Richmond’s newest tapas bar has potential but needs supervision

He is good at both. He has operated successful restaurants in Spain and in Charlottesville (he married a U.Va. grad); he has played professional soccer and now coaches the Richmond Strikers’ girls’ soccer teams.

These days, soccer is capturing most of his time, which would appear to be a classic example of bad timing. You don’t open a restaurant and then disappear every evening to play or coach a game.


Too bad, because this town could use a good tapas bar, and there is no reason to believe that one that gets plenty of hands-on attention would not flourish. As it is, the closest really good, exciting tapas bar is Jaleo in Washington.

The food at Emilo’s isn’t bad. In fact, it can be fine. The menu is authentic enough, with a dozen tapas and that signature Spanish delight — paella Valencia. And certainly the price is right.

What is missing is, well, Emilio. In four visits, I saw him only once.

Most of the cooking is done by a guy named Tom who has been cooking on-and-off here for 20 years. And for most of those two decades, under such names as Rick’s American Café and the La-La Café, the cuisine of the house was bar food.

Which shows.

Emilio’s is basically a bar that serves Spanish-style or Spanish-named food.

And what’s with the student-looking bartenders and wait staff? Aren’t there any Spanish or Hispanic people in Richmond?


Now to the food.

The tapas, or bar snacks, come in two sizes, tapas ($3) and regular ($6).

I developed a taste for ceviche while living in Miami, and Emilio’s version isn’t bad — julienned tilapia, marinated in lime, red onions and spicy pepper. It would be better with more fish, but at the price, it’s hard to expect more.

Another of my favorites, chorizo espanoles, or Spanish-style sausages, is served flaming, and is appropriately spicy.

A winner for those of us who like anchovies is boquerones con vinagre — white anchovies marinated with fresh garlic, parsley and a vinaigrette sauce.

The meatballs were a bit dry; the tortillas were a little soggy. The fried calamari was just spicy enough.

If the tapas portions are a little skimpy, the entrees more than make up for them. A single portion of paella easily satisfies two. It comes in four varieties — chicken, seafood, chicken and seafood, and vegetarian — and takes 45 minutes to prepare. You can call ahead.

We shared the combination ($17) and were confronted with 16 mussels, five large shrimp, four large clams, two chicken thighs, a mound of saffron rice and strips of red and green peppers, and green beans. A couple of the shrimp were mushy, and overall the dish was lacking the broth from freshly cooked mussels and clams.

Other entrees include fresh cod, tuna and salmon ($12 each); a fish stew that includes half a lobster tail, clams and shrimp in a white wine brandy sauce ($25); leg of lamb ($12); a couple steaks ($13); and three versions of chicken ($10 and $11). All dishes come with rice, steamed vegetables and a half-loaf of bread.

The pollo al cardinal was a tasty meld of chicken breast stuffed with garlic, parsley, ham and cheese in a mushroom cream sauce.

The salmon was cooked just right and smothered with a cream pink sauce with white wine.

I am always suspicious of a place that offers an abundance of “fresh” seafood — especially at those prices — when it has few customers. But Emilio assured me that he overcomes that problem by buying in small amounts, four times a week. “When I’m out, I’m out,” he said.

What this place needs is not Emilio “out,” but “in.” Perhaps when soccer season ends, if it ever does, Emilio’s will reach its potential as an authentic Spanish tapas bar.

Until then, adios. S

Emilio’s Tapas Bar ($$)
1847 W. Broad St.
Dinner only: Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday bar opens at 4:30 p.m., tapas available until 2 a.m.; Sunday 5:30 p.m.- midnight..


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