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We’ve put together this guide to paella and will point you to places that serve up, in our opinion, the best paella in Valencia.
Any visit to Valencia, Spain should include a sampling of their signature rice dish, paella. We have traveled to Valencia, Spain frequently, and thus we’ve sampled a lot of paella!
But not all paellas are created equally. In fact, some restaurants, especially in heavily trafficked tourist areas, are serving up rice dishes that aren’t paella at all.
What is Paella?
Valencia is the birthplace of Paella, and Valencianos (as the people of Valencia are called) are serious about their favorite rice dish. While you can argue whether paella is the national dish of Spain, there is no question that paella is the official dish of Valencia.
If you ask any five Valencianos for their take on the proper way to prepare paella, you’ll get five different answers. That’s how passionate they are about this dish, and how controversial it can be.
Of course, rice is a critical component of the dish. Paella utilizes short-grain rice, which better soaks up the moisture and flavor of the broth.
There are definitely certain rules here in Valencia that you might not be aware of. For instance, paella is either meat of seafood – never both. And, in the most traditional paellas, the meat is usually rabbit.
Valencianos are also very strict in their definitions of paella, and typically only acknowledge only three dishes that can officially be called “paella”:
- Traditional, or Valenciano paella, is made with chicken, rabbit, snails, long wide green beans called ferraúra o ferradura, and butter beans, usually seasoned with rosemary. In season, the traditional dish can also include artichokes.
- Seafood paella, which utilizes seafood stock and includes fish, mussels, cuttlefish, and shrimp.
- Vegetarian paella, which typically contains onions, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, artichokes, and green beans (ferradura).
Any variation on the above recipes is possible, but at that point, it won’t be called paella by a local, but “rice”, despite being cooked in the traditional paella pan.
For example, a very popular option is “black rice” (not black paella) which contains cuttlefish ink to achieve the unique color. Another dish, fideau, substitutes short spaghetti-like pasta for the short-grained rice.
What is Saffron?
One critical ingredient in paella is saffron. Saffron is a spice derived from the saffron crocus, and is used as a seasoning and coloring agent. In paella, saffron provides the traditional yellow/orange color to the rice.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world due to the intensive labor required to produce it. It is estimated that it takes about 75,000 crocus flowers to produce one pound of dried saffron.
The stigma and styles, called threads, must be carefully harvested by hand, as the flowers are too delicate to be mechanically harvested. This means that the process of harvesting saffron is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and very expensive!
It’s no wonder that one of our Valenciano chef friends often says “Forget diamonds! Give me saffron!”
How to eat Paella like a Valenciano
First, timing is everything! Paella isn’t eaten for dinner…it’s a lunchtime or afternoon dish. In Spain, families congregate en mass to eat paella in restaurants. It is also is often cooked in huge pans for big gatherings on weekends at home.
There are many paella competitions all over Spain and very often a giant paella is the centerpiece for the fiestas.
Most often, the entire paella pan is brought to the table to be shared. Each person stakes out their section of the pan and serves themselves from this area. If you reach across the lines to snag a shrimp or piece of chicken from someone else’s section (or triangle), be prepared for a fight.
The most coveted part of the paella is called the socarrat. The socarrat is a layer of rice that forms at the bottom (and usually center) of the pan and gets crispy and caramelized from the direct heat.
While sometimes described as the “burnt” rice, it shouldn’t actually be burned, but rather, perfectly scorched and crunchy. It is not uncommon for diners to argue over who gets the biggest piece of socarrat.
History of Paella
Rice was introduced to Spain during the Arab invasion in the 8th century, and its cultivation quickly spread throughout the country. However, it was not until the 15th century that rice became a staple food in Spain, thanks to the influence of the Moors, who had a long tradition of rice cultivation in their homeland of North Africa.
In the early years of rice cultivation in Spain, the crop was mainly grown in the coastal regions of Valencia and Murcia, where the climate and soil conditions were ideal.
Rice became an important part of the local cuisine, and dishes such as paella, arroz a banda (rice in seafood stock), and arroz negro (rice cooked in cuttlefish or squid ink) became popular throughout the country.
At its heart, paella began as a peasant dish. It was traditionally cooked for lunch by farmers in Valencia where rice was plentiful. Whatever meat was available in or near the rice fields would be added.
This would typically be rabbit, duck, snails (yes, you read that correctly), as well as beans for texture. Saffron was added for color and additional flavor.
Paella purists will tell you that this traditional recipe is the only “true” paella, and there are plenty of restaurants that offer this version. Seafood paella is a more recent addition. If you’re squeamish about snails (or rabbits, for that matter), you can ask for your paella without.
The Word Paella
Okay, so first of all – it’s pronounced Pie – AYE – ah. But ‘Paella’ – where did the name come from?
It’s a little confusing but the word “paella,” or to be more exact ‘la paella’ is actually the name for the cooking pan itself and not the dish. The word comes from old Valencian. In Valencia, they have their own language somewhat similar to Catalan, and it probably has its roots in the Latin ‘patella’ meaning pan.
While cooking in the pan over a charcoal or wood fire is the most traditional (and flavorful) method, at-home cooks use a gas ring specifically designed for the pan.
