Do you have bread?
We chuckled at this short exchange between an old Spanish man and a young Chinese shopkeeper. It was a frank conversation that I imagine occurs frequently in the barrio of Usera, also known as Madrid’s Chinatown. Many South American immigrants are represented here too, comprising around half of the neighbourhood’s immigrant population, but it wasn’t always so multicultural.
Only in the last couple of decades have Usera’s people and streetscape become so eclectic. One elderly lady in Mercado Los Arrayanes was telling us that she’d never tried Chinese food until recently, but that she really likes it. Her store was located two aisles away from this gem…
1. THE NO-FRILLS MARKET BAR
I love no-frills bars, especially when they’re in a market. Bar El Recreo II inside Mercado Los Arrayanes serves all the Spanish bar classics, and their stools are surprisingly comfortable. Not every corner of the market is so thriving, however: the empty unit I took this photo through was once a fruit and veg store, and their decorative dried pumpkins still hang from the rafters on pieces of string.
Address: Calle Antonio Velasco Zazo, 4
2. THE INCONSPICUOUS CHURCH
Built in 1940, the Iglesia de Cristo Rey stood tall in a quiet part of Madrid. It had a profound presence, with the sun beaming onto all four sides and a spacious graveyard to its right.
Around 75 years later, you’d be forgiven for walking past this church without noticing it, and a rectory now sits on top of the old graveyard.
The sun no longer beams through most of its porthole windows, but that doesn’t stop the church getting hot during summer (hence the no-frills wall fans).
Address: Calle del Amor Hermoso, 15
3. THE HOUSE FROM UP
Madrid has thousands of houses that are straight out of the Disney film Up – a striking sign of rapid change. This one is just around the corner from find #1…
Address: Calle de Almendrales, 18
4. THE LITTLE CHIRINGUITO
Bar Chipirón is decorated so eccentrically it’s like a portal into the owner’s mind, which is presumably somewhere on a sunny, windswept coast. I suddenly found myself transported to the rugged coast of North-East England, sitting by the fish quay with my granda, who was a merchant sailor, showing me how to tie knots. I thought for a moment that I could smell fish and chips, but then a large, smoking tapa of pigs’ ears emerged – not quite what I expected at a marisquería.
5. THE HOUSE THAT BELONGS TO A DESTRUCTION OF CATS
That’s right, the collective noun for cats is a destruction. At first, this large corner house seems abandoned, but there appears to be someone living in the top floor. I hope they like cats.
Address: Calle Julio Merino, 24
6. FISH HEAD SOUP
The food at Lao Tou is exactly what it says on the tin, and it’s absolutely delicious. When you go, peep into the kitchen downstairs – it’s like a busy street food stall in China. Also have a sneaky glance inside their open storeroom upstairs – it’s a giant grandmother’s pantry of ingredients most of us have never seen.
7. THE NO-FRILLS ECUADORIAN JOINT
Fanáticos del Sabor has a pool hall, plastic-covered tables in the dining area, and a landlocked beach bar out back. The food here is cheap and delicious, as you can see from the illustrative photos by the bar, but the star dishes are the stews: an alchemic blend of corn and slow-cooked meat, served with a coriander-heavy avocado salad. The owners are lovely, and the constant presence of their whole family adds to the upbeat vibe.
8. THE TWO-STOREY MEDITERRANEAN VILLA
Squeezed into a relatively narrow gap between two large apartment buildings, this villa is like something you’d expect to see in Malaga’s El Palo district rather than Madrid – right down to the lemon tree and creeping grape vines.
Address: Calle de Ferroviarios, 61
9. CLUB GRANADA
I can’t find any information about this seemingly derelict club, but an internet search led me to this curious collection of no-frills club photos. The seedy signage of Club Granada clearly caught the eye of this photographer in exactly the same way it did mine.
Address: Calle Monederos, 19
10. COLOMBIA EVERYTHING
It must have taken a while to build up this vast collection of Colombian memorabilia, especially the musical instruments and cows’ heads. The food at La Fonda de Colombia is hearty, rugged and well seasoned, and the place fills up quickly – so get there early!
This article was inspired by our marvellous team of no-frills Detectives, who are always on the hunt for the no-frills and the overlooked. Do you have what it takes to uncover Madrid’s lesser-known corners? Then join our Secret Detectives Club.