Americans call the hind leg of a pig “ham” and put it on a sandwich; Spaniards call it “jamón” and put it on display. Across the Iberian Peninsula, at even the most modest neighborhood tavern, you’ll inevitably find a guitar-sized jamón mounted atop the bar in a special brace like an ornament, a fleshy figurehead representing a cultural predilection toward refinement, a simple thing executed impeccably, iconically.
The Spanish are among the world’s most prolific producers and consumers of pork, and jamón serrano, the commonest incarnation of the hefty hindquarters, and jamón ibérico, the rarer and more expensive variation, are the ubiquitous proof. The latter, derived from an ancient breed of black pig, is referred to as “la pata negra” or “black hoof”—Spanish-slang equivalent of “the shit.”
The meat itself is a wonder, produced by a salt-curing process that, in the most exquisite cases, takes up to four years. Sliced paper-thin to order by a deft hand with a long knife, it’s as luminous and opaque as stained glass, ruby-pink and veined with ivory tendrils of fat. Because it comes from pigs raised on wild acorns in the arid Spanish southwest, the best jamón is imbued with the expansive flavor of a bucolic existence, luscious and lingering and mildly nutty. Among a nation embarrassingly rich with gustatory emblems—paella, gazpacho, Rioja wine—it is the most elemental and, arguably, the most delicious. Woe to the vegetarian traveler.
But while Spanish ingredients and cooking techniques gained international traction in the 2000s, when tapas bars were a laughably explosive trend across the U.S., jamón in its tabletop form was absent. The USDA prevented the import of any animal part that included an actual foot until 2006, and after that there were questions of legitimate provenance and expensive tariffs that inflated prices and confounded importers. Even at the most authentic restaurants, wistful diners were denied the visual drama of jamón.
No longer! Today you can walk into JarrBar, a new pocket-sized café tucked below Pike Place Market, and find a jamón ibérico cradled within a modernist metal rack at the end of the bar. Request an order and the kitchen staff—in this wee hideaway there’s only one server, abetted by one bartender—will slice it to order, Spanish style. Or close enough: Despite a few months of training, the server said, he hadn’t completely gotten the hang of the technique for cutting slices of consistent thickness and length. Still, it tasted like a beautiful memory. Like it’s meant to.
When I traveled through Spain, I regularly encountered compact bars in unlikely places—on top of a seaside cliff, for example, or ensconced within a historical monument. They were always efficiently appointed with only the essentials, like ice-cold beer on tap and tender olives and a jamón beckoning from the bar. Décor was effortless and tasteful. Everything added up to a uniquely Spanish ambiance, one that suggested a tradition of living perfected over countless generations, one that JarrBar approximates well.
Pike Place Market is as historic a locale as we have in this ahistoric city, and if you weren’t looking for JarrBar, almost invisible along Western Ave., off the Pike Street Hill Climb, you’d never find it. A cozy, semi-hidden secret, it’s already popular among workers of Pike Place for shift beers and small bites. Even in its subterranean setting, outward-facing windows let in lots of natural light, captured and reflected by framed mirrors on white stucco walls. Like a true neighborhood bar, they host board-game and vinyl-record nights and project movies and soccer matches on a pull-down screen.
Its menu is limited but certainly not lacking. The bar leans toward strong, spirit-forward cocktails and includes a robust list of Spanish reds and whites by the glass or bottle. On draft is Estrella, one of Spain’s two national beers, available in the popular half-pint size known there as a caña and less popularly here as a schooner. It’s light and buttery and served bracingly cold.
With no proper kitchen, almost all of JarrBar’s food options come out of cans, almost all of which belong to the Matiz brand (imported from Spain to the U.S. by a business based in Mukilteo, of all places). Ironically/conveniently, a lot of the exact same stuff—Matiz-brand anchovies, cockles, octopus, sardines—is available for purchase two doors down at the Spanish Table, a grocery store that’s been selling Spanish foods to Seattle for 20 years. But somehow it doesn’t taste as good if it’s not presented in a cool, sleek interior humming with good music and overheard conversations. The markup is minimal—except on the jamón ibérico, which goes for $17 per 1-ounce serving.
Bryan Jarr, JarrBar’s owner, was one of the masterminds behind another neighborhood gem, the ill-fated Madison Park Conservatory. He says City of Seattle food-safety folks are aware of the jamón ibérico he keeps and harbor no food-storage safety concerns. He tells me that Barnacle, the Renee Erickson-owned microbar off Ballard Ave., has been serving jamón from the rack since it opened three years ago; he’s right. For anyone with indelible impressions of Spanish sophistication, all this jamón is a revelation.
1432 Western Ave.