Nearly every culture has its fried-dough treat—zeppoles in Italy, beignets in France, funnel cakes among the old Pennsylvania Dutch—but I submit that the tastiest in all the world are churros from Spain, and especially churros con chocolate, as I recently discovered.
I was on a culinary rail trip from Lisbon to Barcelona that left me with a brief few hours to visit Madrid, so I had to make the most of my time. Using a Eurail Pass, I had overnighted on the Lusitania Trenhotel, one of a declining number of overnight trains that were once common throughout Europe. Immediately on my morning arrival at Madrid’s Atocha station, I set off by foot for my target: Chocolatería San Ginés, a 122-year-old institution serving the iconic churros con chocolate.Guests tear off bite-size pieces of churro, dip them into the warm chocolate, place them carefully into their mouths (so as not to drip over their clothes), then raise their eyes heavenward as the thick gooey sweetness—but not too sweet-- takes hold.
The dish is almost alarmingly simple, considering its popularity in Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The churros are made from flour, salt, and water. The mix is forced through an extruder into long star-shaped lengths, fried in sunflower oil in coils, then cut with scissors into 12-inch sections. But it’s the chocolate that adds the magic touch—nearly thick enough to hold a straw upright, dark, and aromatic. Guests tear off bite-size pieces of churro, dip them into the warm chocolate, place them carefully into their mouths (so as not to drip over their clothes), then raise their eyes heavenward as the thick gooey sweetness—but not too sweet-- takes hold.
The churros-and-chocolate tradition in Madrid predates even San Ginés, but in the minds of many madrileños, that dish and that particular café go hand in hand. For much of its century-plus history, San Ginés was a haven for late-night theatergoers, bohemians, artists, and others among Madrid’s cultural cognoscenti, who would come in the chilly hours of early morning to have a warm cup of chocolate and snack before heading home.
Today, many of the patrons are tourists who have heard about the San Ginés tradition and are willing to wait in lines of 20 people or more to sample the goods. For a non-native, however, finding San Ginés requires a bit of detective work, or at least an active GPS app on your mobile phone. The shop lies at the juncture of three small pedestrian passageways between the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. It could hardly be more centrally located, right in the commercial heart of Madrid, yet it feels like an out-of-the-way corner of some dusty village.
You’ll know you’re there by the crowds lining up to enter the green doorway flanked by handsome lanterns. No one tells you what to do or how to order, so you join the queue and try to figure it out by peeking over the shoulders of those in line ahead of you and watching the transactions transpire. In a nutshell, you wait until you reach the front of the line, where a cashier will ask for your order. The choices are limited (churros with chocolate, the similar but thicker porras with chocolate, and coffee make up the bulk of all orders). You pay the tab and are handed a receipt and a ticket. Now it’s time to find a table, either in the cozy, inviting 19th-century interior or in the charming courtyard. Once you’re seated, a waiter asks for your ticket, goes inside to collect your order, and shortly returns with your churros, your porras, and cups of hot chocolate for dipping.
Seating inside is at marble café tables surrounded by walls of mirrors and forest-green paneling. Despite the wall mounted globe lights, the interior is dark. And noisy. I prefer the courtyard surrounded by 200-year-old apartments, whose louvered wooden shutters and wrought-iron balconies make for a picturesque setting. Outside is also better for people-watching, as the locals and tourists line up for their treats. It’s also an especially good place to enjoy the antics of the servers who good-naturedly—and sometimes not so good-naturedly--shout at the crowds to get out of the way and constantly photo-bomb out-of-towners trying to get front-door snapshots.
And then, like the madrileños, you dip the last bit of churro in your chocolate, place it on your tongue, gently dab the corners of your mouth for wayward crumbs, and wander out into the bright sun of Madrid, wondering what’s for lunch.
Chocolatería San Ginés, at 5 Pasadizo de San Ginés (reached via Calle Mayor or Calle Del Arenal in central Madrid) is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An order of six churros (or two porras) with chocolate costs 4 euros.