There are, however, some other (if less likely) theories about the origins of the name. One romantic version suggests that the dish was first prepared by a man for his lover and that the word is a corruption of ‘para ella’ (meaning ‘for her’ in Spanish).
There might be a small grain of truth in this in that paella is much like barbecue in other parts of the world, and is usually cooked outdoors by the men of the family.
It has also been suggested that the word ‘paella’, is derived from the Arabic word “Baqiyah”, which means ‘leftovers’ – once again emphasizing both the dish’s humble and Arabic beginnings.
Where to find the best Paella in Valencia?
To find the best paella in Valencia, we should start with where NOT to go. Any restaurant with brightly colored display boards showing a dozen types of rice dishes described in multiple languages should be avoided. These are geared toward tourists, and no self-respecting Valenciano would frequent these establishments.
Likewise, avoid places that have single-serving paellas for one person. Paella is a group meal, with each member of the table claiming their “section” of the paella pan.
Don’t forget to Make Reservations! Paella is an integral part of a big family dinner, and at busy times (especially weekends and holidays), these restaurants will be booked in advance.
Best Restaurants for Paella in Valencia
Address: Passeig de Neptú, 6, BAJO;DUP 6-8, 46011 Valencia, Spain
This restaurant is one of many on the iconic Malvarrosa beach. In addition to being able to gorge on fresh seafood paella right on the beach, this restaurant also offers a place in history.
Open since 1898, it was a favorite restaurant of Ernest Hemingway during his time in Spain. He even referenced it in some of his works. La Pepica also famously served a vegetarian paella to Queen Sofia of Spain.
Address: Passeig de Neptú, 68, 46011 València, Valencia, Spain
La Paz is just down the block from La Pepica, thus also on the beach. It is another iconic, old-school paella restaurant with white tablecloths and professional waitstaff.
Since its establishment in 1929 as a beach bar renting bathing suits and lockers, it has been a staple on the beach. After four generations of cooking, they have perfected the Valenciano paella.
Address: Carrer del Mar, 27, 46003 València, Valencia, Spain
This family-owned and run restaurant is just a couple of blocks off of Plaza de Reina. Beyond great traditional paellas, the decor is unique – with much of the wall space covered with decorative plates. The old-school decor aside, they make fresh and fantastic paella to order.
Address: Carrer d’Isabel de Villena, 155, 46011 València, Valencia, Spain
Away from the tourist zones, at Casa Carmela, you’ll get a much more local experience. The restaurant itself is beautiful, with abundant outdoor as well as indoor seating, so it’s a popular place on nice summer days.
The presentation of all the dishes is phenomenal, and the paella is top-notch.
Address: Carrer del Mestre Gozalbo, 19, 46005 València, Valencia, Spain
Roberto Aparicio founded this restaurant in 1986 after more than 40 years as a cook. He decided to focus his efforts on offering high-quality cuisine, strongly based on the traditional roots of typical Valencian cuisine. Casa Roberto is regularly rated among the top paella restaurants in Valencia.
Address: Carrer de Quart, 49, 46001 València, Valencia, Spain
Just a block from the impressive Quart towers (Torres de quart), Canela is a popular family destination for paella. This restaurant is a favorite among locals and quickly books up.
If they don’t have a table available, they may direct you a half block down the street to their sister restaurant, which features outdoor seating. The waiters will run the freshly cooked paella from the original kitchen down the block for you.
Sampling Paella in Valencia’s Albufera Lagoon
A short trip to the outskirts of Valencia brings you to the Albufera lagoon. This large, freshwater lagoon is famous for its rice paddies, which are used to produce the short-grain rice for paella. The rice fields around the lagoon are irrigated by a complex network of canals and ditches, which have been in use for centuries.
A typical trip to Albufera includes taking a boat ride on the lagoon, birdwatching, and of course, enjoying a traditional paella meal in one of the many restaurants in the area. Some of our favorites are below:
Address: Carrera del Riu, 283, 46012 Valencia, Spain
Housed in a rustic cottage with a thatched roof, La Genuina will make you imagine you have traveled back in time. But the food is as fresh as it comes, with amazing seafood dishes (including paella) as well as meat dishes.
Address: Carrer de Vicent Baldoví, 17, 46012 El Palmar, Valencia, Spain
Fantastic, traditional paella is not Restaurante Mateu’s only claim to fame. This restaurant, around since 1966, is also known for its varieties of tapas and decadent desserts.
Try Cooking Your Own Paella at a Cooking Class
We often find that the best food in a city that we visit is something that we we cook ourselves – at a cooking class. Learning to make your own paella from scratch is an unforgettable experience. You also get the opportunity to mingle with local chefs and like-minded foodie travelers.
My First Paella
My First Paella gives you a full experience. During our day here, we started with a tour of the local market, buying the freshest ingredients for our paella, and then returned on food to the school. There we were plied with sangria and wine and regaled with stories of Valencia by the chefs while being walked through the hands-on process of preparing our own paellas.
Paella Workshop at the Farmhouse with Horta Viva
Become a Valenciano yourself and join master chef Miquel Minguet to cook traditional paella over charcoal. Every Thursday, join in cooking outdoors with a small group at a farmhouse setting among the trees of an idyllic orchard, just 10 minutes from the center of Valencia.
Here are a few of our favorite recipes from Spain, inspired by our travels to the region and our love of Spanish culture and cuisine!