walls of a bullfighter by the name of Mario Oziel. It's also the name of the tapas restaurant's owner, who's amused that there could be any confusion. "No, no, I am not a matador!" he says, laughing.
But the restaurant owner does move with the intent and swiftness of someone used to thinking on his feet. Whatever he's doing--answering the phone, spooning fruit into nonalcoholic sangria, ringing up a check--his eyes are fixed on the door. When customers come in, Oziel takes them by the arm in a gentle but purposeful grip and glides them over to a waitress, who looks at Oziel anxiously and nods before showing the customer to a table.
The restaurant is a snug, brightly decorated space steps away from the Montrose Brown Line el stop in Ravenswood. A collection of tiles with Spanish sayings hangs behind the bar; one of them reads dios bendiga al que no fume en esta casa--"God bless those who do not smoke in this house" (despite the nearby smoking section). The cheerful decor seems calculated to induce coziness while warding off claustrophobia: Andalucia has just 18 tables, most of them lined end to end to make the most of the compact room.
By 6:30 on a Friday night the tables are filled with refugees from the commute and the cold, many of them carrying bottles of wine. (Oziel hopes the liquor license will come through in a few weeks--until then it's BYO.) Seen through the glass storefront, traffic outside is slow and heavy in the slushy aftermath of snowfall. Inside, intricate Spanish guitar music plays overhead, interrupted now and then by the loud whir of the espresso machine.
Oziel's favorite tapa is the jamon serrano. The translucent ham stands up in stiff waves atop a triangle of toast, accompanied by a marinated olive tucked under a thin slice of pale, sharp manchego cheese. Among the cold dishes on the menu are the tortilla espanola, a Spanish omelet layered with slices of potato, and the patatas ali-oli, chunks of potato in a snowy garlic mayonnaise.
On this winter night, however, the hot tapas seem in greatest demand. They're mostly meat-based, like the pincho de pollo (chicken brochette) and chorizo y morcilla (grilled Spanish sausages), though a few vegetable dishes such as champinones a la plancha (grilled mushrooms) are available. A waiter with patent-leather hair brings out the gambas al ajilo, four pink curls of shrimp in garlic olive oil. "Enjoy, please," he says, and stops a minute to wave hello to the bundled-up baby at the next table.
In addition to tapas, the menu offers a few salads, sandwiches, soups, and paellas, as well as a handful of entrees. One of them, the lomo de buey a la brasa, grilled beef tenderloin, arrives rare but not bloody alongside creamy yellow potatoes and a single tiny stalk of asparagus.
Oziel grew up in Malaga, Spain, where his family owns a tapas restaurant. Oziel never worked there. "I never say I would like to get a restaurant," he says, shrugging, "but last couple years it comes to mind." Before opening Andalucia he worked for a company that imported Spanish food to the United States.
Two months after opening, Andalucia has already earned a following. "My restaurant is always busy," Oziel says. "I have customers come two, three time a week with their family." He doesn't accept reservations, and there's no waiting area, so latecomers huddle by the door trying to stay out of the way of the stream of servers darting around with stacks of small white plates.
Oziel is modest about the reasons for Andalucia's success. "Comfortable, service good," he says. "You can see is clean. Very, very cozy restaurant." Boosting the restaurant's popularity are its prices--a party of five people can eat for less than $60. Oziel shrugs and smiles. "I don't know how it work, but it work. Thank God."
His eyes, as usual, are scanning the room, and they shift to a waiter bearing a plate of paella. "Ah! The paella, the paella," he says, nodding to the customer who ordered it. "Hah? It's good?"
Andalucia is at 1820 W. Montrose, 773-334-6900.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.