A few years ago, we unintentionally ended up in the Spanish coastal town of Santa Pola on a day trip from Alicante that had gone wrong. That’s when we stumbled on Restaurante Asturiano La Sidrería de Santa Pola and discovered Asturian cuisine–comfort food on steroids.

Asturias is perhaps Spain’s best-kept secret. This small autonomous region on Spain’s northern coast is known for its green landscapes flanked by high mountains, sandy beaches, and colorful fishing villages. It’s also known for its distinctive food and drink – an amazing variety for such a small region. There’s fresh, briny seafood along the coast and hearty bean stews, or fabadas, from the mountain villages. Renowned for pungent cheeses like blue-veined Cabrales earned it the nickname Pais de Quesos or the Land of Cheeses. It’s also famous for savory meat dishes including our favorite–cachopo.

We didn’t know it then, but Restaurante Asturiano La Sidreria, in the shadow of Castillo Fortaleza De Santa Pola, an imposing 14th-century fortress and castle, is a destination dining spot. Spanish natives and visitors like us go out of their way to sample its fabulous dishes, especially cachopo. Earlier this year, we attempted a return visit but took the wrong bus – but that’s another story. Yesterday, we learned from our mistake and rode a direct bus for about 40 minutes south to reach Santa Pola.

The first time we sat at an umbrella-shaded table at La Sidrería, the Spanish menu totally baffled us. The friendly staff didn’t speak much English and most of the dishes were unfamiliar. Fellow diners saw our distress and soon customers at three nearby tables came to our rescue. (It’s true that food, plant, and cat people are really nice.) One suggestion loud and clear from all of them was to try the cachopo. We did and loved it.

So, Ron, you’re thinking, get one with it and tell us what the hell is cachopo? In short, it’s super-large stuffed chicken fried steak without the pan gravy. If you’re not a fan of that heavenly dish, you might as well stop reading.

Like chicken fried steak, there are myriad look-alikes worldwide, but to its loyal fans, there is only one real cachopo. Nothing irritates an Asturian more than comparing cachopo to Cordon bleu or other stuffed meat dishes. Cachopo is more than a couple of breaded steaks oozing with cheese and other fillings. Asturians turn it into slow food, into an experience and not to be missed dining pleasure.

A good cachopo, like the ones we had in Santa Pola, is a feast for the senses and, for some, like me, haute cuisine. As we experience with our dining companions, the shared passion for cachopo can lead to friendships. Legions of fans travel around Spain eating cachopos and sharing their impressions in culinary blogs or posts like this. There’s even an unofficial Spanish Academy of Friends of the Cachopo Society that hosts cachopo competitions in Madrid during Cachopo Week every July.

Mastering a great cachopo is not easy. Just frying a large slab of breaded meat is a challenge. Getting a proper crust and tender meat requires a skilled chef.

Selecting stuffing is critical as well. In the cachopo community, they hotly debated the right mix and measure of ingredients. Fillings can include combinations of ham, bacon, octopus, asparagus, peppers, jerky, mushrooms, blood sausage, cheeses, and fruit. It’s easy to screw up by going overboard. Our cachopo had a deliciously savory combination of mushrooms, cheese, ham, and foie gras.

Size matters, too. In general, they are labeled small, medium, and large, but really aren’t standardized. We like the large ones that yield lots of leftovers for future meals. Ours are in the fridge. Wonder how they’d taste with a little pan gravy?

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