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South End tapas wars: Barcelona Wine Bar vs. Toro vs. Estragon

Robert Neubecker

Barcelona Wine Bar opened on Tremont Street in December, making it the South End’s third tapas bar. How much tortilla espanola and sangria can one neighborhood consume?

A lot. Quoted a 45-minute wait on a recent evening, we stand for twice that long. Tipplers at the horseshoe marble bar offer advice on what to order from executive chef Steven Brand’s menu. A staff member appears occasionally, offering a tray of little bites. A love-struck couple could talk for hours and does, at a table that shimmers with possibility: It could be ours. It should be ours.

Why are so many people waiting? There is the thrill of the new place, in the former Sibling Rivalry space, and the warm, modern design: old-school library knickknacks, mod wood shelving, white subway tile. And Barcelona’s reputation precedes it. In addition to the South End restaurant, this small chain includes a popular branch in Brookline that opened two years ago, as well as outposts in Georgia, D.C., and Connecticut (where the original opened in 1996 in South Norwalk).

But mostly there is this: Walk over to Toro and the wait is just as long. Why bother leaving? Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Washington Street tapas bar has basically had a waiting list since it opened in 2005. (The duo opened another Toro in New York in 2013. It’s bigger, but the original is better.) Even the relatively calm Estragon (it means “tarragon”) on Harrison, which arrived on the scene in 2008, is loud and crowded on a recent Thursday.

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So where are the tapas-mad hordes best off spending their time? We pit gambas vs. gambas, paella vs. paella, in a battle for neighborhood supremacy.

Barcelona Wine Bar: The Crowd Pleaser

Paella salvaje is meaty and flavorful, laden with chorizo, morcilla, pork belly, and chickpeas.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The food: We start with a classic, tortilla espanola ($4.50). It is more emphatically eggy than some; a dollop of chive sour cream adds a layer of onion-y flavor missing from the tortilla itself. I don’t want much from gambas al ajillo, just tender, juicy shrimp and plenty of garlic. The version here ($9.50) is nicely cooked, but more garlic and salt would be welcome. The bikini sandwich ($8.50) is Catalonia’s version of ham and cheese. It is toasty and rich, with plenty of truffle flavor but not enough jamon serrano.

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Paella is offered at all the South End tapas bars. Here, the paella salvaje ($24.50 per person) is satisfyingly meaty and flavorful, laden with chorizo, morcilla, pork belly, and chickpeas. The best part of paella is the crispy grains scraped up from the pan, and we find some nice crunch around the edges. At the center, the rice is lukewarm. No surprise. By the time many dishes reach us, they have cooled to room temperature.

The chocolate sauce that comes with churros ($7) is so thin it barely adheres to the dough. Better to finish with some of Barcelona’s impressive selection of meats and cheeses.

Barcelona’s red sangria ($6.50) falls on the fruitier side, but not overly so. It can also be made with an herbal syrup, which either has no flavor or the bartenders forget to add it.

The tortilla espanola is emphatically eggy, with a dollop of chive sour cream adding a layer of onion-y flavor.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

The experience: For a new restaurant, Barcelona handles the crush reasonably well. Staffers remain friendly rather than flustered, and the passed snacks put a little something in the stomach. No one should feel rushed while eating, but a gentle “Can I get you anything else?” might help lingerers move on. After a long wait, the party after ours on the list is seated just before us, at a better table. It’s enough to set off the testier members of the party, who must be restrained from hangry tweeting. A complimentary dish of spinach and chickpeas helps.

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In summary: This is a chain that works at not feeling like one, stylish and lively, the menu peppered with enough local ingredients (Eva’s Garden kale, Sparrow Arc carrots) to make it seem of the place. But Barcelona also offers some of the comforts of chain dining, such as a standardized notion of service and the corporate structure to implement it. The people behind it are pros. The downside is that dishes can have a little less individual personality and flavors can get smoothed out — the feedback of many combines to make something palatable for all, for better and worse.

