Last night Kimmie and I decided to visit the Spanish Benevolent Society (aka La Nacional) for some authentic tapas and paella. They have a restaurant/cafeteria in the basement that serves as a sort of informal meeting place. With no visible street level signs, it's one of those hidden gems that most would have no idea exists. (We learned of the place from an old NYT article and through good old www.chowhound.com).
To start we had grilled squid, tortilla espanola, and patatas bravas. The squid came out in whole small pieces (and tentacles) lightly grilled with olive oil and served with a wedge of fresh lemon. It was delicious but rather ordinary and mildly seasoned. The patatas were cubed fried pieces of skinned potato which were nicely crisped on the outside with a very fluffy interior. They were topped with a creamy white garlic sauce and a red spicy sauce...at least the sauce was supposed to be spicy, but it didn't seem to have much heat. Nevertheless they were still addictive.
It's interesting because they were extremely different than the patatas bravas at Sala. The dish at Sala is composed of roasted potates (with their skins on) and they're topped with a very spicy tomato-based sauce. Kimmie explained to me though, that patatas bravas can vary a lot and each place has their own spin on the dish.
The tortilla espanola was a thing of beauty. Sweet onions with luscious potatoes all encased in egg and perfectly seasoned. We got a huge wedge too for the $5 price tag.
For our main course we shared a single serving of the "house paella." Included in the paella were peeled whole shrimp, chicken chunks, rings of squid and mussels and clams. Upon first tasting it, I exclaimed this almost tastes Asian! The rice was nice and plump and the sauce almost had a hint of goh-choo-jang (korean red pepper paste) to it. Sorry if that's blasphemous, but that's what it tasted like to me! The paella was lovely and unctuous and quite filling.
To top it off, our dessert was an AMAZING bread pudding. The bread had chunks of chocolate and swirls of cinnamon in it. It was truly the best bread pudding I've had - not too heavy, delicately sweet, and moist by not sticky.
All in all, we agreed this would be a great place to come back to. It's affordable, the space is comfortable, and the service is friendly.
An additional bonus is that they have free tango lessons on Thursday evenings in the upstairs section of SBS! Kim and I observed a beginners' session and it looked like it could be a lot of fun. Apparently, they also have flamenco performances on Friday and Saturday evenings (2 performances per evening). We'd definitely like to go back and at least watch one of the performance while munching on a nice wedge of tortilla espanola and of course, that bread pudding!
(*note: that photo is borrowed from www.gothamist.com)