Paella may be synonymous with Spanish cuisine in the rest of the world, but, as I learned during the two decades I spent living there, most Spaniards hankering for the real thing look for it only along the southeastern coast of the country from which it hails. That’s because paella—actually the Valencian word for the low-sided pan used to cook the dish—is a regional specialty, whose 500-year-old pedigree, culinary tradition, and, most importantly, ingredients, are inextricably linked to that Mediterranean region.
Paella comes in many varieties: vegetable, chicken, seafood, and paella “mixta” (containing both meat and seafood), but the most famous iteration is paella Valenciana, a classic dish that builds on a simple tomato and garlic “sofrito” (base of sautéed vegetables), with rabbit and chicken pieces browned in Spanish olive oil, three kinds of local beans, saffron, smoked pimentón and, sometimes, snails. It is peasant food of the most satisfying sort, made up entirely of seasonal products that come together in simplicity and harmony, paying tribute to the essence of the dish: the Bomba rice cultivated along those very shores.
A dish that conveys such a strong sense of place is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate beyond Spanish borders (although countless cooks, myself included, have tried). Recently, Ultreia, the Iberian-inspired restaurant inside Union Station, endeavored to do so, offering “paella on the patio” during the Saturday morning Union Station Farmers Market. Cooked outside over a gas flame, Ultreia’s massive paella is an eye-catching spectacle; you can enjoy a $10 plate from a patio table or take one to-go to nosh on as you shop.
Despite Ultreia’s considerable efforts to create a faithful interpretation of the dish, it missed the mark—at least on the day I tried it. Ultreia’s version was chock full of spicy chorizo from Bilbao, shrimp, chicken, pickled gigante beans, peppers, onions, garlic, mussels, sherry from Andalucía… the add-ons went on and on. All were beautiful ingredients, but such quantity and variety resulted in an overwrought, though intensely flavorful, dish. And the short-grained Spanish Calasparra rice, which should have been the centerpiece, felt like a meager afterthought (though it did have a fantastic layer of the sought-after, toasted rice “socarrat” on the bottom).
That said, Ultreia’s paella does strike a triumphant note by embracing the spirit of a true Spanish paella, if not its literal recreation. All of the vegetables were sourced from the adjacent market, lending the dish a rich local identity—a Denver paella, if you will—and the sense of place that paella typifies.
One other aspect rings true: Spanish paellas are typically enjoyed in celebration with family and friends, and there may be no better way to spend a sunny Saturday morning than snacking on paella while perched on Ultreia’s charming patio, watching the market unfold around you.
You can also bring the paella party home via the restaurant’s catering service. Book yourself a fiesta and Ultreia staff members will cook your choice of paella in your kitchen (or on your patio), and supplement it with tapas, a jamón Iberico carving station, drinks, live Spanish music, and whatever else you need for an Old World experience under the Denver sky.
Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop; Paella on the Patio typically begins at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays; call (720) 608-8559 to book a paella party.