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.