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Tiny New Tapas Bar Invigorates Nob Hill

Spanish tapas restaurants abound in the city, like Ramblas and Cha Cha Cha in the Mission, Gitane and B44 downtown, or Zarzuela in Nob Hill. But what has been missing is the true tapas bar that reflects what you’d experience in Madrid or Valencia: quaint enough for a few glasses of wine and a few bites before you head elsewhere for the next round. That is, until now, with the opening of Lalola. (It could easily be confused for another Spanish spot in the Marina, Laiola, but for the one switched letter in the name.)

Walk into Lalola and you enter what a friend who has lived in Spain promises is the closest thing to the real deal. The teeny tiny bar deceivingly feels bigger, opened up by wall to wall windows, a smattering of tall mahogany tables, marbled bar and barstool seating.

Lalola presents eye-catching flair from the stunning garnet red chandelier to hanging legs of Serrano ham above the semi-open kitchen. The space is warmed up by black and white photos. The only eyesore about Lalola, which it can’t help, is the unfortunate view of a Chinese laundromat from the bar, but a passing jangle of the cable car will draw your attention away. In place of what used to be a dismissible Chinese restaurant on this parking-averse edge between Nob Hill and Chinatown, Kevin Davis and his partner, Gonzalo del Castillo -- both lawyers with a passion for Spanish food -- have brought authenticity, style and energy to the space.

Dinnerware is held in a glass, and paper napkins are contained in dispensers, while menus are displayed in placards at the table, emphasizing the casual dining atmosphere.

Navigating the wine list is easy. Lalola offers an extremely well-priced, all-Spanish list of wines by the half glass, full glass, or bottle. Half glasses in the range of $3.50-$7 encourage sampling of the 20 or so wines, including a interesting blends like a Viura Malvasia, a Bodegas Muga Blanco or a white Txomin Etxaniz made with unfamiliar grape – Hondarrabi Zuri, from Basque country. Or you can always be safe and go with the delicious white or red sangrias ($7 a glass or $20 for a pitcher).

The menu is separated into 10 pintxos, 10 tapas and a few specials at a great value. The pintxos are perfect little snacks ($3 for one, or 2 for $5), with portions perfect for a party of two, while the tapas are on the heartier side ($7-$9).

We began with the patatas bravas ($3), piled cubes of crisp potatoes drizzled with aioli over a pool of red pepper sauce, and the Serrano charcuterie plate consisting of smoky, chorizo sausage, slices of Serrano ham, and lomo (cured pork loin) ($9). For a fried treat, we ordered the Serrano ham croquette ($3), a savory little torpedo of fried potato and ham. The tortilla Espagnola ($3) was also a delightful morsel of potato and sweet onion omelet chunks over a baguette slice.

Other pintxos are similarly blanketed over a baguette slice, such as the flavorful piquillo relleno, a vibrant red pepper stuffed with tuna, or the hamburgeusa Iberica, Spain’s beef and pork version of a burger over a thin slice of melted manchego cheese.

No self-respecting Iberian restaurant would leave off the classic dish of gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp). Lalola’s version ($7) is served up in a petite, sizzling cast iron skillet, perfectly sautéed with thin slices of garlic and dotted with paprika.

The chicken and pork paella ($9) is up to standard, but many other dishes far outshine this one, such as the huevos estrellados ($9) a breakfast lover’s dream composed of a base of the patatas, layered with Serrano ham and a fried egg on top.

Dessert selections include a lemon olive oil cake and chocolate bread pudding ($7), both of which are excellent. The bread pudding possesses more subtle cocoa than rich chocolate flavor, with a wonderful texture.

With all the talk of economy woes right now, Lalola couldn’t have opened at a better time. Lalola can’t go wrong, considering the winning combination of a relaxed bar atmosphere, reasonably priced wines accompanied by a value-minded enticing menu, and plans for streetside dining and brunch in fair weather. Just remember to catch a cab or the cable car instead of driving. As for those of us who live in the neighborhood: lucky us!

Nob Hill

Reservations Essential? No.