How to Make Paella and Where to Get Your Paella Fix Around the Bay Area

Paella is a traditional rice dish made with seafood and saffron. Photo: Angela Johnston
Paella is a traditional rice dish made with seafood and saffron. See this recipe below! Photo: Angela Johnston

After my family took a trip to Spain five years ago, we fell in love with paella-- a popular Spanish saffron-infused rice dish originating from the rice growing region of Valencia. When we got back to the San Francisco Bay Area, my dad immediately purchased a 15-inch steel paella pan, ordered some traditional bomba rice from an online Spanish grocery store, and started to perfect his version of this deliciously versatile dish.

Traditionally, there are three different types of paella: Valencia paella (paella valenciana), seafood paella (paella de marisco), and a mix of seafood like shrimp and mussels and meat (paella mixta). However, even in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve discovered many different varieties and unique takes on the dish-- some that include eggs, summer squash and beans, or paella flavored and colored with squid ink (called arros negre or arroz negro on most menus). Authentic Valencia paella, believed to be the original, usually has chicken and rabbit, snails, green vegetables, beans, and is seasoned with saffron, rosemary and lemon.

The way to judge a great paella from a good paella is by the spice, the rice, and how it looks and tastes on the bottom. Paella should use saffron as a flavoring, which gives the rice a strong taste and deep yellow color. Some chefs also use pimentón, or smoked paprika, which also gives the rice a rich smoky taste. Bomba rice is also essential to making a perfect pan of paella. The short grain Spanish rice absorbs up to twice as much liquid as other varieties, soaking up the flavor from the aromatic broth it bubbles in. Some restaurants will use arborio rice, or risotto, which doesn’t give the same, desired effect. Paella is traditionally cooked slowly over an open flame, and in an expertly cooked pan of paella, the rice will have a crunchy, crispy caramelized bottom, called socarrat. This delicious thin layer of crunchiness is achieved by not stirring the paella once you add the rice, and making sure it slowly simmers over a hot flame. It’s difficult to find restaurants serve paella with socarrat because it would take a long time to cook it this way.

Listed below is a selection of Spanish restaurants and tapas bars that serve paella around the Bay Area. Most serve a variation of seafood and mixed paella and serve it in a pan on the table. Be sure to bring someone else with you to enjoy the dish-- most restaurants offer a minimum serving of two and the prices usually start at around $20.

Paella from Iberia restaurant in Menlo Park. Photo: Angela Johnston
Paella from Iberia restaurant in Menlo Park. Photo: Angela Johnston

Iberia Restaurant
Address: [Map]
1026 Alma Street, Menlo Park, CA 94025
Ph: 650-325-8981
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 12PM-2PM; 5:30PM-10PM; Sun. 5:30PM-10PM

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Located in a beautiful brick building in Menlo Park, directly across the street from the Caltrain station, Iberia offers a menu full of authentic Spanish dishes as well as a separate tapas menu. You can eat in their dining room, or in the tapas bar that has leather couches, a fireplace, and an outdoor patio. The paella runs $29.75 per order making it some of the priciest I’ve found in the Bay, but it’s worth the high price. It’s topped with fresh squid, mussels, clams and shrimp, as well as chicken and beef. The rice is flavorful, but unfortunately it doesn’t have much of the tasty socarrat bottom. It takes about 30 minutes to prepare, and you have to order at least two servings, making one pan cost over $70 without tax or tip.

Paella from Cascal Restaurant in Mountain View. Photo courtesy of Cascal.
Paella from Cascal Restaurant in Mountain View. Photo courtesy of Cascal.

Cascal
Address: [Map]
400 Castro St, Mountain View, CA 94041
Ph: 650-940-9500
Hours: Mon.-Sun. 11:30AM-11PM
Facebook: Cascal Restaurant

Castro Street in downtown Mountain View is lined with restaurants featuring cuisines from around the world. Cascal adds its own latin-fusion to the mix, offering a selection of traditional Spanish dishes and tapas, and others that are more Cuban or Mexican influenced. Their house paella ($23-$44) is my favorite. It features spanish chorizo, and has a strong smoked-paprika flavor. They offer a seafood paella ($24-46), a vegetarian ($12.50-19.50), and a rustic paella ($23-$44) that comes with lamb, chorizo, chicken, and artichokes.

Esperpento and Picaro

These two Spanish restaurants in the Mission are owned by Luis Muela Palomar. Their menus differ only slightly, but they offer a great deal on their paella. If you go to Picaro or Esperpento on a Monday night, and you buy pan of paella for two, four or six people, you will also get free sangria and a free dessert to share. The two-person plate of paella costs $24 and comes with either seafood, or a mixture of seafood and chicken. The seafood and rice in both Picaro and Esperpento's paella weren't as flavorful as ingredients in the other paellas I tried, but I was surprised to see and taste some crunchy socarrat on the sides and bottom of the pan. Also, the prices at these two restaurants are some of the most affordable around the Bay. There are a few other San Francisco restaurants that offer paella on their menus like Alegrias in the Marina, Coqueta in the Ferry Building, Zarzuela in Russian Hill, and B44 in the Financial District.

