Flan y Ajo
The tiny Providence eatery brings back the original bar food: tapas that are are bite-size, often simple in preparation and feature an array of textures.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
Flan y Ajo
225a Westminster St., Providence, 432-6656, flanyajo.com. Hours Open Mon.-Fri. for lunch, Tues.-Sat. for dinner. Wheelchair inaccessible, often S.R.O. Street parking. Cuisine Traditional tapas. Capacity Two dozen sucking in their guts. Vibe The friendliest dive that you hope no one finds out about. Prices Tapas $3–$11; desserts $4–$4.50. Karen’s picks Everything, though sodium-phobes beware.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
The coffee shop culture of the past twenty years has taught us a lot, well beyond the capacity to turn beverages into art. It's given rise to an entirely new form of socialization that depends not on texting or tweeting but on face-to-face contact that stretches on for hours and for a relatively paltry sum. (Five dollars may be hefty for a latte but, for three hours of real estate, it's beyond negligible.) It's evident that bar life shaped Starbucks — buy a drink, become a regular, build community (albeit sober) — but it's also clear that coffee houses have begun to influence bar food.
Though the industrialized world may never tire of standing around doing shots, there has been a concerted effort over the years to infuse a less collegiate atmosphere into small spaces with even smaller kitchens. Alcohol will bring a profit, but if it's all you offer, you're as disposable as the Solo cups on the shelf.
So where do we go from sticky wings and gummy nachos? Back to the original bar food: tapas. Bite-size and generally simple in preparation — often dishes need little more than olive oil, salt and heat — there's an inherent jubilation in such a disparate array of textures. The minute space that holds Flan y Ajo, formerly home to Farmstead's downtown offshoot, was claimed by Siobhan Maria Etxeberria and Diego Luis Perez in 2012 and, if possible, it seems even more diminutive than its former incarnation. Until you eat, that is.
The challenge is simply getting in the door. The space holds two dozen people at best and that's assuming fourteen of them are standing up. Eclectic describes everything in the culinary terrarium, from the people (college students in combat boots, retirees and Spanish expatriates longing for home) to the decor, which includes a random filing cabinet, old school pinball machine and fractured chalkboard announcing the nightly menu.
What comes out of the makeshift, open kitchen, however, is an exultant slice of Spanish culture. Wedges of manchego and chorizo are challenged by more composed dishes: garlic grilled bread with a daub of softened tomato, salmon and goat cheese drizzled in oil, cubes of roasted potatoes awash in spicy pepper sauce and topped with a fried egg. Offerings shift nightly, which feeds the convivial thrill of discovery, even for regulars. Or perhaps it's the erasable sign that breeds affability, as it declares to all that “we don't have more seats” and, additionally, there are “no a**holes” allowed. The hard line approach seems to have worked.
Any free space capable of holding a dish is a legit table, pinball included. Tiny plates of monkfish — half poached, half roasted — topped with aioli find a space just long enough to cool and consume. Even pimientos de padron, blistered peppers coated copiously in sea salt ($6), pair with everything that comes out of the kitchen. Even better: Flan y Ajo is a BYOB situated next to ENO wine, with only a $5 corkage fee and the opportunity to morph your tempranillo into sangria. And if expansion is on the horizon, so much the better.