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There were a few failures among our choices — not horrible, but minimally satisfactory. Their problem-in-common: They all tasted as if they’d been cooked ahead and reheated to order, not to their benefit. The “house special tortilla española” (a frittata of eggs, potatoes, and onions, reportedly with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes) tasted as if artichoke hearts may have waltzed into the recipe, while the tomatoes and goat cheese sneaked out the back door. This is a dish that can happily be served at room temperature, but when reheated, it turns into something like bad Jewish-holiday potato kugel. (“Look! Aunt Irma brought her special kugel.” “Oh, goody gumdrops, Aunt Irma’s kugel!” whisper the kids at their separate kiddie table, giggling and pantomiming barfs.)

Both the beef and the seafood empanadas seem to suffer severely from reheating. Empanadas of all Iberian countries and former colonies come in two basic styles: empanadas de horno (“from the oven”), typically filled with meat or spinach and baked in a pielike crust, or empanadas de hoja (“leaf pastry,” aka puff pastry), usually deep-fried with a light filling, like creamed seafood or cheese. Both versions can be fully assembled and refrigerated (or frozen) in advance but are best served freshly cooked. Here the beef was de horno and the seafood was de hoja, but both fillings had seriously lost their sparkle somewhere along the way. Want to taste great de horno? Try beef empanadas at Puerto La Boca in Little Italy, or spinach-stuffed at Tango in Chula Vista. Fabulous de hoja? Chilean-style cheese empanadas can be found at Berta’s in Old Town — still one of San Diego’s top dishes to my tastes.

Chicken croquetas are a sinful temptation at numerous other Iberian restaurants, with crackly-crisp outsides and gooey, creamy insides (e.g., the killer version at Costa Brava in P.B., or the Brazilian spin-off at Brazil by the Bay). At Sevilla, after trying them several times over the years, I have to conclude that here they have never been happy or good — merely heavy and dull, like bad frozen food heated in the nuker. Then, too, Sevilla’s standard paella Valenciana is available in a tapa-size portion, but having tried it eight years ago, I didn’t want a rematch: It, too, is evidently made ahead, in massive quantities, for the nightclub patrons in the bowels of the building. (For a good, made-to-order paella Valenciana, once again, Costa Brava is your best choice, especially at Sunday brunch.)

For an entrée to share, we chose paella negra, a Catalan favorite colored Goth-black by squid ink. (If you go there intending to order it, wear black — even a stray drop stains.) Yoda had difficulty adjusting to its undeniably “fishy” squid flavor but eventually came around. (The doggie-bag next evening confirmed its unassailable freshness.) The seafood topping included shrimp, squid, and Manila clams — one clam needing better cleaning, as it unleashed a light flood of sand into the nearby rice. But once you get used to its Addams Family values (and color), this is a rewarding dish for seafood lovers.

My friends wanted dessert and ordered Chocolate Crema Catalina, a baked chocolate mousse loaded with chocolate chips. I hated it, but then, I’m a fats-head and not much of a sweets-heart. There was nothing wrong with it, except that I couldn’t stand to look at it after so much food. My espresso was decent.

The Gaslamp Cafe Sevilla is the flagship of a local mini-chain, and for better or worse, the business model is chain-y, with high customer volume, entertainment, and a “feed the masses” mindset that seems more overt than when I first ate here eight years ago. Then, when I was coming directly from relishing the three superb tapas bars in San Francisco, I found Sevilla surprisingly enjoyable, much better than expected, compared to the normal run of restaurants here at the time. Now, I think its quality has devolved a bit — they’re probably suffering from the current

economy, like all the other restaurants in the country and county. Yet the affordable tapas here, even if inconsistent, remain a flavorful gamble at a bargain price — and the best of them merit a hearty “¡Olé!” As Ahnold said, “I’ll be back.”

Cafe Sevilla
(Good to Very Good)
555 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-233-5979, cafesevilla.com
HOURS: 5:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m. daily.
PRICES: Small tapas, $4–$9; “Signature” tapas (medium-sized), $7.50–$23; soups and salads, $6–$14; tapa tasting platters, $14–$25; brochettes, paellas, entrées, $12–$28 (most about $15); desserts about $5.50. Sampler platters half off Wednesdays, brochettes $10 Sundays; paellas $13 Mondays.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Spanish tapas and entrées. Full bar with inexpensive tropical cocktails; wine list includes many fine, affordable international choices and several varieties of sangria.
PICK HITS: Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Cabrales bleu cheese; cold marinated tapas sampler platter; marinated green mussels; lamb chops Madrileños, paella negra (squid-ink seafood paella). Earlier-visit favorites: lobster and seafood bisque; fried calamari (plus an order of alioli and tomato dipping sauce with Kalamata olive bread); Manchego cheese–mashed potatoes with garlic; roasted pork tenderloin entrée with honey-port sauce. Other likely good bets when available: Black mussels with lobster and saffron-cream sauce; seafood crèpes; shrimp azafran, Basque rabbit.
NEED TO KNOW: About a dozen lacto-ovo-vegetarian tapas and soups, including four or more vegan choices (plus several additional vegan items from combo platters, all available separately); one vegan paella entrée. Tapas bar is noisy and hectic; for a quieter, romantic atmosphere, reserve a few nights ahead, requesting the dining room. Nightclub downstairs (not wheelchair accessible) with salsa lessons, etc., some food available. Valet parking available; cheap parking two blocks east at Park It On Market.

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