Before going to Pan y Vino on Balboa Peninsula, it might be wise to consider the time of year. Right now, during the height of summer, this area can get as crowded as Disneyland on July 4. But since it’s located on a thin strip of land that has only one way in and one way out (if you don’t count the ferry), the traffic is even more atrocious and parking harder to snag. You will inevitably arrive at the restaurant at least 30 minutes later than you intended.
I was late to my reservation by that much. But I didn’t really need one. Right now, Pan y Vino is still the kind of place that puts a hostess out on a sidewalk podium to solicit customers from the street. As I approached her, she asked me, “Do you like sangria?” Only when I said I had a reservation did she drop the sales pitch.
She led me into a skinny dining room with red, plush-covered chairs and a ceiling that flutters with dozens of tiny Spanish flags all strung together. Until about a few months ago, the place was called Le French Touch, a bistro owned by Jerome Armnius offering duck confit and crème brûlée. But sometime this spring, Armnius changed course and rebuilt the concept into this Spanish tapas bar.
As it turns out, Armnius owned another Spanish restaurant in France before coming to the U.S. It was called El Toro, located in Ermont, a suburb of Paris, and from the pictures I saw of that restaurant and its food, it seems Pan y Vino is its second incarnation. The menu is virtually unchanged, a reliable roll call of what you expect from a tapas bar.
There’s patatas bravas, those tiny cubes of golden fried potatoes drizzled with a spicy tomato sauce. There’s even a tortilla, a classic Spanish dish resembling quiche, but containing a matrix of potatoes bound together by lashings of egg and served as a big wedge. Armnius’ version is dense, a touch undersalted and accompanied by slices of crusty bread in case you haven’t had enough carbs.
I used the bread to sop up the red, spicy olive oil in another dish called pulpo en aceite de oliva. The pulpo (octopus) is cut into chunks and served roiling-hot in a small cast-iron pan. The morsels possessed a lovely chewiness somewhere between rubbery and tender that made me happily aware I’m eating octopus. I can’t guarantee, however, it will always be made fuming and spicy like the way I had it. Not too long ago, Armnius served it cold with lemon and olive oil, which wouldn’t be the first time he changed his mind on things.
But as long as this place remains a Spanish restaurant, there should always be three kinds of croquetas—with Serrano ham, chicken or goat cheese. All are breaded and deep-fried to crispy orbs that bleed a béchamel lava when you crack into them. It almost doesn’t matter which one you choose; the fillings become hard to taste above the ooze of the milky roux and the contrasting crunch of its shell.
If you want to taste meat, then get the meatballs better known as albondigas de carne, in which four loosely packed meat spheres fall apart in a sauce made of fresh tomatoes. This dish is borderless. The flavor profile is similar to the meatball I once had at Zena’s Lebanese in Orange but also something my own Indonesian mother makes at home. That is to say, it’s pure comfort food.
Unless you’re feeling spendy, it may be unnecessary to try any of the ibérico charcuterie, which comes from a specific breed of pig that once roamed free in an oak forest and fed on its acorns. At Pan y Vino, samplings of it take up an entire menu page to describe and costs up to $65.
To fill out the rest of your meal for less money, you could get the paellita, a small serving of paella with slightly overcooked shrimp, chicken and mussels. On my visit, the rice was gummy and didn’t have the coveted crusty bottom, but that’s to be expected since it’s not actually cooked in the pan it’s served in.
When your sangria glass has nothing left but the fruit, order the crema Catalana. I’m not sure it’s all that different from the crème brûlée Armnius used to serve at Le French Touch, but get it anyway. You’ll need something sweet to take the bitterness out of the drive back to the mainland, which, if you go on a Saturday night, will take an hour from this point to the Triangle in Costa Mesa.
Pan y Vino, 704 E. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 873-5870; pan-y-vino.com. Open Mon.-Wed., 5-9 p.m.; Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tapas, $6-$19. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.