One of my favorite things in life is a good tapas restaurant. I love the amount of variety you can get with the smaller plate size, maximized even further when you go with a group and all share. Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham offers Spanish small plates influenced by traditional Southern cooking, resulting in unique but familiar flavors that combine the best of both worlds.
My friend was seated at the bar when I arrived and she ordered a glass of Rioja Alta (Senorio de P. Pecina, Reserva ’11). Mateo has an extensive list of wines with a description of each type and a map showing which region in Spain each type came from. They also have what’s called a Cheerwine sangria, although I didn’t have that this time. What we did have was a dish called Gambas ($9.50), which were shrimp cooked with olive oil, garlic, chili, lemon, and parsley. The shrimp were fresh and juicy and the combination of flavors from the other ingredients was incredible. I really could have eaten a whole plate of just that.
At the same time as the Gambas, we also ordered the Huevo Diablo and Calamares Fritos. The Huevo Diablo ($5), a Spanish devilled egg, was creamy and flavorful, set off with the spice from chorizo. The Calamares Fritos ($9) were calamari coated in semolina and fried light and crispy, served with lemon and some absolutely amazing tartar sauce. The tartar sauce came out in a larger bowl than expected, and the bartender told us that lots of people like to keep it and dip other foods in it. The bartender was super helpful from start to finish – while we were looking over the menu, she made sure to ask if we had any food allergies so she could offer suggestions. My friend and I both can’t have dairy, so she made sure to steer us away from all the (delicious-looking) dishes with cheese.
We wanted to try one more plate before dessert, so we placed an order for some Costillas de Puerco ($9), which translates to pork ribs. These were served with pepper jelly and were just what we needed after the lighter seafood to start. All the meats that we had were so well-prepared and exactly what you would want them to taste like. I want to go back and try new things but also get the same things again, especially the shrimp and calamari dishes.
Lastly, we decided to order an Apple Hand Pie ($8) to finish the meal. It was served with a light fruit puree, whipped farmer’s cheese, and fresh mint. There ended up being a small mix-up with the orders coming out, and we ended up with a pie that had cheese on it when we had requested to have ours without it. We decided to take the risk and keep it as is, just eating as little of the cheese as possible. The bartender immediately saw it was on there and told us she would remove that item from the bill. It was great that she noticed before we even said anything; I appreciated that as much as I did the pie itself. It was baked to the perfect golden brown and stuffed with tender, delicious apples. The farmer’s cheese and mint balanced everything out nicely and added a lot of dimension to the dish.
Overall, I absolutely loved this place. The mood was comfortable and casual, and the space was stylish and well-designed. The seating was close-knit, but I never felt cramped or stifled. The menu is expertly crafted and stays true to Mateo’s central theme with simple, effective pairings. Every dish was delicious, and I highly encourage a visit to downtown Durham for this experience.
Mateo Bar de Tapas
109 W Chapel Hill St
Durham, NC 27701, USA
Rhonda Morelock works at Duke University and graduated from Appalachian
State with a degree in psychology. Having lived in North Carolina all her life, she now calls Durham home. She enjoys reading, trying new recipes, spending time with friends, and obsessing over her cat. Follow her on Instagram at
@runder_dunder and check out her blog at thoughtsduringmeals.com.