The mixed paella at Esperpento. Photo: Angela Johnston
The mixed paella at Esperpento. Photo: Angela Johnston

Esperpento
Address: [Map]
295 22nd St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Ph: 415-282-8867
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:00AM-3PM; 5:00PM-11PM; Sat. 12PM-11PM; Sun. 12PM-10PM
Facebook: Esperpento

The paella at Picaro. Photo: Angela Johnston
The paella at Picaro. Photo: Angela Johnston

Picaro
Address: [Map]
3120 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Ph: 415-431-4089
Hours: Sun.-Thur. 11:30PM-10PM; Fri.-Sat. 11:30PM-11PM
Facebook: Picaro Tapas Restaurant

Duende’s Paella Carne with pork belly and rosemary. Photo: Angela Johnston
Duende’s Paella Carne with pork belly and rosemary. Photo: Angela Johnston

Duende
Address: [Map]
486 19th Street, Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: 510-893-0174
Hours: Sun., Mon., Wed, Thurs., 5:30PM-9:30PM; Fri.-Sat. 5:30PM-11PM
Facebook: Duende

Duende’s paellas are more unique and expensive than others in the Bay Area, but they still stay true to tradition, while experimenting with new toppings and flavors. The Paella Carne ($40-76) has pork belly, chorizo picante, manilla clams, and rosemary, and was gone almost as soon as the waiter placed it down on our table. The rosemary flavor didn’t compete with the saffron and paprika spices, the pork belly was crispy juicy, and the paella had a sweet and crispy soccarat on the bottom. You can also order Paella De Verduras ($36-$68), vegetarian paella, with farm eggs, broccoli rabe, asparagus, and heirloom tomatoes, and Arroz Negros ($40-76) with rock fish, tomatoes, allioli, and squid ink. Another dish prepared similarly to paella called Fideua, is also worth a try at Duende ($40-76). Fideua is a traditional Catalan dish made with small bits of pasta noodle browned with a small amount of liquid in a paella pan. It’s almost like a cross between paella and risotto, and Duende’s take on the dish has duck breast, grapes, olives, and kale. The restaurant also has a small bodega on one side of the building, and if you’re lucky a live jazz band may be playing. Reservations may be necessary. You can also get your paella fix in the East Bay at Venga Paella in Jack London Square.

Duende’s Fideua with duck breast and grapes. Photo: Angela Johnston
Duende’s Fideua with duck breast and grapes. Photo: Angela Johnston

Recipe: Homemade Paella

Paella isn’t too difficult to make at home, as long as you have access to a large 13-15 inch pan or oven-proof skillet. It’s best to make it on the barbeque.

Homemade Paella. Photo: Angela Johnston
Homemade Paella. Photo: Angela Johnston

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Serves 8-10

    Ingredients:
  • 2 cups Spanish paella rice (Bomba or Callespara)
  • 2 Tbsp smoked Spanish paprika (Pimenton)
  • 1/4 tsp saffron
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Two medium onions, chopped
  • Two red peppers, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Small can diced tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • Sliced chorizo, 1/4 to 1/2 lb
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas or green beans
  • Fish stock (2 to 3 cups per cup of rice)
  • 24 approx each of clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp
    Instructions:
  1. First, prepare the sofrito base over a stove. Add olive oil to paella pan, and saute the chopped onions and red peppers until soft. Add garlic and cook for 3 minutes more. Then add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 Tbsp pimenton, and sliced chorizo. Cook slowly until thick, about 15-20 min.
  2. In the meantime, steam clams and mussels and remove most from shells, leaving some in shell for garnish. Reserve broth for the fish stock.
  3. Add rice and fish stock ( and stir to combine. Move to the BBQ, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add peas or beans, shrimp and scallops, and cook on medium heat until seafood is nearly done, about 7 minutes. Don’t stir! Turn over seafood to cook on both sides.
  5. As the liquid is absorbed and the rice softens, you should begin to notice a nice socarrat or crust on the bottom of the pan. You can check with a fork and if required, turn down the heat or adjust the position of the pan to ensure even browning.
  6. When rice is almost al dente and socarrat is ready, removed from heat and add already- cooked clams and mussels to warm by covering with foil. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
  7. Let guests serve themselves directly from the pan set in the middle of the table. Great also with Sriracha or green Tabasco sauce.

    How to Make Fish Stock

  • You’ll need 2 cups of stock for every cup of Valencia rice, 3 cups if you use Bomba rice. Don’t use too much stock or it will be mushy. The rice should be a little bit underdone when you remove from the heat to let sit.
  • Use reserved clam and mussel cooking liquid or shrimp bouillon cubes.
  • First simmer saffron in 1/4 cup dry white wine until it turns bright yellow
  • Add enough water and fish cubes or broth to make to desired quantity. Add remaining 1 Tbsp pimenton.

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