When you run the only restaurant of its kind in a community, you have a natural corner on the market. But it helps enormously if you do an excellent job in the execution.
Credit Manny and Natalie Salinas for capitalizing on their culinary strengths, as well as recognizing a need among Racine’s restaurant goers. The couple’s Olde Madrid is the only place in the city that serves Spanish tapas, offering a menu of small plates literally bursting with vibrant flavors and proving that less can indeed be more.
Opened in 2007, the couple’s restaurant has endured the Great Recession and three years of road construction literally at their doorstep. Chef Manny’s skills and Olde Madrid’s unique market niche kept them alive, creating a steady flow of regular customers who have helped the culinary enterprise thrive.
“Our menu originally had entrees on it as well as tapas, but our customers told us just to focus on the tapas, because that’s what they liked the best,” says Natalie, who runs the front of the house. “And we always listen to our customers.”
Tapas originated in Spain and are believed to have come about thanks to King Alfonso X, who ruled Castile and Leon during the late 13th century. Known as El Sabio, or “The Wise One,” the king insisted Castilian roadside taverns serve something to eat with each glass of wine, thus mitigating the effects of the alcohol and the trouble it can cause.
Legend also has it the innkeepers would put the plate on top of the goblet to keep the flies out of the wine, giving rise to the name tapa, meaning “lid” or “cover.”
Even today, Spaniards out for a night on the town use the verb tapear, which means to eat tapas.
“A plate of food well prepared can bring new life or change the mood of the table,” Manny says. “We want our customers to feel like they are in their own little corner of Spain.”
But the couple also is aware of Wisconsin residents’ penchant for good value, especially when it comes to restaurant food.
“We always served what we call Racine-sized portions,” Natalie says. “We serve big portions for a little price, and Manny puts a lot of love into his cooking.”
At Olde Madrid, 418 Sixth St., the tapas menu runs 60 items long — with separate lists of hot and cold plates and individual categories of meat, seafood and vegetarian selections. Manny draws largely on recipes handed down by his mother, who grew up in Madrid and immigrated to Chicago. She honed her cooking skills feeding a family of 13 children.
“Mama Chuy never cooked professionally, but her dishes blow mine out of the water,” Manny says of his mother.
“But Manny makes his mother very proud,” Natalie, a Racine native, adds.
Manny upped the ante by working in corporate restaurant kitchens and earning a degree in culinary arts from the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, with an emphasis on Italian cuisine.
Given the number of Italian restaurants in Racine, the chef chose to combine what he learned in school with the Spanish cuisine of his childhood.
A sampling of menu items bears out the wisdom of that decision.
The garlic chili shrimp ($10), the restaurant’s most popular dish, combines five medium-sized shrimp with dried chiles. It comes with several toasted baguette slices and a cilantro dipping sauce. One quickly learns that the best part of the dish may come at end, dredging the baguettes in what’s left of the smoky, smoldering sauce.
The fire-grilled vegetable salad ($8) offers a surprising and pleasing wealth of flavors. Slices of zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms and peppers are flame-grilled and marinated in a vinaigrette dressing of white wine, basil and a touch of honey, then served over a bed of greens and topped with Parmesan cheese. The smoke from the grilling combines with the vegetables’ freshness to create a robust and pleasing flavor profile.
Mama Chuy’s Bistec ($10.50), named for Manny’s mother, is the most impressive of all. Beef tenderloin and potatoes are thinly sliced and cooked in olive oil, then topped with what must have been some of the best pico de gallo on the planet.
“We make the pico fresh with each dish,” Manny confided. “That way it retains maximum flavor and doesn’t get soggy.”
The secret to success here is fresh, locally-sourced ingredients prepared with imported Spanish olive oil. Lots of olive oil.
“Good olive oil brings out the best flavors in foods,” Manny explains. “I go through 18 gallons of it each week.”
Olde Madrid also serves paella, the Valencian seafood rice dish, which like the tapas is designed to be shared. In addition, every Friday, the chef brings in a special ingredient and creates a special dish for the weekend. Past selections have revolved around sea bass, wild boar and rabbit.
And don’t forget that legendary glass of vino. ¡Salud!
Olde Madrid is at 418 Sixth St., in Racine.
The restaurant is open for lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesdays–Fridays and for dinner 4:30–9 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday and 4:30–10 p.m. Friday–Saturday. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday.
On the web: oldemadrid.com.
Olde Madrid’s garlic chili shrimp
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add five shrimp, a pinch of sea salt, a pinch of pepper, and a pinch of chili flakes (or a couple of dried red peppers/chili de arbol).
Sauté, stirring as you go, for about 2 minutes.
Add 1 teaspoon of minced garlic, a pinch of paprika, a pinch of chili powder, and a pinch of fresh chopped parsley.
Toss in pan until shrimp turn pink and ingredients are incorporated.