In 2014, Nuria de la Vega moved to the U.S. after meeting her husband-to-be, Brendan Cmolik, while studying in Madrid. When it came time for them to get married, their new family and friends traveled overseas, back to de la Vega's hometown and the family's vineyard in northern Spain, to watch them seal the deal. What de la Vega did not expect was for her brother-in-law, Mark Barilla, to become obsessed with Spanish croquetas and only months later convince the newlyweds to start a business with him. That business is the Croqueteria (216-512-1880, thecroqueteria.com).
"Every restaurant he went to, he was always looking in the menu for croqueta, which is a ball of Spanish tapas," de la Vega explains. "It's on every menu you can think of, from bars to high-end restaurants." Croquettes, which are popular in various forms all over the world, are breaded and fried balls stuffed with all matter of local ingredients. "With me being homesick sometimes, I need it," she admits. "It made it easy for me to decide to open a market for [croquetas] here."
While not offering the traditional tapas experience, the Croqueteria has been connecting with clientele at the Cleveland Flea and other outdoor markets. For each event, they prepare one meat croqueta, usually bacon; one vegetarian, often with mushrooms; and one seafood version, usually the classic gambas al ajillo or garlic shrimp. "It's the best vehicle for us to introduce Northeast Ohio to the flavors of Spain," she explains, emphasizing that it's all about a balance.
"Everyone in the U.S. likes bacon," she teases. "We wanted to use ingredients where people feel comfortable. You have to want it, keep it to things that people here know about. We also wanted to stay true to what Spain's cuisine is like." One look at the Croqueteria's Instagram account, filled with snapshots of sausage, salami and ham, and you'll appreciate a Spaniard's obsession with meat. In the future, the owners hope to expand flavors to red pepper and leek; squid in ink, which produces a black color; or a breakfast maple sausage. Also on the horizon is a chocolate dessert croqueta.
They keep things balanced when it comes to side dishes too. This season it's salmorejo de córdoba, a pureed tomato sauce with vinegar, olive oil, bread, salt and pepper. "Salmorejo has a spicy vinegary flavor that goes super well with the croqueta, similar to something like a tomato salad. You need a balance. If it's fried food you need something light to go with it."
At the booth, you will see Cmolik dunking batches of croquetas to order in the fryer. They snap and crackle as the panko exterior browns and the filling warms. This is the last step in a process to make sure the rich bechamel interior is delivered as decadently as possible into the mouths of eager customers. It begins at Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen, where they rent space to mix the fillings and dough, let it settle, cut it into squares and then coat with panko. In the future, the owners hope to sell a frozen product to restaurants and grocery stores.
"So far I have met people from Chile, Peru and Cuba who know and enjoy the croquetas," Nuria says with pride. "It brought tears to my eyes because it's my country and I miss it, so to have people loving it as well, it makes it worth what we've invested."
While we currently have paella places in Cleveland, for those who have ventured overseas, these small tapas-themed bites are a big reminder of good times.