by Karen Spezia
Photography by Holly Cowart
I’VE NEVER BEEN A BIG FAN OF GIN AND TONICS. But I am now. El Chipirón made a believer out of me. This year-old Spanish tapas bar has transformed the humble cocktail into an art form. Served in enormous glass goblets, these otherworldly creations come in unexpected flavor combinations lavishly garnished with garlands of fresh herbs and spices — and sometimes even aromatic smoke. This ain’t your grandpa’s G&T.
Who knew that gin and tonics were the national drink of Spain? Unbeknownst to me, they’ve begun outpacing sangria and rum and Coke (“ron cola”) as Spain’s favorite libation. Their resurgence started almost two decades ago and spread like wildfire throughout the country. Now El Chipirón is introducing this classic-cocktail reboot to Austin.
As in Spain, El Chipirón uses the finest gin — like Hendrick’s, Genius, Alkkemist, and Dripping Springs — and high-quality tonic like Fever-Tree. We started with the Luna Llena, a refreshing mix of gin, tonic, assorted fresh citrus, and cardamom. Next came the confidently feminine La Tejana, with gin, elderflower tonic, cardamom, juniper, lemon, rosemary, and peppercorn, followed by its more macho partner, El Tejano, with gin, tonic, cinnamon, star anise, orange, rosemary, and peppercorn. Both were infused with smoke and arrived at the table trailing an aromatic plume. Emboldened by our previous drinks, we attempted La Peligrosa, a boldly spicy creation that included peppercorn, juniper, cilantro, lemon, cucumber, and a powerful punch of serrano pepper. Each drink was as intricate and gorgeous as the next — and just as tasty.
El Chipirón runs a first-rate bar, and G&Ts aren’t the only standouts. The Spanish margarita was one of the best I’ve had in town. There’s also a nice selection of Spanish beers and wine, served in porrones. These wine-filled vessels create a festive atmosphere, as each guest takes turns artfully pouring wine directly into his or her mouth from the spout.
Of course, drinking goblets of gin and pitchers of wine requires food to soak up those delicious drinks. And El Chipirón’s got that covered as well. Chef and Spanish native Pablo Gomez who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Diana, offers an extensive selection of tapas and pinchos, the traditional and ever-present Spanish snack, to graze on while sipping the exquisite cocktails. Gomez has replicated the legendary nightlife experience of his homeland, where carousing groups of friends share small bites and plates to accompany their “gin tonics,” as they’re called in Spain. Gomez strives to preserve traditional Spanish flavors while updating classic dishes with modern, creative twists. Clearly he’s having fun in the kitchen as he transforms modest nibbles into miniature works of art.
The queso de cabra con nueces was almost too pretty to eat: discs of creamy goat cheese atop a homemade cracker and garnished with colorful translucent dots of beet gels and smoked veggies, seasoned pecans, honey, and salt. The quintessential Spanish tortilla omelet is almost unrecognizable. Typically served in a quiche-like slice, Gomez reimagines the dish as a parfait, with potatoes, onions, mushrooms, and ham stacked between layers of frothy egg foam in a tall cup.
Although I enjoyed these whimsical re-creations, my favorite dishes were the more classically prepared. The delicious empanadillas start with flaky dough that is then stuffed with fillings like pulled pork, chorizo, peppers and mushrooms. Another favorite was the pan con tomate y jamón, toasted bread gilded with olive oil, garlic, crushed fresh tomato, and serrano ham. We devoured the gambas a la plancha con ajillo, Gulf shrimp seasoned with chile, garlic, and lime. And the divinely simple platter of hand-sliced jamón Ibérico melted in our mouths.
But the real star at El Chipirón are the libations, meant to be enjoyed with friends and family over some tasty nibbles. Gin and tonics are having a moment, so don’t miss out. Like me, you might just find yourself surprised and delighted.