Paella was one of the few dishes at Oloroso about which Craig LaBan had reservations, which got us thinking — who does have the best paella?
Craig LaBan: Paella is one of my favorite things to share with a group, but a great one is rare because so many different elements have to come together with perfect timing.
A lot of pro kitchens cheat by assembling pre-cooked ingredients to order, and though that allows the most delicate items to be properly done, you can miss out on the deeper flavors that result from seafood, chicken, and chorizo mingling together and infusing the same pan of rice.
A great paella should be cooked from start to finish to order, and preferably over an open grill or stove to get a toasty “soccarat” crust on the bottom.
Oloroso definitely cooks its paella to order, but the rice was still too wet, and the broth had too much tomato overtaking the other flavors. I’m sure the excellent cooks there are working on it. (I was a bigger fan of its squid ink rice.)
Meanwhile, there are other paellas to consider. Amada, of course, has long been the gold standard for Spanish classics, and though it’s been a while, I remember my last paella from a Garces kitchen fondly, the nubby Calasparra rice brimming with a smoky base of braised chicken and chorizo that was worth the 40-minute wait.
The still relatively new Barcelona Wine Bar on East Passyunk Avenue does a solid job with classic paella (don’t bother with the bland vegetarian version), but the chewy seafood in mine could have been more delicately cooked.
The Portuguese-style paella at Tio Pepe on Castor Avenue (noted in my Northeast Philly dining package) was one of the more impressive paellas I’ve sampled locally, with half a lobster anchoring moist yellow rice ringed by clams, pork, and Portuguese sausage.
I’ve also found great paella in the suburbs at Ambler’s 555 Lagiola, a tiny Spanish BYOB where house-made chorizo adds richness to the rice, delicately cooked seafood, and tender bone-in chicken.
The most memorable paella I’ve had recently was at Jamonera – a hearty individual portion of pimentón-spiced golden rice bejeweled with still-moist mussels, slender Chistorra chorizo, crisp pork belly nuggets, huge shrimp, and a garlicky leg of chicken that had been roasted to a crackly crisp. Of course, Jamonera breaks some paella rules. Its six-burner kitchen is just too small to cook every pan entirely to order. So talented chef de cuisine Lindsay McClain, who produced an overall outstanding meal, more than compensated by crisping her flavorful rice on the plancha to a tawny crunch for a soccarat that got stealthily slipped into the bottom of the pan. By the time I’d devoured my way down through every delicious morsel of pig and seafood, the surprise of it was like the diner’s ultimate reward, a roasty scoop of singed rice treasure to punctuate an already fabulous dish.