Gambas al ajillo are nicely cooked, tender, juicy shrimp.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

525 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-266-2600, www.barcelonawinebar.com/southend.htm

Estragon Tapas Bar: The Neighborhood Character

Paella mixta is heaped with shrimp, calamari, mussels, and one piece of chicken, the grains of rice infused with the flavor of the sea. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The food: The tortilla espanola ($6) is a more rustic, traditional, and potato-centric version than at Barcelona. Gambas al ajillo ($11.50) have the correctly stiff dose of garlic. The small shrimp are nicely cooked but swimming in too much liquid. Pa amb tomaquet ($7), the simple and ubiquitous Catalan snack of bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, is a deconstructed, DIY version. This would be more fun if the tomato weren’t a pale winter gobstopper. Other dishes are better: fried artichoke hearts ($9.50); pringa ($8), a meat-topped toast enriched with bone marrow; piquillos rellenos ($12), red peppers filled with braised goat. Paella mixta ($29) is heaped with shrimp, calamari, and mussels (and one piece of chicken), the grains of rice infused with the flavor of the sea, with plenty of crunchy bits. Churros ($7) are so hard we can’t bite them, but sangria ($8) is a good, classic take, emphasizing red wine.

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Tortilla espanola is a rustic, traditional, potato-centric version. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The experience: The room is decorated with Art Deco chandeliers and gold-accented floral wallpaper, with couches to curl up in and big tables to accommodate Boston Medical Center employees and families with kids. The opinionated servers are a stitch, and so is the campy cocktail menu. (“Sure, she’s a little bitter, but who can blame her?,” it inquires about a Campari-based drink.)

In summary: This is a tapas bar run by a Madrid native, Julio de Haro, and it feels like some quirky spot one might run across in a neighborhood in Spain not usually frequented by tourists. The food sounds intriguing but can be uneven. The experience, however, is fun from start to finish. Slightly more out of the way on Harrison, Estragon is the neighborhood’s less-crowded, more-relaxed tapas bar.

Gambas al ajillo have the correctly stiff dose of garlic.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

700 Harrison Ave., South End, Boston, 617-266-0443,

www.estragontapas.com

Toro: The Gold Standard

Paella Valenciana has a good distribution of both meat and seafood. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/file

The food: Tortilla espanola ($5) finds balance between potato and egg, with a nice amount of onion flavor. Gambas al ajillo ($14) are coated in a thick, red, spicy sauce, tasty but unexpected, and far too salty (a not uncommon issue here). It is impossible to come to Toro and not order the grilled corn ($8) with alioli and cotija cheese. Everywhere on the menu, deliciousness beckons, from braised beef tongue with lentils and salsa verde ($12) to a pressed uni sandwich ($8). Paella Valenciana ($22 for a half-order) is a fine version of the traditional dish, with a good distribution of both meat and seafood, all well cooked; it offers a satisfying interplay between crisp and soft rice. Churros ($7) are the best in the neighborhood. While Barcelona’s sangria leans toward fruit and Estragon’s toward wine, Toro’s falls right in the middle, nicely balanced.

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Tortilla espanola finds balance between potato and egg. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The experience: The crowded space is small, lined with bricks and mirrors, a fireplace at the back and an open kitchen to the side (it can get unpleasantly smoky). The bar is several people deep. But staffers don’t lose sight of where waiting guests are in the fray; just when patience has unspooled to the end, a gift snack arrives, along with a reassurance that it won’t be long. To avoid the crush, weeknights and lunch are a good bet.

In summary: This is the place that started many Bostonians’ love affair with tapas. It is still going strong. The menu pushes the envelope with house inventions that taste as good as they sound, and traditional dishes are delivered with flair. The bar program is excellent too. For tapas in the South End, Toro is most worth the wait.

Gambas al ajillo are coated in a thick, red, spicy sauce, tasty but unexpected.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

1704 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-536-4300,

www.toro-restaurant.com/boston


Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.