I need to confess something up front: I love tapas. I love Spanish food. I am biased toward the cuisine. I took a trip to Madrid last summer and fell in love with the Mercado de San Miguel, a bustling food market replete with all the best things you’d expect – huge glass carafes of sangria, a hundred different kinds of olives, some stuffed with roasted red peppers or cheeses, a calamares counter, varieties of steaming paella, a sherry bar, hefty legs of jamon Iberico affixed across an entire wall. Basically it’s a little piece of what my personal heaven would look like.
There’s no lack of Spanish restaurants in the city; and residents still love tapas (as seen in the continued popularity of long-time 14th Street favorite Estadio, newer neighbor Barcelona, and the consistently stellar Jaleo from Jose Andres), though the tapas craze peaked years ago. When Joselito Casa de Comidas took over the former Sona Creamery space in 2016, I was cautiously optimistic about the addition of yet another tapas-style restaurant.
My skepticism was for naught. Much like its cuisine, the restaurant is warm and nostalgic while avoiding feeling outdated. Portraits hung high on the walls are brightened with focused light, while the dining area below basks in intimate soft glow. The bar area is beautiful, large in light gray marble, sitting below massive mirrors.
Joselito offers traditional Spanish dishes with little winks here and there that serve as reminders that although the menu looks familiar, it is decidedly forward-thinking. A delicious sangria isn’t stored in containers laden with fruit; rather, the restaurant freezes chunks of fruit in large ice cubes, and the sangria is poured over from an adorable beaker, mixing with the fruit juices as the ice melts. Thin wedges of manchego are paired with a tomato marmalade with a hint of heat, and addictive rosemary “picatostes,” hunks of bread that have been flash fried, turn them a deep crispy golden brown.
Take, for example, the chicken pate, dotted with small pearls of sherry that burst when you take a bite. A delicate mound of smoked cod is placed at the bottom of a bowl, while a mouthwatering gazpacho is poured over and adorned with what at first looks like feta but is actually dehydrated olive oil. The resulting dish is filled with umami and rivals a memorable iteration of the traditional dish I had in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands.
One of the frequent complaints about tapas-style kitchens is that sometimes you just want a normal portion of food. Joselito solves that desire. Most of the menu items can be ordered in three different sizes – appetizer, entree, or family portion (no more fighting over the last sliver of jamon Iberico).
Beginning to feel sated, but not willing to miss the opportunity to try the pork tenderloin with garlic fries, my dining companion and I ordered the smallest portion of the dish, although we were assured the dish was actually rather light. I trusted our delightful bartender Stacy, who hadn’t led us astray all evening as she suggested items to us, but tenderloin and fries didn’t exactly sound like a dainty selection.
My skepticism was proven wrong for the second time that evening. Three slim pieces of pork sat atop translucent onions and herbs, and tasted markedly tender (and light!), the cooking brandy bringing out the sweetness of the meat for the melt-in-mouth sensation usually reserved for filet mignon. This is one dish I’ll be back for, upping my snack-size to a full entree.
The beverage program is also not to be missed. In addition to the stellar sangria with its iced fruit cubes, the cocktail menu is modern and includes components such as azahar water (orange blossom water), pink pepper bitters, and a hibiscus infusion, for a list of creative concoctions that DC bar denizens have come to expect. Yet Joselito also pays homage to tradition, reflected in the selection of sherry (the perfect pairing to tapas), cava, and Spanish wines.
Joselito boasts what may be the best happy hour deal in the area. Everything is 20 percent off at the bar, 4-7 p.m. Yes, the entire menu.
The restaurant is approachable and homey and a fine addition to the city’s Spanish offerings. Much more a neighborhood spot than its counterparts downtown, Joselito Casa de Comidas feels like walking into a beloved local eatery in a quieter part of Madrid and sitting down for good conversation and a meal. For this Spanish cuisine lover, I’m thankful I don’t need to book a flight to be transported to one of my favorite cities.