Celebrity chef José Andrés spent every Sunday of his childhood gathered with his family cooking paella over an open flame.
Since he came to the U.S. from Spain nearly two decades ago, Andrés has tried to expose D.C. residents to the iconic Spanish dish and his home country’s vibrant culture. He even used paella as a symbol during his speech to GW graduates at last spring’s Commencement.
Jaleo, the brainchild of Andrés, kicked off its 12th annual Paella Festival on Oct. 6. The Spanish tapas joint will feature eight different paella dishes for lunch and dinner across its locations in Penn Quarter, Crystal City and Bethesda until the festival ends Oct. 20.
The restaurant reflects it: bright red walls, dark hardwood floors and immense windows all contribute to the space’s warm atmosphere. The aroma – tangy from the ibérica pork ribs and sugary from a passing waiter’s tray of the featured cocktail, Mascletá (lemon juice, brandy, egg white, plum and saffron syrup) – is just as inviting.
And while Jaleo also hosts other ingredient-themed festivals that feature oranges and tomatoes, executive chef James Gee said the paella festival is a highlight of the year.
“We always do festivals and focus on different ingredients and they all have so much excitement, but the paella is always the special one. We have so much motivation to do such great rice,” Gee said.
In the classic dish paella Valenciana, patrons will find fresh rosemary, thyme, chicken, rabbit and saffron. Other featured dishes include memorable flavors like ibérica, squid or lobster.
Many of the ingredients in Andrés’s paella, like squid ink, are unique, so Gee advises that restaurant-goers “come and get them while you can.”
Jaleo also caters to vegetarians with dishes that include seasonal vegetables, like peas, red peppers, cauliflower and mushrooms.
Stephanie Salvador, the marketing manager of the company behind the restaurant, Think Food Group, said research and development teams strive for innovative dishes: Even after 12 years hosting the festival, each iteration features at least six new paella dishes.
Carlos Castera, Jaleo’s sous chef, said Andrés often returns from trips to Spain with new flavors.
“Strong flavors and beautiful products that people love. People are always interested in the taste and the ones that taste it, they see how amazing it is,” Castera said.
The arroz meloso de bacalao con puerros, alubias y alcachofas is a white soup-like rice with salty artichokes, leeks and buttery-smooth cod, while the meloso de rabo de toro is a soupy dish that resembles a hearty American stew with dark broth and oxtail meat. The dishes, which serve six people, cost between $40 and $80.
Though Jaleo only offers a handful of their eight paella varieties each day, those interested in a particular dish can call the restaurant ahead of time to request it. Diners arrive early, so Jaleo recommends reserving a table ahead of time on the restaurant’s website.
“Spaniards take very, very seriously their rice. And to celebrate the rice, especially the way José loves rice, is [a way] José can bring part of his culture into America,” Gee said. “And to do it with such beautiful dishes of rice, and dishes that are not as common to what Americans are used to, is just a great way to bring that heritage here.”