The first time I ate paella it was at a fancy Spanish restaurant in Cranston, Rhode Island, where my girlfriend (now my wife) and I waited an hour, in our dressiest dressed-up clothes, to be seated. It was Valentine's Day, I was all of 23 years old, and the paella valenciana we ordered felt like the most exotic (and possibly the most expensive) thing I'd ever eaten — even if it was just a plate of seafood and rice.
I thought about that paella when Eduardo Balaguer, the chef-owner of Venga Paella, told me about his decade-long mission to demystify the famous Valencian rice dish — to bring it down from its pedestal. "Paella, I think, has been glorified too much," Balaguer said.
Here in the Bay Area, and in much of the United States, folks routinely pay more than $30 for a minimum-two-person (sorry, solo diners) paella, served in the wide, two-handled pan in which it was cooked, that might take as long as 45 minutes to arrive at the table. Balaguer, a Barcelona native, said that while you can have that kind of upscale, "glorified" paella experience in Spain, he's always enjoyed paella most when it's served more casually — say, at the rollicking backyard paella parties that his mother used to throw, or at the kind of bars you'll find in the Spanish countryside, where the camarero might put a plate of paella in front of you just minutes after you sit down.
In that way, Balaguer has sought to bring the dish back to its humbler roots at Venga Paella, the catering business he started ten years ago, and at his new restaurant of the same name. The restaurant is tucked away on the outskirts of the Jack London district, and, with its weathered wooden tabletops and rustic decor, has the look and feel of a cozy, "salty-dog"-style tavern. One wall is adorned with propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War, but the real touch of revolution is this: For $12, you get a generous plate of paella (only a little bit smaller than many restaurants' "paella for two") topped with well-sourced seafood and seasonal vegetables, served quickly enough for people who work nearby to eat during a half-hour lunch break. Just like at the casual paella bars Balaguer loves in Spain, the key is to make the paellas in big batches and then quickly reheat each portion to order.
The menu could scarcely be simpler: three rice dishes — the "traditional" paella, a squid-ink stained arroz negro, and a seasonal vegan paella that changes on a weekly basis. The traditional version, based on Balaguer's mother's recipe, is studded with a classic mixture of meat (pork chorizo) and seafood (shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari), of which the most notable elements were the tender calamari rings and the two perfectly cooked shrimp. But, as Balaguer stressed, paella is at its core a rice dish, not a seafood dish, and mostly what you get at Venga Paella is rice that's savory and flavor-packed from the sweating of garlic and onions, and from the subtle smokiness of saffron and pimentón.
The other two paealla options were also tasty, if slightly less memorable. The arroz negro was one of the milder, more toned-down versions I've had — Balaguer said he uses less of the murky-tasting squid ink than most restaurants so as not to overwhelm the dish's other components. Again, the rice was delicious, but I missed the shot of intensely garlicky allioli that's often mixed into this dish. Meanwhile, I appreciated the season's bounty on display in the vegan paella: sugarkiss pumpkin, tender-crisp dino kale, surprisingly fiery whole chiles de arbol, and, most intriguingly, big, sweet chunks of Fuyu persimmon. That said, the basmati rice (which Balaguer uses in place of the Valencian paella rice in the non-vegetarian options) was slightly undercooked, and the dish needed more salt to compensate for the absence of savory chicken stock.
On the whole, the paellas occasionally suffered in the way that food that's made in large batches does. One time the rice was unevenly heated, so that some bites were warm while others were just room temperature. Occasionally I got a mussel or clam with a little bit of grit. And in general there was little if any socarrat — the crunchy, caramelized rice crust that forms at the bottom of the pan, prized by many as the very best part of the paella.
Still, the tradeoff was worth it. While I've had more innovative and better-executed paellas at restaurants like Duende, Venga's are the only ones I'd add to my regular lunch rotation.
Aside from paella, the restaurant also serves a small selection of mostly traditional tapas. My favorites were the subtly garlicky sautéed gambas al ajillo — shrimp that were, again, cooked perfectly — and the classic Catalonian tomato bread pa amb tomàquet (crusty bread rubbed with garlic, fresh tomato, salt, and olive oil) — a cold, wet version that would make for a refreshing summer starter. Less successful were the piquillo peppers, which were stuffed with creamy goat cheese — a California twist that overwhelmed the dish's other flavors.
During its early months, Venga Paella was strictly a lunch joint, with the exception of Fridays, when the restaurant was also open for dinner and happy hour. My visits to Venga Paella told a tale of two restaurants: At lunchtime on a Tuesday the vibe could only be described as sleepy. But when I came at the tail end of a Friday happy hour, the restaurant was hopping — lit up festively with string lights, the dining room filled to capacity (with a twenty-minute wait to boot) and so loud with chatter it was only possible to hear the bass line of the music. And no wonder: During happy hour the sangria flows freely — not literally "free" but, at a discounted rate of $4 for a tall, generous glass or, better yet, $15 for a sangria or beer and a plate of paella.
As of this printing, Balaguer has instituted new hours, opening for dinner four nights a week. And he'll have opened up a back section to serve as a combination lounge and spillover area, where live music will play and where custom-made, oversized Jenga blocks will be available for those with a competitive streak.
It'll be a real party, then. You get the feeling that that's what Balaguer has been building toward all along.