From top, clockwise: Pisto manchego, patatas bravas, tortilla espanola Credit: jeff marini for chicago reader

Francisco Bolanos wouldn’t tell me how he makes the smoky salsa brava he dresses his fried potatoes with. Over the phone he told me it’s a “family secret,” though I swear he used the words “jamon stock” when he served them to me a few mornings earlier at Little Madrid Tapas Cafe, a cash-only Andersonville hole-in-the-wall that resets the standard for patatas bravas in a city enamored with Spanish food.

Bolanos, who presides over the raw storefront with a razor-sharp jamonero behind a mounted haunch of Iberico ham, is not impressed by your patatas bravas, Chicago.

Move over, other tapas restaurants, there are new <i>patatas bravas</i> in town.
Move over, other tapas restaurants, there are new patatas bravas in town.Credit: jeff marini for chicago reader

After he brought me, unbidden, an order of this quintessential tapa with my breakfast, I had to agree. The irregular chunks of fried potatoes are lightly frosted with salt, delicately crispy outside, soft and creamy within, and they’re draped with the glossy “fire” sauce, smoldering with smoked pimenton. Bolanos says he’s made the rounds of the city’s nominal Spanish spots for this dish, and usually the potatoes are fried in something other than the Andalusian olive oil he gets from his family’s orchard, or the sauce is spiked with hot sauce that obscures the absence of say, jamon stock (or whatever it is).

Francisco Bolanos grew up cooking alongside his grandmother in Madrid.
Francisco Bolanos grew up cooking alongside his grandmother in Madrid.Credit: jeff marini for chicago reader

Like most people, the 37-year-old former human rights lawyer has a barometer for authenticity that’s determined by what he ate growing up versus what he can eat in his adopted city. His parents were professors who divided their time between South America and home, so he grew up cooking at his grandmother’s side in Madrid. He asked that I not name the large intergovernmental organization he worked for in New York City before he moved here, fed up with the law and intending to open a simple coffee shop and art gallery in an erstwhile Mexican restaurant. It got off to a rough start. He says he took a call at 2 AM and rushed over to find his carpenter lying on the floor bleeding amidst a collapsed ceiling and three bottles of tequila. Some $13,000 in hospital charges later, he opened with the ceiling unfinished on December 22, surprising passersby stopping in for coffee and gluten-free pastries with slices of ham and bread.

By Christmas Day he’d shifted into full tapas mode with a slim menu of a few sandwiches and bar snacks, including the classic potato omelet tortilla espanola, dates wrapped with bacon and stuffed with cheese, and slices of that salty ham with manchego and Iberian cheese.

<i>Pisto manchego</i>, the Spanish expression of ratatouille, with a pair of eggs and shaved ham or chorizo
Pisto manchego, the Spanish expression of ratatouille, with a pair of eggs and shaved ham or chorizoCredit: jeff marini for chicago reader

People began dropping by with wine in numbers enough that Bolanos began setting out tapas on the counter after 3 PM (four for $8), and going off menu with dishes such as albdondigas in tomato sauce; pisto manchego, the Spanish expression of ratatouille, with a pair of eggs and shaved ham or chorizo (“old people’s food,” he calls it); and those patatas bravas, which he brings out free for first-timers.

Bolanos’s transition from coffee shop to BYOB tapas bar is illuminating when you try the actual coffee. Sourced from a Michigan roaster, it is the literal weak link at Little Madrid. But that’s not why people are coming. Sunday brunches have gotten popular—and competitive—with neighborhood folks and Spanish expats vying for an order from the one and only pan of paella he makes. (I missed out on last week’s arroz negra because I’d failed to reserve it early enough on Saturday by the time he sold out.)

So far the problem isn’t one of demand, but supply—and communication. His phone was recently stolen, so he’s taking orders on Instagram. He’s staying open late for a Valentine’s Day dinner—gazpacho, sirloin in mushroom sauce, jamon y queso. And on February 27 Bolanos promises to make two pans of seafood paella when his mother comes to town to join him in the kitchen. That’s just 20 orders. Or rather, 19, minus mine.   v