The food that everyone knows Spaniards to be famous for is their tapas, otherwise known as raciónes. These are small portions of food meant to be shared among a few people, with drinks at a bar. Traditionally, in smaller towns and more rural areas, you are given a small portion of raciónes when you order a drink at a bar. In a big city like Madrid, this is becoming less and less common.
In this list of common tapas, at the end I've included a rough pricing scale. $ denotes the cheapest ones (usually 2 euros or less) and the others are roughly scaled according to that. The reason I don't include pictures is that the presentation of tapas varies wildly from place to place, so I make no promises. I also make no promises if my pricing scale is off:
- salmoriejo - a creamy tomato-based soup-like concoction that resembles a cold soup, and a bit lighter on the stomach than gazpacho (traditional cold tomato soup) $$
- aceitunas - olives from a can, nothing special about them $
- albóndigas - meatballs, usually swimming in some kind of special house sauce that varies wildly among bars $$
- rabo de toro - ox tail. Some of the most tender meat you'll ever eat, and definitely worth trying at least once. It's better at a fancy touristy place because it's good quality and very very tender. Reminds me of the goose necks that papa likes... $$$
- croquetas - croquettes, kind of like fish sticks. Nothing special about them - deepfried in batter. $
- jamón ibérico - or jamón in general - ham of some variety. The ibérico variety is guaranteed quality from a particular cut of pig, salted and either cured or smoked. Any other type of jamón is not guaranteed to be from a particular cut of pig, but it's all delicious nonetheless. Not very fatty, but rich with the flavor of pork. $$
- boquerones - fried anchovies. If you're Russian you've probably had canned shproti - these things taste approximately the same except smothered in batter and fried. You can eat the whole thing, bones and tail, since the bones are so small. $$
- queso manchego - manchego cheese. The "fancy" cheese in Spain that is hard and sharp. $$
- chopitos or calimari - fried squid. Also fried in batter, sometimes with the ink at a super fancy place. $$-$$$
- gambas - shrimp in something or other. Varies wildly in the sauce and presentation, but usually worth it because they are super tasty! $$-$$$
- patatas bravas - small fried potatoes with some kind of salty sauce sprinkled on them. Standard fare, and way better than french fries! $
Of course, there are a million other exotic tapas and probably some that I missed, but these are the most common ones I have encountered. If you find yourself in a restaurant facing a word you don't know, just ask the waiter to explain. Of course, this requires knowing some Spanish food vocabulary, but that post is coming later.
But when locals go to a bar, they will most likely receive with their drink a small portion of bread or a small plate of olives, more as a taster than as real food.
Tourists flock to tapas because it gives you the chance to try a bunch of different foods without committing to one dish. Many treat it as a dinner if you order enough. If you're alone and you order one portion of raciónes it can easily be a dinner, but if you have more than one person, you'll want to order more than one dish to make it as filling for a dinner.
From what I've seen, locals treat tapas more as a vector for both socializing and drinks, but it is definitely a common sight to see locals at a bar sharing a portion of a small raciónes with a beer or a glass of wine.
My favorite places to get tapas are not at big touristy places along Cava Baja or Puerta del Sol or Plaza Mayor. I'm more a fan of going into a bar near my apartment or in some other area of the city and seeing what that bar as to offer in terms of raciónes. It's often cheaper, more tasty, and more authentic, not to mention the fact that there are fewer tourists!