“The best stuffed mushroom in Madrid,” or so I’m told, is in a cramped restaurant on a side street behind one of the city’s main tourist traps, Plaza Mayor.
Mesón del Champiñon is not what you’d expect. Creepy, iron-cast devils peer down from light fixtures. Brain-shaped clumps of plaster — they’re apparently supposed to look like mushrooms — have been slapped onto the ceilings. The colors are hideous. And a man with a cranberry tie, frown and an electric keyboard churns out a version of “Sweet Caroline” too cheesy for a Holiday Inn lounge in Branson.
Naturally, we’re all in heaven.
“If we’d have come to Madrid on our own, we wouldn’t find places like this,” Rosalind Bunke, a German tourist, tells me as she delicately catapults another juicy, chorizo-packed mushroom into her mouth with two toothpicks.
Bunke and I are sitting at a long table occupied by 10 of us, nine outsiders and our guide. Joy Figueroa is a native New Yorker with curly hair, a nose ring and a list of restaurants for our tour. She’s part of a booming industry, whether you’re in Beijing or Buffalo, but I don’t feel like I’m on the culinary equivalent of a Carnival Cruise. We’re part of a small club, those eager to get a quick bead on a city’s best dining options without relying on Yelp or digesting mistakes.
I did have some reservations. As a traveler, I’m always driven by an irrational fear that the moment I let my trips get curated by somebody else, a fanny pack, knee socks and Segway would magically appear.
But as I quickly realized, food tours are not about losing control of your adventure. They’re about using your time wisely. When you’re only going to be passing through for a day or three, why not make sure every meal sings?
“We’re foodies,” says Anita Harmon, here with her husband, Rick, from Quincy, Mass. “Every time we hit a major city, we’ve done our tour the first night.”
It works like this in Madrid. We each pay 95 euros and meet in a central location, in this case the Opera House plaza not far from the Royal Palace. We go around in a circle to introduce ourselves, stand awkwardly together at first, like strangers at a cocktail party before the drinks begin to flow, and then Figueroa walks us to our first stop. It’s a restaurant on the plaza. We’re given a chilly glass of vermouth — not usually my favorite, but, like a hot dog around a campfire, it somehow tastes perfect — and presented a platter of Spain’s famed jamon iberico. That’s the cured ham from wild pigs largely sustained by acorns.
“The places we’re going are small, family-run businesses,” Figueroa tells us. “No tourist traps, no chains, no McDonalds.”
As on many tours, your companions make a big difference. Tonight, we have Germans, Danes and Americans. Three New Yorkers, who signed on as part of a quick trip to celebrate one of them turning 40, are a good hour late and meet us at the third stop. I’m glad. They’re as chatty and loud as the others are understated. I try to stay at the European end of the table.
Figueroa, 27, is half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican and a graduate of Alfred University. She came to Spain a few years ago and found herself falling in love with the culture. As a guide, she carries herself well if, at moments, with a splash too much informality. She also delivered munchkin-size nuggets of history. In front of a statue of persecuted poet Federico García Lorca, she talked about the brutality of the Franco regime. In the Plaza de Ramales, she told us that the great painter Diego Velázquez is buried somewhere underground.
These were helpful flourishes, adding texture and context, though, in reality, we were here for the food.
Figueroa, as our guide, had to make choices for the group. I, personally, wished some of these had been more daring. For example, at one stop, she brought us to a window and pointed out the pig ears and a dish that appeared to be crafted from sections of lamb intestine, stretched and then pinned with what looked like small, wooden skewers.
Me, I’m from the Bourdain School of Dining, where food should be an adventure, whether a fried squid or a beating snake heart. Of course, it’s easy to follow this philosophy when you’re not responsible for a larger, paying group, for whom just the mention of Casu Marzu, more specifically Sardinian maggot cheese, could create a gag-fest. Looking back, Figueroa probably did her best in guesstimating the group’s blech levels. We got baby squid in batter, the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten — thin slices with swirls of honey — and, thankfully, a saucy, sauteed plate of adrenal glands. But I wouldn’t have minded nibbling on an ear.
A few days later, I told this to James Fraser. I called him because his company, also in Madrid, is called Adventurous Appetites. Not surprisingly, he sided with me on the intestines.
“If you don’t like it,” Fraser said, “just spit it out and try something else.”
But then I mentioned the mushroom spot, which I’d loved.
“It tends to be a place we avoid,” he sniffed. “Much too touristy.”
There’s the rub. In the food-tour universe, one man’s revelation is another’s moldy cheese. Yes, you want to avoid being steered into the international equivalent of “Ray’s Famous Pizza,” but not if it means missing out on that cheesy keyboard and those juicy mushrooms.
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Tours depart from several central locations, depending on which one you take, including Plaza Mayor, Plaza Santa Ana or Plaza Isabel II. Wear walking shoes, as the tours average about four hours. The cost ranges from about $70 to $105 per person from the morning neighborhood tour (least expensive) to the evening tapas trawl.