“I’m a tapas virgin,” whispered my dining companion as we walked into Malagon Mercado y Tapería. Be that as it may, even experienced tapas lovers may find themselves a bit wide-eyed — the eight-page menu isn’t fooling around. Rather, it gets right down to some sweet tapas tenderness, starting with familiar snacks like marcona almonds ($5) and dates wrapped in ham ($4).
The mojama ($9) or cured tuna belly, is a classic treat. Firm and salty, it’s often referred to as the jamón of the sea. Malagon serves theirs in the fashion of the Costa de Luz, with seven thin slices drizzled with olive oil. Pair it with some slices of house-made sourdough bread ($3) and a glass of the only beer on the menu, Cerveza de Malagon. Brewed by Edmund’s Oast, the refreshing blonde ale is available in eight ($4) and 12-ounce ($6) pours that go down fast and easy.
When asked for input to decide between the calamare with morcilla and chickpeas ($13) and the pulpo a feira ($12), the friendly, knowledgeable waiter unilaterally endorsed the latter, stating it was the most tender octopus he’d ever had. And boy howdy, he wasn’t kidding. Accompanied by roughly a dozen baby potatoes, the chunks of octopus have a silky texture similar to that of a rare scallop. The mild flavors of the two soft ingredients are dominated by the sprinkling of smoked paprika on top. While my dining companion didn’t enjoy the mushy texture, an adjacent table ordered three plates of the dish. De gustibus non est disputandum.
Malagon occupies the space formerly inhabited by Artisan Meat Share. The wainscoting has been painted black and a few more tables have been added, but it’s still a cozy space with seating for roughly 30. Note this also makes reservations mandatory, with even the small row of bar seating accounted for. For those lucky enough to snag a spot, the vibe is upbeat and familial.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a theory that txistorra en hojaldre ($8) might mean “pigs in a blanket” in Basque. Made with the same ingredients as chorizo, but with a much higher fat content, the thin, red-hued txistorra sausage is rich and flavorful. Rolled and baked inside buttery puff pastry, this upscale European version might cause the Pillsbury Dough Boy to hang his head in shame.
La Bomba de la Barceloneta ($8) is one of the most popular tapas in Spain. Invented by a small Barcelona cava bar in the 1950s, the dish features a single potato ball filled with ground pork, which is then deep fried and served with a spicy tomato sauce. The Malagon version is tradition perfected. Topped with garlicky aioli, each bite is a harmonious blend of flavors and textures.
While the menu is extensive and pronunciations daunting, the staff is up to the task. Engaged and attentive, they patiently answer all questions, interspersed with spirited spurts of food deliveries from the tiny back kitchen.
The patatas arrugadas con mojo picón ($8) are a simple treat. Here eight small potatoes are boiled and served “wrinkled,” with the skins on. The Spanish conquistadors brought potatoes back with them in the 1600s, and they have been cultivated in the country ever since. Now a traditional snack in the Canary islands, Malagon’s patatas arrugadas holds true to tradition and sends both mojo cilantro and mojo picon with the spuds. The first, bright and herbal, was our favorite, but the rich red pepper-based version is also a delight, more piquant and with a touch of heat.
Last up, the rossejat negro ($17) is a formidable lover. In this traditional Catalan dish, fideo noodles are first browned in oil and then simmered with a touch of stock and fresh seafood. Malagon’s version adds calamari rings and squid ink, finished and served in a paella dish. Finished with another generous dollop of rich aioli, it’s a dark, chewy, unique dish that is also quite hearty.
In fact, despite being ‘small plates’ and probably owing in part to all the potatoes, the meal was surprisingly filling and notably affordable. A fresh addition to the Charleston dining scene, Malagon is not only doing something different, they’re doing it extremely well. Whether tapas virgin, connoisseur, or something in between, you’re all but certain to leave satisfied.