Going Vegetarian in Tapas-Happy Barcelona

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The escalivada, a Catalonian specialty that’s vegetarian friendly, at Sésamo.Credit Seth Kugel

I’m not a vegetarian, but I play one in this column.

Shortly after landing in Barcelona earlier this month, I met up for lunch with a friend of a friend, who asked what I wanted to eat. Not in town to write about food and not feeling particularly contrarian, I said what I’d guess many travelers to Spain would say: “Tapas.” He took me to Ciudad Condal, a spot on the Rambla de Catalunya long ago flooded by tourists but still good enough to attract locals ready to wade around them.

Behind the long bar was a feast: trays loaded with Iberian ham and chorizo and octopus and razor clams. Normally, in this kind of situation my mouth would water and my desire to gorge would trump all other brain function, including empathy. But this time, for some reason (jet lag?), my mind turned to others. “What a nightmare this would be for my vegetarian friends,” I thought.

And so I spontaneously decided to spend my four days in town as a vegetarian. More problematically, a tapas-loving vegetarian in this pig-and-shellfish crazy city, is a bit like a rock fanatic who won’t listen to guitars.

For the purposes of my meat-defying efforts, I defined tapas broadly to include montaditos (mounted on bread), Basque pintxos (skewered with a toothpick) and platillos, another common item on Barcelona menus, which literally mean “small plates.” (That’s how we often translate tapas into English, anyway.) I also decided to add Argentine-style empanadas, which are sold across the city and would be a crime for vegetarians to ignore.

I can summarize the difficulty involved in this decision in the blank stare I got when I told the bartender at Cervecería Catalana that I didn’t eat meat or fish. I’d guess vegetarians know it well, and vegans better — something between “Well, then what are you doing here?” and “Are you even a human being?” I settled for a small plate of…

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