Until Rich Melman’s Cafe Babareeba! made tapas a household word a half a dozen years ago, Spanish cuisine was a mystery to most diners, who often mistakenly assumed it was hot like Mexican. In fact, except for a few dishes from the Basque region, in Spain’s northeast comer, the cooking is savory but uses no hot peppers. Garlic, yes. Sometimes lots. But nothing with a chili burn. It’s closer to French Mediterranean food than to Latin American, though Cuban cooking shares a few classic dishes with Spain.

The guy who really introduced Spanish cooking to our town, however, is not Melman but the still relatively unknown Francisco “Paco” Sanchez, 65, who grew up in Barcelona, got into the food and restaurant field as a kid, left his native land in 1957, and ultimately opened his charming restaurant La Paella on Clark near Oakdale late in 1978. He opened a second front, the tapas bar Arco de Cuchilleros, a bit farther north on Halsted in 1991, after the tapas rage had taken hold.

Thus our city’s first authentic tapas were introduced just as the massive snow and ice storms of the 1978-79 winter were beginning. The weather did the fledgling business little good, but the fine quality and unique aspects of the menu helped it stay around.

The place hasn’t changed much since it opened: a low-key, quietly elegant spot with leather booths and massive copper chandeliers that shed light just bright enough not to cause eyestrain. There are tastefully hung gilt mirrors, embroidered banners, and escutcheons–and always a warm welcome from Paco or his wife Carmen.

Their menu draws on all regions of Spain: a few potent dishes from the Basque country, which feature a lot of onions and sweet peppers; the seafare of Catalonia, whose center is Barcelona, and the sun-drenched dishes of Andalusia, best-known of which is gazpacho, the cold vegetable soup. The entrees range from traditional country dishes such as the eponymous paella–the inspiration for Cajun-creole jambalayas–to such haute cookery as roast duck and mangoes in a brandy sauce, prepared these days by chef Fernando Oca, who did tours of duty in France, England, and Canada before going to New Orleans, where he worked at the famed Brennan’s and also briefly had his own spot.

My favorite starter through the years isn’t on the menu but is almost always available here (and at Arco). It is fish cheeks–usually from cod–sauteed in garlic and olive oil ($5.95). Fisherpersons will tell you that the cheeks are the most tender and succulent morsels of any fish, and the zippy saute does wonders for them.

There is always a splendid clam dish on the menu, involving lovely little manila clams when available. These are steeped in a broth of white wine, onions, and garlic ($5.75). A squid dish, sauteed in olive oil with garlic, paprika, and potatoes, is wonderful as is; but on request they’ll grill the calimari, adding a delightful char flavor, and dress it with oil and a spritz of lemon.

The veal and chicken pate ($4.25) is rich and unctuous, easily demonstrating the relationship between Spanish and French cuisine. A unique Spanish cheese, manchego, served with apple slices ($4.95), is slightly soft, like a ripe Parmesan, with a lushness and tang I enjoy after a meal though it’s listed among the appetizers. The gazpacho ($3.25) has the right tang to it as well, but for something better on one of these cold nights try the lusty garlic soup, thickened with bread and with an egg that’s been dropped in and gently stirred ($3.25).

There are many kinds of paellas in Spain, thousands of “authentic” recipes. All involve a highly seasoned, saffron-tinged rice baked with various mixes of seafood, sausage, chicken, meat, and veggies. Paco offers a “Valenciana” rendition, with chicken, pork, chorizo, shrimp, and clams ($14.95) and a “marinara” version, with lobster, shrimp, clams, and squid ($17.95). I lean toward the Valenciana most days.

For my seafood here I prefer either the zarzuela, an elaborate mixed saute flamed with brandy and hit with a walnut-based Romesco sauce ($17.95), or the cazuela, a kind of bouillabaisse done with a few light vegetables in a traditional clay pot ($17.95). Both bring out the sweetness of the shellfish in different ways.

There’s also a fine rabbit, simmered in olive oil, white wine, garlic, and tomato with artichoke hearts ($15.95). And veal medallions sauteed with sherry, mushrooms, and olives ($14.95), another dish reminiscent of Provence. Including the daily specials, there are a dozen entrees to explore in addition to the paellas.

Arco de Cuchilleros, run by son Miguel (aka Mike), is in an altogether different mold. It’s a big, long, friendly barroom with a delightful open kitchen area. Sit anywhere, including the bar, and pick from a range of 16 cold and 21 hot tapas, a pair of soups, and a half-dozen entrees, plus daily specials.

Begin with the zesty potato salad in garlic mayonnaise ($2.95). The plate of chorizo (perhaps the best in town) with Spanish salami and a cured Parma-like ham is a rewarding combo ($5.95). I am also partial to the shrimp and avocado salad done with rice and brandied mayonnaise in an avocado shell ($4.25). There’s a pungently marinated tuna, heavy on the lemon and garlic, which I happen to relish but some find too tart ($5.25), and a fine rendition of artichokes in a heady vinaigrette ($4.25).

Standouts among the hot items are the croquettes (usually chicken), a half-dozen greaseless little deep-fried “cigars” served with a seasoned mayonnaise sauce ($3.95); a pair of fine tuna pies ($3.95); and a full-bodied dish of broad beans and Spanish ($4.95). A daily special that knocked us out was mussels baked in the shell with spinach, bread crumbs, and loads of garlic ($4.95). It had no name, but I volunteered “mussels Rockefeller.” The only dish I found pallid was the shrimp cooked on the griddle ($4.95).

Two people can fill up on five or six tapas. There’s also a massive Sunday brunch buffet from noon to 3 for $11.95; the spread includes paella.

La Paella, 2920 N. Clark, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30, Sunday 5 to 9. Call 528-0757. Arco de Cuchilleros, 3445 N. Halsted, is open Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 11, Saturday noon to midnight, and Sunday noon to 11. Call 296-6046.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.