I always love exploring Barcelona’s Raval; it’s constantly changing. Every time I go to the neighbourhood I find new ideas, new languages, new shops… but not always new restaurants. Or at least, not ones worth getting excited about. Barcelona’s most multicultural barrio has not yet produced any truly outstanding ethnic restaurants (that I’m aware of) but you can at least get a decent schawarma there (although the Barri Gòtic, across Las Ramblas, is probably where you’ll find the very best). Now A Tu Bola ( C\Hospital 78, +34 722706650, Facebook ) has opened with a fresh twist on the street food staple of falafels that might just make it my favourite Raval refuelling stop.
The hook here is the freshness of the food: everything is made right in front of you, right that second. But that’s not the secret of A Tu Bola’s immediate success; the real reason that this small restaurant and take-away has been filling up every day for four months is the skill and passion of its Israeli chef/co-owner, Shira. Working from a small kitchen right in the centre of the brick-walled dining area, she turns humble balls of fried, almost entirely local ingredients into taste sensations by treating them with the same love and attention to detail you’d find in a fine dining restaurant.
The harissa is made by hand with dried peppers brought over personally from Tel Aviv by family members, creating a spicy but complex condiment that’s way better than the usual one-note hot sauce of the same name. Other sauces here are jacked with salted lemons, washed and chopped, with an amazing salty-sour flavour. The buns are made in-house but the pita bread is imported from a specialist in Israel to make sure that it’s exactly the right thickness, etc., etc.
You can choose to enjoy all of this in one of a few different ways: there’s a 3-ball plate, served with salad, for €7.80, and a 2-ball pita for €5.50. These are also available as part of various lunchtime menu deals. You only get to try one of the ball flavours, however: there’s no mix-and-match allowed. As a result, I highly recommend the mini-balls (€2.80 each) in appropriately mini buns.
I left my choice in the hands of Shira who made me three of these. First was the vegetarian sweet potato and mushroom ball with apple salad. It was heavenly. Layers of flavour, melting and combining; richness, sweetness, sharpness… it was outstanding.
The smoked chicken with bacon and pineapple bola, served with a lemon and coriander leaf sauce, that was served next had me worried. That’s not a combination I’d have expected to work but it proved me completely wrong. I didn’t get much in the way of smokiness from the chicken but the rest was a gustatory fireworks display that left me happy and surprised.
The third ball, Asian-style pork (i.e. with soy and wasabi) and courgettes didn’t live up to the standard of the other two. It really would have benefitted from some more chilli kick: Catalan capiscum-aversion is, yet again, responsible for the blandification of an otherwise good dish. That said, it’s easy enough to add one of Shira’s hot sauces to get the desired effect.
To wash all this down I had a Dougall’s 942 Pale age. Despite the name, this is a Spanish beer and it is really worth seeking out. It’s hoppy and fruity, with a great dry, bitter finish.
Finally I tried one of the desserts which was, as you can probably guess by now, home-made. Another ball, but chocolate this time. I’d already smashed it with the spoon by the time I remembered to take a snap. Dark chocolate, cream, walnuts, cookies… like all of A Tu Bola’s food it was simple, string, bold and very, very good.
As usual, full disclosure—I didn’t pay for this meal but I’ll certainly be paying for all of the rest I’ll undoubtely have there when I’m not wearing my food-journalist hat. A Tu Bola is pretty much the perfect place to get a quick lunch or a snack if you’re shopping in Barcelona city centre.