Don't tell Maria Scalise there's something she can't do.
When Maria was 2 years old, she got polio. It happened a few years before the vaccine reached Spain, her home country. Doctors told her she wouldn't be able to walk or to give birth.
Now, 56 years later, Maria walks and has given birth to five children.
Last year, Maria decided she wanted to open a traditional Spanish restaurant in the Old Market. After she looked at several locations, her son Robert, a DJ at the former Denim and Diamonds, told her the owners of the now-closed club were looking to sell.
In September, Maria opened her restaurant, Maria Sangria, near the corner of 11th and Farnam Streets in that old club location.
The menu there is an eclectic mix of traditional American bar food and Spanish specialties. On the Spanish side are tapas, small plates featuring Spanish appetizers; traditional entrees; and three different types of paella. On the American side are standards such as chicken wings, burgers and tacos.
Maria cooks the American food in one set of fryers filled with vegetable oil and the Spanish food in a separate area where the fryers are filled with Spanish olive oil. On two recent visits, we stuck mostly with the Spanish side of her menu, and we weren't disappointed.
Maria's family did most of the renovations inside the large space. The walls of the restaurant are covered with framed posters of bullfights, town dances and traditional Spanish celebrations. Maria's father collected the posters for years. A fishing net, in tribute to Maria's uncles who were fishermen, decorates one wall.
Near the dance floor on the north end hang three traditional mantillas. Women wear the silk veils or shawls over their head and shoulders during Holy Week. Hand-painted murals cover the front of the restaurant's windows.
The restaurant has dancing on two floors on Friday and Saturday nights. Spanish music fills the first floor while a Top-40 DJ spins records in the second-floor lounge.
We first visited during Lent, and tried mostly seafood. Tapas at Maria Sangria aren't served on the tiny plates we expected. The plates were the size of entrees, and that amount was enough for two.
The Patatas Bravas, $4.95, is a plate filled with fried cubed potatoes mixed in a spicy sauce. It's simple, but it was also one of the highlights of our meal. The potatoes were similar to the country style that is served for breakfast, and the sauce reminded me of spicy Buffalo you find on wings.
Maria told me in an interview later that she mixes hot sauce with ranch dressing and adds the sauce along with salt and pepper to the fried potatoes. My wife and I finished off the potatoes and wished for more.
We tried two of Maria's shrimp tapas. The Gambas Revosada, $10.25, was a plate of flour-battered, shell-on shrimp that were lightly fried. The shrimp were served with a small bowl of honey for dipping. My wife peeled her shrimp; I ate them with the shells on.
The flavor of the batter comes through more if you eat the shrimp with the shell. Dipping the peeled shrimp in the honey is good as well.
Maria says eating the shells is the traditional way of enjoying the dish but she has seen customers peel them as well. We both enjoyed the mixture of the salty shrimp and sweet honey sauce, and in a way, the flavors reminded us of sopaipillas, a sweet Mexican deep-fried pastry.
Gambas Al Pil-Pil, $9.99, translates to “sizzling shrimp.” The dish is served steaming hot and the shrimp are sautéed in garlic, oil, wine and salt. The ten pieces were peeled and not overcooked, and they tasted fresh. The best part was sopping up the light brown garlic sauce with a piece of French bread.
My wife ordered two of the Maria supreme tacos, $7.99, one fried and one soft-shell.
The supreme tacos are filled with seasoned beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream with a side of salsa. My wife preferred the fried taco — everything is better fried, she said.
Maria said she gets many compliments on her tacos, which makes her laugh because she'd never heard of tacos, let alone cooked one, before she came to America in 1975.
Maria said she tries to get all of her ingredients from local vendors, many of whom are near the Old Market. That's where she gets both the seafood and salsa she serves.
I also ordered the catfish meal, $10.99. Breaded in corn meal and fried, the two large pieces of fish come served with French fries or Spanish rice. Again, the fish was very fresh and only lightly fried. My oldest son also loved the catfish, which is seasoned with just salt and pepper. I had the basic, crinkle-cut French fries.
The restaurant has a small kids' menu, and our waitress recommended that our two boys share one order of the spaghetti with meat sauce, $5.99. It was good advice because the meal had plenty of food for two. French fries and juice come with the meal.
As the name of the restaurant would suggest, Maria serves her share of sangria. She makes a large batch every day using a family recipe that dates back 60 years. Ingredients include red wine, fresh oranges, three kinds of apples, pineapple and a couple shots of brandy. Maria said they rarely have any left over at the end of the night.
My wife tried a glass and described it as sweet with a little kick at the end. She said it tasted like the mixture was made with a good bottle of red wine.
We called ahead before our second visit to order paella, which takes at least 25 minutes to prepare. Maria has three different paella choices: a mix of seafood and meat, all seafood or chicken.
We ordered the seafood version, Paella de Marisco, which is $38.99 but serves two. Maria uses two types of clams, mussels, two kinds of shrimp and squid in her seafood paella. The jasmine rice is prepared first and then the sautéed seafood is mixed in with four whole shrimp on top of the finished product. The paella is served with a salad and rolls made locally at Rotella's.
It was the best paella we have had since we lived in New Mexico. The rice tasted like the ocean and was perfectly prepared. The abundant seafood was seasoned, but not too spicy. I thought the whole shrimp on the top were a little overcooked but, for the most part, the paella was nearly perfect. The dish easily fed the two of us.
We ordered only one tapas dish during our second visit, and we chose well. Datiles con Bacon ($4.50) is simply six whole dates that are pitted, wrapped with bacon and fried. Maria said her family would have this dish several times a week. The sweet dates matched well with the salty crunch of the bacon.
For dessert, we tried the homemade flan topped with whipped cream, cinnamon and sugar. Maria said she hand-mixes the egg yolk and sugar, sets it in the mold and bakes it in the oven. We both enjoyed the sweet dessert, especially with the whipped cream mixed in with each bite. The creamy dish was the perfect ending to our meal.
Maria said she wants to bring a small part of her homeland to the Old Market through her food. But she also wants to bring a bit of the culture, which dictates eating meals slowly, family style, with lots of conversation.
At Maria's, we got that message loud and clear.